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Marie-Aude Baronian

Photographies, Vol. 3, No. 2, Jun 2010: pp. 0–0



Reflections on making visual archives of the
Armenian genocide



In the face of the persistent denial of the Armenian genocide, this paper aims to discuss the
way in which images can function as a prosthesis for memory. Because there are few images
of this violent history and because those that do exist are not circulated in the public visual
sphere, it is of crucial importance to re-create them, not as evidentiary documents but as
fictional images that respond to what the deniers of the genocide consider to be a “fictional
event”. By analysing the work of Atom Egoyan and Gariné Torossian, two Canadian visual
artists of Armenian origin, this paper reflects upon the “aesthetics of displacement” that
characterizes both filmmakers’ visual enterprise as an obsessive, repetitive yet lacunary

“Who still remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler asked this of the chief
commanders of the German army on 22 August 1939, just before invading Poland
(cited in Ternon 135). No other famous statement could so significantly measure and
condense the historical specificity of the Armenian Catastrophe. Indeed, when we talk
about the Armenian genocide, we are dealing with a highly contested, denied tragic
event and consequently with a history that is displaced and complicated to recall and
transmit. Or, as French historian Jean-Marie Carzou has phrased it, the Armenian genocide
is a perfect one because it never took place (il n’a jamais eu lieu) (Carzou 210). In that
sense, denial is part of the very origin of this genocide, but also part of its accomplishment:
every trace of the catastrophic event was meant to disappear.
Let us recall briefly the circumstances of the Armenian genocide: the Committee
of Union and Progress (a revolutionary organization within the Ottoman government),
better known as the “Young Turks”, entered into a systematic and organized plan to
destroy and eradicate the Armenian people in an effort to homogenize its population
and to forge a new nationalism behind the front of the First World War. Between 1915
and 1922, approximately 1,500,000 Armenians perished as a result of the Turkish gov-
ernment’s policy. More than ninety years later, the present-day Turkish government
has never admitted that this genocide took place. This politics of denial and its quiet
acceptance by the rest of the world have perpetuated and reinforced the original violence
and trauma. Because the genocide has been largely ignored and because of the general
(historico-political) indifference towards this event, the Armenians still feel that they
have to constantly provide evidence to legitimate the historical past they inherited. As a
consequence of being expelled, silenced and excluded from official shared history and

Photographies Vol. 3, No. 2, September 2010, pp. 205–223

ISSN 1754-0763 print/ISSN 1754-0771 online © 2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/17540763.2010.499612

because the genocide is denoted as a “fictional” event, it is as though the work of

mourning never really took place. And the debate regarding the place of Ottoman
archives in discussions of the existence of the Armenian genocide, which was actually
fabricated by the Turkish state and its agents, is still part of an active and vicious campaign
in the denial of the genocide.1 Marc Nichanian explains that this denial

begins with the rule of the archive in history and in memory. At the very heart of
his action, the genocidal executioner has already placed the denial, he has already
thought of erasing all traces of his crime. He would have never done this if he had
not found himself committed from the start to the archive’s sphere of influence.2

The denial of the Armenian Catastrophe3 starts with the very work of the archive. In
other words, the deniers of the genocide have always already infected the archive with
negation, and afterwards use the authority of the same archive to pursue their politics of
denial; this is what I consider to be vicious and perverted in the discussion and treatment of
the archive.
In the persistent denial, the status of the archive is thus very much at stake – not
only its value and use as reliable historical document (by means of a certain distortion
and dubious interpretative readings) but more profoundly the dynamics, the logic and
the raison d’être of the archive. As Jacques Derrida has explained, “no desire, no passion,
no drive, no compulsion, indeed no repetition compulsion, no ‘mal-de’ can arise for a
person who is not already, in one way or another, en mal d’archive” (91). Indeed “there
is no archive fever without the threat of this death drive, this aggression and destruction
drive [. . .] There is not one archive fever, one limit or one suffering of memory among
others: enlisting the in-finite, archive fever verges on radical evil” (19–20). Therefore,
the archive is caught in the inescapable dialectics of inscription/destruction. In the
compulsion to archive (to gather, to consign), there is always already a certain destruction
at play; destruction and forgetting is thus at the very heart of the archival enterprise. To
put it simply, one archives because one fears loss. The archive cannot escape this dialectics.
For Armenians the quest to inscribe the past with the original destruction of an archive
creates the desire for an archive and the quest to establish one. The deniers, however,
have an investment in destroying traces of the original event whilst creating an archive
invested with power and authority.
In the face of the denial the issue of how to create an archive is clearly complicated.
In light of this I will discuss the work of Atom Egoyan and Gariné Torossian, two Canadian
contemporary visual artists of Armenian origin who both interrogate and reflect on
their repetitive desire to visually inscribe the genocidal legacy. Their creative enter-
prise is mostly a fictional one. As I will insist, this is not only linked to the fact that they
are artists who de facto make fictional images, but also to the more profound fact that
fiction is an appropriate response to a genocide that is still considered to be a fictional
event or an event that did not leave any traces.
Specifically, Egoyan and Torossian create images that are originally and predomi-
nantly restricted to the private, intimate (family) sphere, or images that are looked at
only within certain ethnic and cultural groups, but which, through the filmic acts of
representation and reconfiguration (and, by extension, fiction), enter a collective visual
field. Both artists’ practice could be situated within the paradigm of “postmemory”.

This term was developed by Marianne Hirsch and describes “the experience of those
who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated
stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation shaped by traumatic
events that can be neither understood nor recreated” (Hirsch 22).
The use of “private”, “secret” images by these visual artists is, as I will argue in this
paper, somehow unavoidable, and is motivated mainly by two things. First, the artists
are consciously selecting (or quoting, recycling) images emanating from an oblique or
“secret” iconographic source which has for them an aesthetic, narrative or formal explana-
tion; second and, more significantly, the selection of private or oblique images has
everything to do with the very nature of the genocidal event as a sort of “private”, even
secret, event.
First, let us explain why it is highly important to focus on images when considering
memory rather than words. These reasons surpass the general but nevertheless legiti-
mate idea that much of our ability to remember the past depends on images, and that
this ability is facilitated by images that are readily available in the public sphere.4 We
can all agree that the memory practices around the Holocaust make clear that those of
us who did not experience the Holocaust personally now know it in part through
images – photographs, for instance. As Barbie Zelizer has written:

When viewing extensive pictorial spreads, photographic supplements, and special

photographic exhibits about the atrocities of Rwanda or Bosnia, we often use our
memories of World War II atrocities as a backdrop or context against which to
appropriate these more contemporaneous instances of barbarism.

Or, in Susan Sontag’s words: “the Western memory museum is now mostly a visual
one” (1). Today’s mass media and visual technology possess the capacity to make
images and to share images available of the past and, in doing so, work to produce
“prosthetic memories” which, as Alison Landsberg has argued, are memories we did
not experience as such but to which we can feel intimately connected.5
The more pronounced reason why it is worth concentrating on the image, however,
in relation to this specific event is that there are very few visual representations of the gen-
ocide (that circulate). Some photographs do exist, but somehow these are not part of the
collective visual memories or part of a public and thus accessible depository. Even Arme-
nians themselves did not really grow up with explicit images that aided them in imagining
or having access to the catastrophic past. There is, for example, not a single film that
could be compared to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) or to Steven Spielberg’s Schin-
dler’s List (1994). In sum, there are no widespread images that could bring the event into
the collective and public space. So, the urgent question here is not so much about the dis-
semination, saturation and trivialization of images of mass violence as about this particular
type of violence that remains unseen and unspoken. As Jacques Rancière argues,

. . . if horror is banalized, it is not because we see too many images of it. We do

not see too many suffering bodies on the screen. But we do see too many nameless
bodies, too many bodies incapable of returning the gaze that we direct at them, too
many bodies that are an object of speech without themselves having a chance to

speak. The system of information does not operate through an excess of images,
but by selecting the speaking and reasoning beings who are capable of “decipher-
ing” the flow of information about anonymous multitudes. The politics specific to
its images consists in teaching us that not just anyone is capable of seeing and speak-
ing. This is the lesson very prosaically confirmed by those who claim to criticize
the televisual flood of images.

Surely, the historical precedents for this absence of images cannot be ignored. The
fact that insufficient visual evidence of the Armenian genocide exists must be linked to
the politics of extermination practised in relation to any recording form that would
explicitly demonstrate the will to negate the genocide. No images of the Armenian
Catastrophe could be disseminated, since visual evidence of the massacres was rare and,
if available, was mostly destroyed or kept hidden.6 This was, of course, a logical expo-
nent of the genocidal policy. “Since the 1920s, the Turkish state has spent time and
money revising histories so as to omit accounts of the Armenian genocide, using all
types of media in the process (newspapers, books, magazines, films, Internet bulletin
boards).”7 And, as Lisa Siraganian further argues, “This repetition of denial within the
very media that could and should have recorded the genocide [. . .] makes ‘forgetting’
the genocide deeply disturbing for Armenians” (134). Put differently, the Armenian
genocide is seen not only as a non-event but also as a kind of “non-document” as well.
This explains the rather complex relation Armenians have towards images in general:
there is, in a way, a constant desire to reconstruct and legitimate the past by any “visible”
means available, precisely because the Armenian Catastrophe is characterized by the
way it remains unrecorded and unrepresented. Armenians are thus caught in an inextricable
archival paradox: they have to produce (visual) evidence precisely because the evidence
has been destroyed and negated.
Indeed, if the denial of the genocide results in the genocidal past being characterized
as a fictional past (or a “non-event”), and if the politics of denial utilizes the absence of
visual evidence or the lack of visibility to anchor its argument of negation, we might
consider the need for fiction in responding to this denial. In this paper, therefore, I
argue that any visual attempt to represent the genocide stands as an act of memory,
with the image acting as a “prosthesis” for memory. One thing is certain: images are
(too) rare and even if they do exist in the face of denial, their public mnemonic and
archival function is very much put into question. The lack of accessible, circulating
images, together with the dialectics of the archive (inscription/destruction), discredit
the image’s capacity to function as a constructive vector of memory. And because
images of the tragic past are lacking, the act of “(re)creating” them makes them even
more meaningful. This also demonstrates why I deliberately choose to consider images
(more specifically, films) that are wholly or partly fictional. I focus on fiction because
nothing more than fiction qualifies this Catastrophe. It is not so much the genre itself
that is relevant (e.g. a “feature film”) but the fiction itself: the twofold idea that the
Catastrophe never took place (in the mind of the perpetrator) and that it has never
really been mourned (by the survivors or the heirs): fiction, therefore, as re-creation,
re-construction and response (in spite of everything). In this sense, fiction is not the
opposite of historical reality but the only possible imaginable answer – the only space

that (re)connects the Event and its re-presentation. In other words, fiction refers, on the
one hand, to the different ways the genocide has been experienced and viewed; on the
other, it refers to the only possible modus or expression in the face of the lack of visual
means that should have been available. Moreover and more profoundly, fiction also per-
mits us to engage with the representation of the genocide without being reduced to a
vehicle of proof – if the function of the image were to bring evidence and authenticate the
genocide, then it would serve the demands of the perpetrator, who would claim that the
absence of authentic images means there is no proof that the genocide actually took place.
In the face of this absence of images, the work of visual artist and filmmaker Atom
Egoyan is particularly important. In most of his creations, he touches, though some-
times very allusively or obliquely, on the precarious nature not only of the event itself
but also of images themselves. This is why, for instance, the filmmaker obsessively
includes in his films (short and feature length) the question of technology (especially of
the videographic medium) and of how technology can give or deny access to the past –
and, therefore, to memory.8
In 1995 Egoyan made the short film A Portrait of Arshile, which was part of a BBC
series in which different international filmmakers were asked to make a four-minute
film inspired by a work of art. This short is meant as a dual homage to Egoyan’s young
son and at the same time to the American painter of Armenian origin, Arshile Gorky,
after whom his son was named. The film consists exclusively of two types of images:
first, we see a “home video” recording of the son and then a painting by Gorky (a self-
portrait of the artist and his mother, 1929–36), which is based on a photograph.9 We
hear voiceover words read by Arsinée Khanjian (the filmmaker’s wife and mother of
Arshile) in Armenian and translated by Atom Egoyan into English; the text connects
their son to his namesake and to his (catastrophic) cultural heritage. The very first
image is a close-up of Arshile’s baby face (figure 1), which, a few seconds later, is
accompanied by a meaningful voiceover:

FIGURE 1 Home video of Arshile.


You are named after a man who painted a portrait of himself and his mother.
You are named after a man who based his portrait on a photograph that was
taken in Van, Armenia 1912. The boy in the photograph was eight. His mother, a
devoutly religious woman, was named Shushanik der Marderosian Adoian. Her
son, the person you’re named after, was called Vosdanik. Your name is Arshile.
You are named after a man who adored his mother and was inspired by her
love of nature and her pride of Armenian culture and language.
You are named after a man who seven years after the photograph was taken
would hold his mother in his arms as she died of starvation. The year was 1919.
The city was Yerevan. The boy was 15.
You are named after a man who would look at his mother’s face staring back at
him from a photograph in 1912 and would be afraid of disappointing her, of bring-
ing shame to his name. So, Vosdanik Adoian changed his name to Arshile Gorky.
You are named after a man who changed his name because of what he felt
when he would remember his mother’s face. His mother’s face which now stares
from a gallery wall into a land she never dreamed of.

This short film is a double testament. First of all, it crystallizes Egoyan’s work in terms
of its content and aesthetics: themes and issues like memory, transmission, home
video, family trauma and rituals, and private–public relations are all at stake, while it
also points to the medium of image as a multiple experimental process. Second, the
short film reveals Egoyan’s attachment to his cultural and ethnic origin and, for the first
time in the course of his visual work, the filmmaker is quite explicit about the scars
caused by the inherited genocide.
Arshile Gorky is mostly known as a representative of Abstract Expressionism (also
called the New York School), and while his Armenianness has often been overlooked,
Egoyan shows that Gorky’s biography serves as an entry into the “appropriation” of the
genocide. Egoyan refers specifically to Gorky’s self-portrait The Artist and his Mother,
which was based on a photograph of the painter and his mother taken in Armenia
before the genocide. Gorky guarded it as a precious possession during his life. The
painter was haunted by the memories of his beloved mother and made different versions
of the self-portrait.10
The insistence on naming in the voiceover of A Portrait of Arshile is significant in its re-
enactment of the dialectics engendered by genocidal experience. Naming is supposed to
be the act of distinguishing individuals and establishing identity, but it also reminds us
of the logic of naming enacted by the perpetrators who named the Armenians as Armenians
and, in so doing, provoked the trauma of being identified as Armenian.
In many of Egoyan’s feature films, such as Family Viewing (1987), video stands
metaphorically not only for re-writing and re-constructing personal history but also for
the collective history of being Armenian.11 The short film suggests that a video can
become another familial document alongside a photo album, for instance. It can also be
another type of archival trace that brings together collective history and personal memory,
which nevertheless remains fragile and ephemeral. Video enacts preservation but also
highlights the precarious nature of testimonial memory. The recording technologies
Egoyan includes in most of his works also disclose their unavoidable limits, in the sense
that such technologies will never be able to translate the singularity of the event they

refer to. At the same time, these very technologies are the only means to reveal the
event, or at least a “moment” of it. In Derrida and Stiegler’s words, “technics will never
make a testimony, testimony is pure of any technics, and yet it is impure, and yet it
already implies the appeal to technics” (95).
Without the voiceover (and the reproduction of Gorky’s painting), A Portrait of
Arshile would merely be a sort of amateur home video. The voiceover text in this film
functions as a supplemental narrative historical “document” which aims to break the
amnesia of the long-standing denial of the Armenian genocide. It is as though the words
forbidden in the decennia-long campaign of denial bring forth the evidence of the tragedy.
That this proof is simply not found in the graphic and mimetic depiction of the tragedy
itself reminds us that there were no explicit images of the genocide that could easily
circulate. The reason why the spoken words operate as the necessary historical context
is because this very context is not taken for granted. The images alone cannot speak for
themselves; they need captions, as it were.
The image track enacts two specific desires, both of them reflecting acts of
constructing memory. One is linked to the act of recording as an almost obsessive act
born from the fear of forgetting the joy of one’s progeny being born, while the other is
linked to the urge to make images as proof or trace of his being born Armenian. In other
words, the video reflects the desire of the parents to grasp the precious moment of
Arshile’s childhood, as well as the desire to transmit his ethnic origins against denial,
oblivion, familial and ethnic amnesia.
But Egoyan also questions the role of home video: what do we shoot and record,
when, why and for whom? These questions echo those that we are used to asking in
relation to domestic photography. Most of all, the filmmaker questions the issue of
transmission: what parents should or should not tell their children. And it is probably
precisely to resist the persistent refusal of any genocidal trace that Egoyan supplements
the image of the painting with an epistolary narrative in the language of origin translated
into the language of arrival: the language of assimilation. By telling the story in two
languages, Egoyan makes it clear that Arshile belongs to two cultures in Diaspora.
There is the public language of the host country and the private language spoken within
the intimacy of the familial sphere.
Further, the film itself combines private and public images. The private, intimate
home video for the family becomes public because Egoyan includes it in a film showing
Gorky’s famous painting as explicating the genocidal context that haunts it. Also, the
film combines innocence and responsibility, juxtaposing the innocence of young
Arshile, who does not understand a word of the Armenian testament of his father and
mother, and the deeply felt responsibility of the parents for transmitting the tragedy of their
Armenian roots to their progeny. This heavy, uneasy and “uncomfortable” responsibility is
expressed insistently through the phrase “You are named after a man”, which is
repeated to emphasize the urgency but also the burden of remembering and the over-
whelming obligation it implies.12
With this film, Egoyan for the first time explicitly addresses the genocide. Egoyan
is aware that the genocide is un-represented and that therefore visual memory is an over-
whelming and complicated issue. The video in this film is used not only to reinforce
cinema (i.e. to make one conscious of the construction process of a film, as is the case
in most of Egoyan’s films) but also to reiterate the process of painting. Moreover,

within the short space of four minutes, Egoyan suggests four different visual media:
video, photography, painting and, of course, film. Four different visual means are
mobilized in order to address the Catastrophe, both in their familial, personal, private
meaning, and in their potentially public, collective and historical dimension. Though
each medium undoubtedly has its own pictorial specificity, what matters is that each of
them originates in an act of memory, an obsessive and repetitive desire to transmit the
past. Egoyan uses the iconography of amateur and home movies in order to create a
direct view of historical events. He plays with the recognizable and identifiable aesthetics
of the amateur family film in order to build a bridge between private memories and
collective history.
Seven years after this short film, Egoyan made the film Ararat (2002), which explicitly
engages with the traumatic memory of the genocide. Ararat is important because it is
the first time that the Armenian genocide has been at the centre of a feature film made
by a well-known and respected filmmaker and distributed internationally. The two-hour
film addresses the legacy of the genocide by insisting on the difficulty of representing
and of imagining the Event. Ararat tells the story of a famous filmmaker of Armenian
origin who is making a film on the genocide in the Hollywood style, using all types of
spectacular elements to reconstruct, in an epic way, the tragedy. And, significantly in
this film, Arshile Gorky is once again at the heart of the storyline since he serves as the
main character of the “film within the film” – an old filmic trick that enables the film to
question the link between the denied Catastrophe and its visual representation.
Egoyan deliberately decides to show or to utilize fiction. He never intends to discuss
the Armenian Catastrophe in any other way. He uses fiction in order to highlight the
profound desire to find a visual space for recalling the Event. Egoyan’s film, moreover,
seeks to visually represent this genocide without seeking to prove that this genocide
took place. His film visually discusses the Armenian Catastrophe without entering into
the repetitive perversity of justification and explanation, of collecting material evidence
to legitimate the Event. Indeed, “perversity” is what the perpetrator wants: for the victims
and their heirs to have to prove over and over again that “It” happened.
Leshu Torchin has studied the way in which explicit images related to the genocide
are used on some Armenian Internet websites, offering new opportunities to enable
and accelerate political recognition since images are clearly efficient in providing an
accessible form of representation and therefore a better means for identification.13 In
addition to this, it is extremely meaningful that images are used on these websites in
order to convince the web user of the “authenticity” of the genocide: the fact that these
websites need to have some pictures in order to legitimate the existence of the genocide
demonstrates the function of the image as evidence for self-justification. It is as though
these pictures answer the perverse imperative of the denier: “bring me evidence; let me
see that it took place!”
In rather different terms, Ararat is based on a conscious choice of editing different
temporalities and narratives. The opening of the film is significant in this respect.
Whilst it insists on visual artefacts as vehicles of memory, it also seeks to disrupt a common
narrative structure. The beginning of the film connects different characters who do not
know each other but who are all connected through the history of the genocide through
clever editing and jumping between different times and spaces.

The intention of Ararat is not to conclude or close down by presenting a singular

narrative, but rather to open up and complicate our approach to this specific “displaced
history”. Ararat brings into view what cannot be viewed otherwise. Indeed, it shows
that “to remember one must imagine” (Didi-Huberman 30). Egoyan accentuates the
profound need to adequately represent the tragedy and, at the same time, the over-
whelming impossibility this presents. He meets this challenge by employing different
forms of visual representation as a way to gain access to the Event, or at least to
approach it. Indeed, the way the tragic history of the Armenian people still remains
largely unknown, overlooked and strongly (politically) denied, is invoked by Ararat’s
focus on different visual media, since every character is involved in the process of making
images or at least responding to images. Each character tries to make sense of the genocidal
past and heritage by interacting with visual media: there is “the film within the film”
(everyone from filmmaker to actor to the film’s producer, driver and consultant is con-
fronted with the denial of the genocide), a painting by Arshile Gorky and an (amateur)
video by a young Armenian man. Each visual medium permits, even if artificially and
partially, a coming to terms with the traumatic past.
Furthermore, the film does not recycle any archival images. Instead, the images we see
in a way become an archive. The images “recycle” the history in a “new”, more acceptable
light and this offers the possibility of envisioning the scars of the Catastrophe. The film
allows a re-interpretation and re-envisioning of the displaced history. It does not use
found footage exactly, but, on the contrary, produces its own found footage in order to
remind us, in a rather reflexive way, that such footage and evidence has not yet been
unearthed or shown.
Egoyan’s work reveals the extreme fragility and at the same time necessity of
representing the Catastrophe, but only by putting forth his immense and infinite question
about representation itself since the Armenian Catastrophe is characterized by a
suspension of representation. This explains why fictional representation is so crucial
and so desired.
Now I would like to briefly point to the work of another Canadian Armenian artist,
probably less well known than Atom Egoyan, and recognized mostly as an experimental
filmmaker. The work of Gariné Torossian, which is characterized visually as collage, has
also addressed the traces of the inherited Catastrophe. She assembles different images
(mostly photographic) after they have been taken from their original contexts. The collage
often results in a repetitive and obsessive configuration of images. In Girl from Moush
(1993, 5 minutes), which is a collection of images of the original homeland Armenia,
Torossian expresses a sense of belonging to those images, but also the foreignness and
exoticism of this homeland. The film is a sort of pictorial “pilgrimage” to Armenia,
reflecting the memory of the Armenians in Diaspora.
Although Torossian does not address directly, or maybe even intentionally, the
issue of the Catastrophe, I do think that the Armenian genocide is present (though
never graphically identifiable) in the film: it is as though the Event “floats” in the
shadow of the film. Nevertheless, Girl from Moush is not about the genocide, it does not
address it directly. The film does not aim to discuss at length this history or to put into
question or recall its catastrophic historical circumstances. One allusion to the tragic
history is perhaps found in the relevance of the title. Indeed, Moush, which is located in
present-day Turkey, was actually part of historical Greater Armenia. Moush was also

FIGURE 2 Collage image from the film Girl from Moush.

the main site of the massacres and deportations of the Armenian people during the
1915 genocide.
The film consists of collaged blurry hand-made found footage from varying for-
mats. It includes reproductions from picture books, calendar images, still photographs
depicting churches and other Christian signs, landscapes, (family) portraits, all kind of
artworks as manuscripts, Armenian graphics and architectural details (figure 2). The
images appear to be very grainy. Many frames are scratched, which functions to render
an impression of “oldness” and hints at the archive. Actually, the images are photos of
photographs copied onto Super 8 and then shot on 16 mm. Most of the images are
repetitive and fast moving. They are very dynamic, disturbing and shaky, except for
some of the images of the Churches, which look spiritually quiet and are sometimes
represented fully on the screen. With each image, the viewer is obliged to take on an
active, attentive and concentrated role in order to distinguish and identify every detail.
Girl from Moush focuses its lens on cultural motifs strongly associated with Armenia.
The Christian churches of the homeland are a particularly strong example. Some of
these visual figures are “postcard images” of the ancestral country – images that are pre-
ciously shared in the (Western) Armenian Diaspora. These images contain nostalgic
and even fetishistic aspects, and it is well known how fetishistic images can connote
absence and death. The figure of the church remains an important cultural figure in the
Armenian collective visual lexicon. More than a 1,000 churches were destroyed during
the massacre. Thus the presence of images of churches crystallizes the specificity of
Armenian cultural history and act as an icon for the history of the massacres. By com-
bining and reshaping her images, Torossian emphasizes (and perhaps even exaggerates)

FIGURE 3 Collage image from the film Girl from Moush.

the auratic value of these churches.14 The technique of the collage enables a reflection
on the role of images in pointing to what has been lost.
Some of the images of the churches she uses come from Atom Egoyan’s feature
film Calendar (1993), a film that tells the story of a Canadian photographer who goes to
Armenia in order to make a calendar based on the pictures of the churches – a calendar
which supposedly will be bought by Armenians in the Western Diaspora (figure 2). By
visually quoting and “recycling” Egoyan, Torossian confirms and accentuates the iconic
value of the churches, which travels through the Armenian imaginary. The construction
of filmic memories based on clichés (in the double sense of the French word) of Arme-
nian cultural anchors is further echoed in the portrait of filmmaker Sergei Parajanov
(The Colour of Pomegranates, 1971), which also appears several times in Girl from Moush
(figure 2). Ultimately, this collage amplifies the value of the images.
The photographs used in the film refer to the primary function of photography,
which is to leave traces or tracks of what was once there. Often, photographs are also
seen by many Diasporic communities as a kind of relic. However, the indexical function
of the photographs that Torossian reproduces and reshapes quickly becomes iconic. In
addition to this, we can say that the iconic aspect of the images appears through the
filmic collage as icons because their indexicality is not taken for granted; the images are
iconic because they live as images in the Armenians’ imaginary and also because they
result from an imaginary act fundamentally oriented towards the act of making images.15
Torossian cuts and pastes, physically reshaping the images as she de-constructs,
re-constructs and re-defines her commitment and fascination for her Armenian ancestors.
The experimental style of the film not only underscores the presumption that filmic

images are unable to represent such an overwhelming heritage but also reflects the dif-
ferent shades and shadows of a tragic past that seems to escape inscription and recogni-
tion and yet can be localized only through images. The various images used in the
assemblage are part of the collective memory of Armenians, but they are nevertheless
kept “secret” and are not transmitted to the mainstream and public landscape of vision.
To a certain extent the collage style of the film assumes that there is no transpar-
ent, intact, homogeneous and official history waiting to be fully and mimetically
depicted. The film outlines that to “be” Armenian is to identify with the homeland and
the visually transmitted memories the Armenians in the Diaspora have inherited: “I feel
connected to every Armenian I meet”, Torossian says in the film. This reflects a certain
“naïveté” that is quite specific to Diaspora: one of the only things the Armenians have in
common is this imagined land and its tragic history.
Even if the homeland is today identifiable on the map and exists spatially, it
remains somehow imagined because most of the Armenians in the Western Diaspora,
like Torossian, have never lived or been there; they have been there only through the
process of a “visual and virtual journey”. As she said:

I’m shown thinking of Armenia, wanted to be part of it. After making the film I
realized this is just a dream, a fantasy about a country I could never visit. No one
could. You make it because you’re blind to something. Afterwards you see what’s
there. I needed to make the film to grow up, to become wiser. (Cited in Hool-
boom 151)

Torossian evidently feels bound to her Armenian roots primarily through images. Or,
evoking Marianne Hirsch’s phrase, “our past is literally a foreign country we can never
hope to visit. And our postmemory is shaped by our sense of belatedness and discon-
nection” (Hirsch 244).
In the background, throughout the film, distantly we hear the voice of a woman
(Torossian herself). She is speaking on the phone, first in Armenian and then in English,
repeating the same words. But nobody answers her and the call remains a monologue.
This call without an answer expresses her longing for an (imaginary) land without a real
destination. The words she speaks divulge her profound emotional and passionate
attachment to the legacy of Armenian roots. She continues to speak and the end of the
film interrupts the monologue. The two spoken languages (first Armenian and then
English) not only pose a question of linguistic translation but also highlight the
Diasporic experience or the fragile shift between origin (cultural, ethnic roots) and
assimilation, between a private, intimate language and a more public one.
The frenetic patchwork quality of the film makes the viewer aware of the high number
of different images that the film is constructed with. It nevertheless recalls the absence or
the forgetting of many other images; some of those invisible images are omitted and left
out of the film because they are un-representable, or historically absent and neglected. The
images that remain refer to absence but they also indicate an “over-present” obsession pre-
cisely because of this absence. The images of Armenia are extra-iconic because they have
been extra-cherished in the Diaspora experience. Surely, many Western Armenians (let us
take the examples of France, America and Canada) have a phantasmatic, imaginary relation-
ship to the original national homeland – Armenia. In the Diaspora, pictures of Armenia

become clichés, postcard images that circulate not only in the home but also in the collec-
tive (un)consciousness. In the end, if the Armenian legacy can seem “uncomfortable”
because it is somehow obsessively ongoing or ungraspable and un-representable, the only
comfort that might remain is the one of making and re-making images.
To reiterate, what Girl from Moush, A Portrait of Arshile and Ararat show vividly is not
only that the genocide is an obsession that haunts Armenians (in the Western
Diaspora)16 but also that the heritage of the Catastrophe can only be imagined. For
instance, the overwhelming intensity of the highly contested and neglected event and the
impossibility of forgetting pushes Egoyan and Torossian to (re-)create as many images as
possible. Their images do not depict the Catastrophe in a figurative way, but they do
confirm and substantiate Armenianness, an ethnic identity that the genocidal impulse
logically tends to make disappear. Further, for both filmmakers, the act of making
images (even if they are not always specifically Armenian in content) constitutes an artis-
tic and simultaneously ethical response to the lack of images that mimetically and graphically
depict the Armenian tragic past. Their artistic gesture provides a response, if not an answer,
to the singularity by which the Catastrophic event they have inherited is defined.
Egoyan and Torossian engage with the visual representation of the inherited geno-
cide by interrogating the meaning and the imprints of this legacy today. In that sense,
their works are works of “postmemory”. As Marianne Hirsch has argued, postmemory is

distinguished from memory by generational distance and from history by deep

personal connection. Postmemory is a powerful and very particular form of memory
precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through
recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation.

Both filmmakers reveal the complexity of visually representing and transmitting

the Armenian Catastrophe. How does one visually speak about this genocide without
having to prove that it actually took place? Most of their works do not collect material
evidence to legitimate the traumatic event. Indeed, as I shall insist, the image should
not have anything to prove because that would play into the perverse logic of self-
explanation – to justify that “something”, such as a genocide, took place.17 Therefore,
Torossian and Egoyan succeed in creating images that simultaneously indicate the lack
of available images of the Catastrophe (by, for example, recycling the photographic
ones into the filmic image) and responding to the perversity of the archival process by
proposing other images that do not function as visual evidence.
It is precisely because the images are and remain missing that the fictional image
plays a crucial and fundamental role. It is because they are missing that we can recognize
the process of denial. And it is because they are missing that it is of unique importance
to re-create them, to produce images not as replicas but as the only possible impossible
answers to the negation. The image, then, is not just an ersatz of an extreme reality but
rather the concrete possibility of manifesting the impossible image. In accordance with
French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman’s formulation of “images in spite of there
being too few images”, this constitutes the dialectics of the lacunary image as simultaneous
“trace” and “disappearance” (Didi-Huberman 167). Or, as I wish to suggest, the image
as memory that longs to “become” memory and that tries to enter the Archive (despite

its perverse dynamics). That is the reason why the temporal but inextricable tension
inherent to photography – of the “there-then” versus the “here-now” – somehow
does not fully apply to the Armenian case. The images created by both filmmakers
remain open and are characterized more as, I would suggest, “somewhere-to come”
since the mnemonic finality of these images remains fragile and cannot be fully antic-
ipated. They are displaced images that wish to grasp a displaced history, that wish to
place this tragic history into a memory-space, a space where imagin(in)g displace-
ment would lead to a re-placement of the subject (within his/her community) and
his/her access to History.
Photography usually aims at anchoring the real into a document-based form that
is the index that refers to the past (“there-then”); but by integrating photography
into a film it redoubles simultaneously the fiction and the real; that is to say, it
redoubles its urgent indexicality (the Catastrophe) and its urgent coming into view –
becoming memory, somewhere sometime. It is precisely because the photographic
image (e.g. the Gorky photograph or the photographs of the churches) is inserted
into a film that the image is amplified as icon. In other words, the inclusion of pho-
tography in both films confirms the iconic nature of photography, but also its
immense importance in relation to the Catastrophe. Moreover, the photographs
that the filmmakers use are already somehow displaced, since they are not graphic
images of the genocide but instead obliquely translate or recall the context of the
genocidal experience. By Egoyan’s and Torossian’s specific artistic mise-en-scène they
are displaced once more (or one step further) in order to specifically point to and
look at the displaced history.
The use of photography in Egoyan’s and Torossian’s works complicates the rela-
tionship with history: a contested and denied history. The films refract an aesthetics of
displacement, the displacement of history and displacement of the artists’ origin, but
also a displacement of images (be it from photographic to filmic or from cultural icons
to catastrophic icons). An aesthetics of displacement is thus understood as a subjective
and historical experience; as traumatic, but also as an aesthetic strategy to recall past
events that have barely entered the sphere of the visible.
Egoyan’s and Torossian’s construction of images is just a path, illusory maybe,
artificial even, but nevertheless a path that leads to an intimate contact with the trag-
edy. The image permits us to come closer in order to come further. But the image
will never save; it can only reveal what the perpetrator deliberately wants to keep
masked. In that sense, as Jacques Rancière has written, “the images of art do not sup-
ply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen,
what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the
possible” (103).
For both artists, making images entails looking for any means to remember and
obsessively re-engage with the “becoming of memory”. Even if their aesthetic languages
clearly differ from each other, they both use and make images which reveal their difficult
being in relation to the inherited Catastrophe. However, they do this, as I have insisted
throughout this paper, without assigning the images an evidentiary function, even if
both filmmakers are inextricably caught up in the dialectics of archive fever. The film-
makers’ images reiterate the absence of original catastrophic images and therefore they

rely “upon a faith in the image’s phenomenological capacity to bring the event into
iconic presence” (Hallas and Guerin 12).
Even if there were a million images mimetically depicting the Catastrophe, they
would never be able to reveal its tragic being. This is not the vocation of the image,
because the image is, in Didi-Huberman’s terminology, always “lacunary”. The image
does not propose a sort of visual pacification of the event, but crystallizes the ongoing
difficulty of grasping and remembering the catastrophic event itself. It “bears witness to
a disappearance while simultaneously resisting it, since it becomes the opportunity of
its possible remembrance. It is neither full presence, nor absolute absence. It is neither
resurrection, nor death without remains” (Didi-Huberman 167). For this reason, I propose
to consider Egoyan’s and Torossian’s images as “prostheses”, pointing mainly to the
artificial and constructed character of such images and their “vital” function of making
up for the absence of something else.
Because the representational and mnemonic frame has always somehow been
lacking in the Armenian context, the re-constructed and re-invented visual frame can
only ever be a prosthesis. In that sense, it differs slightly from Landsberg’s definition
of prosthetic memories, since, according to her, these are “memories that circulate
publicly, are not organically based, but are nevertheless experienced with one’s own
body – by means of a range of cultural technologies” (66). For Landsberg, prosthetic
memories are made possible by the popular mass media and permit the viewer to feel
empathy with and affiliation to (past) experiences with which they have no biological
or ethnic relation.18 Of course, in relation to the works I discuss here we cannot
really speak of commodified circulating media and even less of an absence of biologi-
cal heritage or familial relation. Where I meet Landberg’s definition, however, is
when she states that the “artificial parameters do not make affective experiences less
real” (69–70).19
The fictional image appears as the only possible means to capture the inherited
intensity of the event. The image does not lie but always reminds us of the lie that is at
the very origin of the fabrication of the image. Nevertheless, even if the image as a
prosthesis attempts to give an answer to the catastrophic event, this does not fully
assign to the image a liberating or curative function. The prosthesis, with its various
connotations (e.g. pathological, repairing and even technological), also indicates the
repetitive (and probably infinite) desire of representation.
In this light, it is crucial that both filmmakers constantly reflect on their own
obsession with making and creating images. Because of this, the re-created and re-
invented images become in a sense extra-iconic and no longer strictly documentary
or historical; rather, they translate a survival process, one of marking and trans-
mitting an obsessive and indelible past. At the same time, they remind us of their
fragility, because, as noted, the archive has the dialectical structure of inscription
and destruction.
The genocide, so to speak, repeats itself (because of and despite its persistent
denial) and has a continuous nature that leads, as I have tried to argue in this paper, to a
rather obsessive need to recall, by any means, the denied and violent history. In the face
of the denial of such a Catastrophe, the fictional image might be the only possible

1 For a more specific discussion on this controversy, see Ara Sarafian 35–44.
2 Nichanian, “L’Archive et la preuve” 79. For an in-depth discussion on the perversity
of the archive, see his recent book The Historiographic Perversion.
3 In this paper I choose to write “Catastrophe” with a capital letter as per the suggestion
made by Marc Nichanian in translating and reading the literary work of the Armenian
writer Hagop Oshagan, who uses, in 1931, the Armenian word Aghed. As Nichanian
writes, this use results in a

radical distinction between the Catastrophe (which demands that one asks the question
of its representation – possible or impossible) and the “genocide” (the historian’s
object, the last word of refutation, its categorical and renewed stake). Once the dis-
tinction was made (and for me it remains inaugural, a kind of ontological difference),
one could begin to ask about “the style of violence”, that is to say, as much about the
limit-experience of the Catastrophe within language and about what these have to say
about the event, about the very nature of the violence at play in the setting to work of
the genocidal will.
(The Historiographic Perversion 9)

4 For a clear overview on the ability of the image to convey memory and to bear wit-
ness, see the illuminating introduction by Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas in The
Image and the Witness.
5 See Alison Landsberg.
6 As Tessa Hofmann (from the Center for Documentation and Information on Armenia
in Berlin) explains:

In difference to the pre-war period, the number of photographs relating to the geno-
cide of the Armenians during WW1 is relatively limited. The leaders of the Young
Turkish Party and the Supreme Command of the Ottoman Army did not tolerate wit-
nesses. In the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office a letter of August 28,
1915 survives, in which the Ottoman Military Commissioner Nizami from Aleppo
addresses to the Chief Engineer of the Third Building Department of the Baghdad
Railway. The railway linking Berlin with Baghdad was the most ambitious and biggest
of all German economical projects in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman military
authorities offered, free of charge, thousands of Armenian forced labour convicts to
the management of the Baghdad Railway. Despite the protests of German and Swiss
members of the railway management, these convicts were regularly killed once their
work was completed. In the final stage of the deportation of Ottoman Armenians the
Baghdad Railway also served as a means of transport, Armenian deportees who had to
pay for this favour were deported in wagons which normally served for sheep trans-
port. Surviving photographs of such wagons show Armenian deportees on two levels,
one above the other. They could not stand upright in the sheep wagons, only squat
down. In this most uncomfortable position Armenian women would give birth or
exhausted deportees died and their corpses remained, until the deportees reached
their destination in Mesopotamia. Let us return to Military Commissioner Nizami. In
his letter Nizami complains on behalf of Supreme Commander Enver about the pho-
tographing of Armenian deportation convoys by the staff of the Baghdad Railway.
Nizami demanded the immediate delivery of all such films, urging that in the case of
refusal the photographers would be prosecuted and punished as if they would have

taken illegal shots in the battle area. Photographing deportees despite the ban would
be prosecuted with the death penalty.
(See her lecture “Images that Horrify and Indict”, Introducing the “Expulsion–
Persecution–Annihilation”, exhibition Brussels, 18 June 2003.)

7 We could also mention the relative absence of or lack of access to technological

visual support.
8 For a more detailed discussion on the theme of memory in Egoyan’s short films see
Baronian, “History and Memory, Repetition and Epistolarity”.
9 Between the two images featured in Egoyan’s video, the passage from the photo-
graph to the painting via a drawing or sketch is briefly made visible.
10 Two versions exist: one is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York;
the other at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
11 On the role of the videographic medium as an archive in this film, see Baronian,
“Archiving the (Secret) Family in Egoyan’s Family Viewing”.
12 We might even wonder if the violence of the short film does not lie in this very
imposing and disturbing imposition that the parents express in the voiceover, when
this heritage and responsibility so clearly contrasts with the innocence of a child
who has not asked for such a loaded inheritance. We could indeed reflect further on
whether the imposing and telling of such an incomprehensible tragedy constitutes a
pathological transmission. It might be a therapeutic process for the parents, but
what about the child who becomes responsible for what he has inherited?
13 Torchin.
14 This point has also been mentioned by Laura Marks: “Torossian physically reworks
these images in a way that thoroughly restores their aura, or endows them with
another aura” (174).
15 At the same time, these iconic images do not fit fully into what are called “secular
icons” by Cornelia Brink, since these secular icons (in pointing to Holocaust pho-
tographs) rely on the criteria of authenticity, symbolization and canonization. In
other words, secular icons are images that are looked at in the public sphere,
which is problematic in the Armenian case. See Brink’s illuminating article “Secu-
lar Icons”.
16 Though it might be true that this obsession, which is visually at stake in Torossian’s
film, is also characteristic of Armenians living in Armenia, even if it is expressed in
a different way.
17 For an in-depth reflection on this type of historiographic perversity, see Marc
Nichanian’s The Historiographic Perversion.
18 Indeed, the final sentence of Landsberg’s book suggests a quite different type of
visual work to those I have analysed in this paper: “the mass cultural technologies
that foster the acquisition of prosthetic memories, as they might well serve as the
ground on which to construct new political alliances, based not on blood, family
or heredity but on collective social responsibility” (155). I appreciate the con-
structive and progressive view on this new type of memory, but am quite hesitant
about whether it would work with images such as those created by Egoyan and
19 I should also add that the perspective on the prosthesis I suggest here is seen from
the filmmaker’s point of view, while Landsberg’s perspective is that of the

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Marie-Aude Baronian is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of

Amsterdam, where she teaches film and philosophy. She has lectured and published
extensively on ethical and aesthetical issues of testimony, archive and representation,
and also on the work of various filmmakers such as Atom Egoyan and the brothers
Dardenne. She is currently completing a book on the visual memories of the Armenian
genocide (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 2011).
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