Back in 1989, one year after a massive earthquake in Armenia killed tens of thousands of people, Detroit photographer Michelle Andonian ventured to that nation, the home of her ancestors.
While talking to the archbishop, Paren Avedikian, he told of a sad tale of a man who survived the earthquake, but lost so much: His entire family and his home, not to mention both his legs.
How on earth, the archbishop asked the man, could he go on in life after losing so much, to which the man replied: “Hope dies last.”
“That has stayed with me for years,” says Andonian, who works out of her photography studio in a loft in Eastern Market.
Now, nearly 25 years later, she’s working on a project, “Hope Dies Last” to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 in which 1.5 million people perished. The project will be released in 2015.
“Instead of emphasizing genocide destruction, the project will pinpoint universal themes of bravery, resilience and hope,” she said.
The project is still a work in progress, and will include a book chock full of photographs, photo exhibits and a performance that combines live music and visuals. The photos are from Andonian's seven visits to Armenia since 1989, and from visits to Turkey, and trace the history of the Armenia.
The live show will be performed at different venues including the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Macomb Center, and will be produced in collaboration with Alexandra Du Bois, a music composer, the Detroit Chamber Winds and Strings and the University Michigan School of Music.
On Tuesday, the Knight Foundation made public some good news Andonian had known for about two weeks. She was among 58 winners of the Detroit Knight Arts Challenge who got a piece of a $2.48 million in grants to help promote the arts in Detroit.
Andonian, a free-lance photographer and former Detroit News photographer and Washington Post photo editor, got $50,000.
She said she was not only thrilled to learn of the grant, but also saw it as a validation of the importance of recognizing the Armenian genocide, a controversial, political hot-potato internationally. Some nations have refused to recognize it out of concern of offending Turkey, which still says it was not responsible for the Armenian deaths.
Many historians say the genocide took place in 1915, during World War I. The Ottoman government, which ruled what is now Turkey, carried off a campaign to systematically kill off the minority subjects, the Armenians. An estimated 1.5 million people perished.
Andonian says she’s been to Armenia seven times since 1989, the last two times, in the past year, and she's also traveled to Turkey for the project. She says she plans to use photos from her project from all the trips.
“The book is kind of a personal biography of my attempt to hold on to my Armenian culture by going to where the Armenians came from and where my grandmother originated from. Knowing survivors has always held a very special place for me.”
“I had been trying to find a voice for that story. The book really is retracing my Armenian journey as best I can.”
Below is a video Andonian put together to show a sampling of her work.