Documentary projects are begun for many reasons. One of them is to provide evidence, whether of something in danger of disappearing, or of a crime taking place. The project for which Hayk Bianjyan received an Open Society Documentary Photography Project Production Grant aims to provide both types of evidence.
Bianjyan’s home of Yerevan, Armenia, has for several years been undergoing a process of rapid redevelopment. Large-scale construction projects have been overtaking historical neighborhoods at lightning speed. At 2,800 years old, Yerevan is one of the world’s oldest inhabited cities, yet few of its secular pre-medieval buildings remain today.
Though many residents hold legally recognized deeds to their property, forced evictions, and demolitions are widespread. For years, Bianjyan has been photographing the eviction process in an attempt to expose vast violations of property rights. At the same time, he has compiled an ever-growing archive of residents’ family photographs, architectural details, and historical documents that show the unique character of the changing neighborhoods.
Jessica Murray, the director of Al-Liquindoi, the photographic education program which led workshops for the grantees, says of Bianjyan, “I think of Hayk as a guardian of Yerevan’s history. A social activist of sorts, with his heart firmly rooted in the past, he is driven by the desire and need to preserve the city’s stories.”
In discussing his project, Bianjyan refers to the stories his grandmother would tell about another era—stories that have left him with a sense of longing: “I miss old times, when everything was slightly different. When people met more often, they kept in touch more, they shared their joys and sorrows more. People have become lonely these days. They are alone with their problems. They are afraid to share,” says Bianjyan. Through his work, Bianjyan has created opportunities for this type of exchange to happen.
Last week, on July 5, a film by Bianjyan incorporating his own photographs and the archival material screened in an open-air showing on the newly built Northern Avenue, where many of the demolitions took place. The turnout was fantastic—many residents of the recently demolished historic districts were present, as well as local arts, architects and historians. Additionally, local press and government representatives attended—a step toward public acknowledgment of these violations of property rights. On Monday, July 11, selections from the film screened on local television and future screenings are being scheduled throughout Armenia.