Photographer Diana Markosian on capturing a fast-changing Chechnya in pictures
There is little to embellish about the solemn morning ritual carried out among ninth graders in a high school gymnasium in the solitary Chechen village of Serzhen-Yurt. The faces of the students are young and nonchalant as they flex their upper bodies to follow the steady cadence of their teacher’s instruction.
Some lean left. Others lean right. In the center of the concrete box, which is lightly touched by the day’s fresh light, I stand beside the teacher, making my own subtle leanings to ensure my camera stays sensitive to the slightest movements of the students lined up before me.
It’s no secret the girls would prefer to ditch than start the day stretching and jogging in heels and skirts. Another glance at their faces and it’s apparent they’re watching the minutes drip away with excruciating slowness. Unlike my early days with this class, when I had no idea of what they would be like or how they would take to me, the rawness in their expressions tells me, after three months of my regular accompaniment, that they don’t even notice me. They have opened the pages of their lives and are comfortable letting me read.
Any photographer who pursues immersive documentary stories lives for such moments, even ones that seem so simple and unassuming. I didn’t go back to high school almost every day for three months in 2012 because I felt nostalgic. If anything, I wanted to forget about myself and give an intimate perspective to the lives of young girls who witnessed the horrors of two wars and are coming of age in a republic that is rapidly redefining itself as an Islamic state.
In today’s Chechnya, it is unusual to see boys and girls together for gym class since gender segregation, whether at a salon or an ice skating rink, is becoming the norm. The most innocent acts could mean breaking the rules. A Chechen girl caught smoking can end up under arrest. Rumors of a couple having sex before marriage can result in an honor killing. And of course, there is the religious dress code. It’s increasingly common to find the girls concealing piles of charcoal and bronze hair behind a hijab, which the previous generation is not accustomed to since they grew up in the Soviet Union.
But for all the tension and all the constraints, they’re also just teenagers. They are coy and coquettish around boys. They procrastinate doing their homework. They enjoy new technology and fashion. And I think it’s these subtleties, or countless others, like a date or an early morning in gym class, that make for a compelling story. It pulls them out from beyond the cloud covering this tiny mountainous village about 30 minutes from troubled Grozny, gives them personality and makes them as relatable. Once you realize that they’re not all that different than a girl growing up in rural Indiana, you get interested in a hurry.
It was about a year before I started this piece. It’s hard to say you can understand what’s happening when you arrive as an outsider and you’re unacquainted with the horrors of war. It’s only as I observed the lives of women that I found something I could relate to and consider pursuing long-term. In many ways, the narrative found me, and thus fulfilled the encouragement of one of my editors who pressed me to stay as long as it took to find a story that came from the heart.
It’s a reflection of how my priorities have changed. I used to be concerned about being published. I rushed from one breaking news event to the next. But now that’s not as important. The images and the prestige of the publication are such a small part. I’ve learned to enjoy the process and be present to the people who have allowed me intimate access to their lives. I may work slower, but I get to know the person. And really, more than anything, you have to be a person before a photographer.
— as told to Brandon Hoops
Diana Markosian, 24, is a photographer who recently re-located to Burma. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Le Monde, and Marie Claire. You can view more of her pictures here.