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  • Preserving the Personal: Armenian American Visitors Reflect on Festival Memories

    In the left foreground, a colorful sign with the words “Armenia Creating Home” stands on a patch of grass next to a dirt path. A large, white obelisk points towards the blue sky in the background. Between the sign and the obelisk is a large green field, with some tents and a sound stage.

    During her Festival visit, Elen Aghekyan captured the Armenia program sign on the National Mall.

    Photo courtesy of Elen Aghekyan

    For individuals who visit the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, personal photographs hold a specific power to preserve memories and emotions. Such was the case for the Armenia: Creating Home program at the 2018 Festival, which focused on traditional crafts and foodways to highlight the cultural resiliency of Armenia at a scale many Armenian American visitors had never seen before. The Armenian diaspora numbers about seven million globally, exceeding the actual population of Armenia, which stands at about three million people. As such a large community, events like the Folklife Festival connect diaspora to their homeland heritage.

    While the 2018 Festival is well documented in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections, the archives lack the specificity of Armenian American storytelling that emphasizes the personal encounters of visitors, by visitors. Though the full experience of Armenian American visitors cannot be holistically captured in photographs, the effect of the Festival to inspire the sustaining of culture and the preservation of memories is evident in their personal images—whether those photos document a traditional craft or capture a family moment. In essence, personal photographs themselves are tools of preservation.

    In an effort to include Armenian Americans’ personal photographs in the official archives, I asked a few visitors to submit images from the Festival that they felt were important to be represented. After receiving several submissions, I had the opportunity to speak with a few visitors about the images that stuck with them. For Elen Aghekyan, photographs help bring back the feelings she experienced at the event. Although three years have passed since the Festival, the passage of time allows for a better understanding of the intersection of memory and identity in personal photos.

    Two young girls dressed in matching red outfits look down at their stringed instruments. People in the background talk underneath a green umbrella.
    Two of the qanon players look at their instruments.
    Photo courtesy of Elen Aghekyan

    As a self-described sentimental person, Elen stumbles across her digital photos from the Festival three or four times a year in a favorites folder on her phone, where she keeps photos that make her happy. While she does not constantly photograph her personal life, she knew it was important to document the Festival.

    “It was such a unique feeling,” she described. “[I knew I was] probably not going to feel like this in this particular place in the world with these people around me, and I wanted to make sure I could bring that back.”

    In multiple interviews, Elen mentioned young musicians who dazzled Festival visitors with their skillful performance on the qanon, a stringed instrument often played in an ensemble. She submitted a few photos to the archives, including a photo of two members of the Nur Qanon Ensemble, whom she described as “magical.” Elen was born and raised in Armenia until she was eleven. While she has spent more of her life in the United States, she is deeply connected to her Armenian roots. After moving, Elen returned to Armenia almost every year until the pandemic started. She wished as a child she had learned the qanon. She playfully explained that she holds it against her parents that they never let her learn to play an instrument, but she also never told them she was interested in learning. The joy Elen felt watching the young qanon players returns every time she looks at her photos.

    Armenia: Creating Home also highlighted several traditional crafts and master artisans, including stone carvers who helped Elen carve her first initial into a stone. She described the difficult but rewarding process of learning about the tools and then using them. The hands in this photo belong to Elen and one of two brothers, either Ruben or Karen Ghazarayan, whom Elen described as extremely helpful and very joyful as they explained the practice of stone carving. However, she explained that this image has evoked a sense of sadness since she learned that their family struggled in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Since Elen became aware of the effects of the war on the stone carvers, the meaning and significance of this image has changed over time.

    Seen from above, two sets of hands fiddle with stone carving tools leaning on a work table with a stone carving slab. The hair of the person on the left falls into the frame.
    Elen learns to carve her first initial with traditional stone carvers Ruben and Karen Ghazarayan.
    Photo courtesy of Elen Aghekyan

    During the Festival, Elen texted many photos to her family as she participated in different booths and events. “My family is scattered all over the world,” she explained “We all have the diaspora experience of whenever you’re in touch with your culture in a meaningful way in a meaningful place, it makes everybody else happy for you—so I sent pictures to my mom and grandparents and my aunt in many corners of the world.”

    Elen represented her family at the Festival and included them in the festivities by sharing her photos. By texting images to family in real time, the significance of the Smithsonian featuring Armenian culture was felt around the world. In this instance, photographs connected both diaspora and homeland Armenians to their cultural heritage.

    While Elen’s photos helped her share the Festival with those unable to attend, George Wolohojian’s displayed a deeper connection to his family who came with him. A lifelong amateur photographer, he describes himself as someone who might not have an incredible eye but loves to document his life nonetheless. As George discussed his relationship to photographs, he explained that photos matter to him when they display emotion, especially in people’s faces.

    A man and a woman looking at each other sit at a table outside with recording equipment. Both people have a microphone in front of them that they are talking into.
    At the Food Memories booth, George Wolohojian records a story with presenter Liana Aghajanian.
    Photo by Jessica Wolohojian

    At the Food Memories booth, visitors could share their food-related memories to be recorded for the Festival archives—many describing the scents and flavors associated with their cultural identity. Though growing up George was fairly removed from any Armenian community in the United States, he did eat Armenian food at home. For those like George, who grew up less immersed in their Armenian heritage, food is often a way families interact with their homeland culture. 

    George shared with me a photo his daughter had taken while he was being interviewed at the Food Memories booth. While he was sure his children had heard these stories plenty of times before, amid recounting them he remembered looking up at their faces and feeling that they understood the weight of recording them. The photo of his participation both documents his contribution to the preservation of Armenian heritage and reminds George of preserving his heritage within his family.

    As George continued to reflect on his photos, he returned to one of his family enjoying some freshly baked lavash, a thin Armenian bread. A combination of good lighting, happy faces, and a glimpse of the National Mall, George considered this the perfect moment to capture the delight his family experienced at the Festival. Particularly, this photo celebrates a unique opportunity for his two children, Daniel and Jessica, who were adopted at infancy, to explore their heritage. He explained that while they may not be biologically related, “we are a family, and they have learned through food and tradition and story much about Armenian heritage. I believe they are very proud of their name.”

    George and Elen’s reflections demonstrate the power of personal photographs to preserve. Although photos will never fully capture the emotion and setting of a particular moment, they can help sustain memories and even culture.

    Two men and two women smile at the camera, holding up partially eaten pieces of bread. The four people are standing in front of several trees, with a few tents and chairs scattered behind them.
    The Wolohojian family enjoys freshly baked lavash bread on the National Mall.
    Photo courtesy of George Wolohijian

    Anna Beth Corson is a cultural sustainability intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a graduate of Covenant College, where she studied international relations and art history. As a student, she interned for the Smithsonian Cultural Rescue Initiative, where she developed an interest in studying the destruction of cultural heritage sites during conflict. At the Center, she has focused her research on Armenian American cultural heritage and identity.

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