“ Witness means martyr. Any man who testifies is torn apart, torn in two ways in his chair and in his mind. Firstly, torn inside of himself between the supreme witness at the height of his being and the pitiful individual from whom he takes life day by day. Further torn by the abyss which separates the truth of which he shows the world which does not want to receive his testimony. “
“How and why is it possible for an 11-year-old child to be alone hundreds of miles away from home, with his parents massacred?" It is this distressing question which drove Rajak Ohanian to move to Alep during the winter of 2005 and 2006. Following in the footsteps of his father Garabed and his uncle Aram who were stranded at this world's end, at the end of an enforced march of an entire nation in 1915, he looked for the exact locations and the tangible remnants of these lives torn apart by terror. Filled with a family memory, of these streets where the orphanages were concentrated, of this completely senseless void, he followed the supposed path taken by his father. In his suffering, with the pain of this childhood stripped away, his deep fears of the unknown, and with this instinctive strength to survive which enabled him to leave Alep to go and live a good life in Décines dedicated to others. Inheriting this family selflessness, with modesty and generosity, Rajak steps aside so that his personal quest can serve a struggle concerning all the Armenians and all the genocides: the recognition of this terrible tragedy that the Turkish nation denies with dogged relentlessness, lived over and over again by the descendants of the victims. Faithful to this humanistic and brotherly nature which is found in all his photography work. From the beginning of his photography in Lyon, he has continually pursued his objective in the place where friendship and brotherhood supported it. This "strategic ability", this impact of "mutual trust" in the words of Robert Doisneau, are a talent that give his photos, which are always in black and white, this simple and powerful presence without artifice which goes straight to the heart of the subject. A photographer with a true ability to draw something out, he gracefully captures the natural freedom of gypsies, the strong sense of attachment in the keen gaze of Algerians, the composure and popular refinement of Americans, the social and honest truth of a French village, the rhythmic fluidity of Chicago's streets, and the rugged and peaceful beauty of the Cévennes. However, no peace in Alep, 1915. The growing anger at the very depths of grieving souls and the bodies of innocent victims still sway under the swings of war axes and murderous words. Faced with large photos of this town's empty streets, encrypted with text, the reading of which requires a sustained effort, Rajak Ohanian compels us to reconnect with history. This ingenious process highlights the impossibility for descendants to continually and peacefully carry this memory blurred by Turkey's denial. The texts are then the metaphor for a dialogue of the deaf. In Talaat's barbaric telegram which clearly authorises the killing of Armenian people, and of that of an official in Adana to "get rid of the homeland of this accursed race", the texts attempt to answer the voices of reason. Those of local consulates desperate during the Genocide, raising public awareness. That of Yves Ternon recalling the harsh reality of the figures, of the clearly genocidal nature of this barbarity. The stimulating text of Vidal Naquet, a tireless defender of the truth which explains that accountability of the crimes is intact "while the Turkish now make up for the past". To conclude: "But a day will come… speech and everything will become possible. And by the power of a word, I start my life again".
Extract from Brigitte Kirkorian's article that appeared in the magazine in December 2012.
(…) The exhibition also opens with a series of portraits. The type of portrait is central to the aesthetic thinking of Rajak Ohanian in that it introduces him to the highest point of representing a person with all his dignity and psychological depth, without manipulation or misuse of the image of another. A cold, formal or typological approach is the complete opposite to his practice. From his portraits, on the contrary, there is an element of great sympathy, or even admiration, for the writers, philosophers, theatre people, artists and musicians: Bram Van Velde, Gaston Bachelard, Louis Aragon, Thelonious Monk, Jean-Noël Vuarnet… He did not photograph them by request or because they were celebrities, but because he admired them for what they were and did. His portraits were captured during meetings where "taking the photograph" was incidental rather than a pretext. Put together, they also represent the portrait and the study of a "meeting of minds", and just as many worlds and personalities that Ohanian accompanied, frequented and photographed through his work but also, and above all, due to his desire to meet them. (…)
In Chicago, the series of displays presented at the Institute of Contemporary Art, is an ode to the planet's first modern city. Completed between 1987 and 1989, it has a total of 16 displays, 7 of which are shown at the Institute of Contemporary Art. These large displays with 36 photos have been produced and built according to a clearly defined protocol. All the shots from a 36 exposure film in a 24 x 36 format make up a display; the angle of the shot and the framing are fixed once for the entire film. Ohanian sets up his camera in specific locations, often guided by the geometric configuration of the background which will introduce, by contrast, a different rhythm to that of the movement of passers-by: the rigour and regularity of the framing and outline of all the photos is disrupted by the movements of passers-by who thus define the city over this time. More random than sequential, in the image of syncopated rhythms of blues and jazz, the 36 photos are based on a new photographic composition that is unique and monumental, 300 m x 330 m: 36 molecular views of reality merge in an improvisation and change in rhythms. The observation of attitudes and gestures of passers-by, made in specific locations in the city (the street, public places, buildings) and at various times over a period of about two years, enables change to be shown over time. The street is an ideal place for introducing randomness and bringing to light specificities which no longer fall within the sole vision and sole decision of the photographer. You no longer control what comes into the image. You catch an instant of reality, no longer from a naturalist perspective but by bringing chance into the images. The precise framing also moves away from the classic pose of the street photographer which is projected in the image. This indicates to the viewer that he is indeed there, notably by accentuating the framing. In Ohanian's images, the viewer does not identify with the photographer behind the lens: the apparent neutrality of the camera faced with the movements that it records, reflects the scepticism of Ohanian vis-à-vis the photograph as a natural and therefore authentic snapshot. Through his stylised approach, governed by a strict protocol, he tries to draw near to what otherwise structures the reality of modernity. If you find it hard to recognise Chicago, you can nevertheless place the photos thanks to a few details of the city's typical buildings. However, forgetting the typical city in order to establish different rhythms there, is apparently what Ohanian considers as the expression of the true characteristic of this metropolis, which he associates with the important role that it has played in the emergence and recognition of popular black music in the twentieth century. These displays reveal the "other" view that Rajak Ohanian has of the city, different to that of a current urban photograph in that he sets out to show the individuals and the organic way of living in the space rather than to underline the orthogonal organisation of the urban space by the architecture.