Society 20:26 14/04/2021 Armenia

Zaven Khachikyan's historical photos and the stories behind them

Author Tehmine Harutyunyan

Zaven Khachikyan started his road in photography to get the much-needed experience and ultimately turn to the cinema world, yet he stayed connected to photography forever. Back in 1988, in his early career, the photographer was fired from the editorial  staff of the Komsomolets newspaper and ironically received an award then for the best photojournalist form the Armenian Youth Komsomol Union. 


I was mistaken to start my interview with a question about this award. He turned out to be against the idea of awards, yet in 2018 he received the President's Award in the category of art (the photojournalist perceived the award as a financial support to his permanent freelance status though). In 1988, he received another award for developing the genre of photography and text in the Armenian journalism. With consideration of all awards and their value, the life does not lose its interest in valuable works. Recently, a publisher was looking for the beloved author of the images for a book about Monte, and Zaven Khachikyan turned to be the author of them. My next question to the photographer appeared more suitable.


 - Do you recall the day of photographing Monte? 

 - Certainly. It was in April 1993 - the day of liberation of Karvachar.  


- Was it easy to take the photos of Monte? Did he like to be photographed? 

 - Taking photos of Monte was easy as the process was not staged. One needed to only feel the reality. Monte was not a  model to pose. I photographed him in action. That photo was taken when he was giving the final instructions to the troops. In fact, with liberation of Karvachar, the Armenian fedayi struggle  came to its end. I accompanied Monte for two days in his car. He was brave and had no fear of death. He could have died during those two days, yet survived. His car was going in front of the tanks. In general, Monte was a few steps ahead of all of us throughout his life. 


 - Do you believe in the version that Monte was killed by Armenians? 

 - That is an absolute nonsense. Monte used to pass though roads and risked to being killed for several times during a day but not by Armenians. He was adored. No one would ever dare to lift their arm on him. The time made everyone live through the breath of the friend. One should have known the fear, humor, dream, the risk and everything about your companion. It was not like Nikol describes the war today  - to get 30 people, appoint a commander and head to the combat  positions. 


The war required good preparedness to live through that reality. The memoirs of Komitas, the friend and driver of Monte come to prove what I am saying. Monte fell accidentally. He was away from the daily routine and lived with the war. I recall a story when we entered a village. Monte was next to the driver of an ordinary 'Vilis' car. Ruben Mangasaryan and me were sitting in the back. Turks were retreating, however some enemy units were still in the village. Monte gave his camera to Ruben and asked to take photos of whatever he wanted. An armored personnel carrier suddenly appeared in front of us. Monte got out of the car and approached them with a gun in his hands. We were trembling with fear. If those were Azeris, he would probably shoot but there was no guarantee they could be Armenians. I remember how Monte got angry and furious when he found out those were wreckers. He didn't have the heart to punish them. He was heading to a war and had no right to kill own people. He opened fire to the TV set on board of the truck. The next day we were going to Yashak, when we met elderly couple  - a man and a woman with white flags as a sign of peace.  Monte got out of the car, talked to them, realized that a unit is retreating from a village yet took no action. We passed by the village knowing there were enemy soldiers in the back. The next day our troops neutralized the Azeri servicemen without any damage to the peaceful population. Monte didn't even punish that wrecker and traitor, who would ever dare to kill him? Never believe in versions suggesting he was killed by an Armenian. You better go and read the memoirs of Komitas, his comrade-in-arm and close friend. 


 - According to Seta Melkonyan, Monte's wife, the commander was killed by an explosion of Azeri artillery fire. In the process of trying to dive behind a wall for cover shrapnel from one of the artillery shells ricocheted off the wall and entered Monte's temple, killing him instantly. 


 - It was also due to the bad work of the intelligence. He was killed because of neglected approach but not of treason. The war is a dirty thing, and you may never reveal the truth, however one thing is clear for me that Monte was not killed by an Armenian. 


 - If a photojournalist is too sincere on the battlefield, what may his camera capture? What will be the result? 


 - They would be a paparazzi. The journalist who has decided to go to war should be more prudent. I didn't go there to document the war. 



 - So, why did you go there? 

 - I couldn't do the other way. I wanted to be there, next to soldiers and support them with whatever you could. You do not go there to create art, you are next to the soldiers, support them, walk along with them and in case of a need are obliged to shoot. The question I faced was mostly in the moral domain. What was my task - to act merely as a journalist or not? I didn't want to document the war, as it was not my topic. My best shots have been created in calm, unnoticed and peaceful environments. Regretfully, I lacked military skills, otherwise I would go there as a military.


 - There are many battlefields in a war. One of your legendary photos, showing an Azerbaijani elderly woman caressing the head of Armenian soldier - Sargis Hatspanyan, fought well in the information war. The photo conveys a great humanitarian message and came amid accusations about alleged atrocities of the Armenian side. 

 - That shot was one of the series made again in Karvachar. The unique thing about that photo is that a human being never dies even in the deadliest war. It was a warm April day, and we were conversing with Azeris. I am a physicist by specialty and there was a physics teacher among them with whom we talked a lot about the Karabakh issue and the prospects of its settlement. Then, I took a photo of him and others in his company. The turn of an elderly woman came. I tried to talk to her and then realized she didn't understand Russian. She was responding in Azerbaijani. Only Sargis knew the language and i asked him to translate. He came, sat down next to that woman and started talking to her. She was telling her story how she had been abandoned by her sons. Sargis got excited as he had a soul of poetic justice. The Azeri woman hugged her. All their interaction is well documented on the camera. 



I didn't take that photo for selling or becoming famous. It would be immoral to photograph soldiers and then sell the images for a profit. I didn't event think to publish them, given also the fact I was not affiliated with any organisation and was visiting Artsakh on own means. However, when I was back to Yerevan, I received a call from Armenpress news agency and asked for the photos. The reason was Azeris were launching a campaign to discredit Armenians with accusations of crimes. Herbert Baghdasaryan, who was an excellent photo editor, chose three photos, one of which depicted that woman and Hatspanyan, the second one was the photo of our tank in Karvachar and third  - showing a brave soldier with charisma resembling Che Guevara.





- Will we ever have new Montes? 

 - Are wars the only thing we want? Let us have leaders like Monte not only in the battlefield. Let us have a leader who would lead us and pull out of the swamp. The life has showed our nation can give birth to exceptional heroes. The April war came to prove that as well.  There was a difference between Monte and the April hero though. Those guys occurred there, while Monte got prepared for becoming what he wanted. We fist should establish a system in which we can survive without exceptional people and never rely on heroes. While glorifying Monte, we also should not forget others who are not with us today. The idea of a hero should be revisited as well. I recall Czesław Miłosz's words that we should get the right to speak on behalf of those who are silent for ever. Monte was exceptional, a hero, yet we see the title is distributed left and right after even a lost war. We should revise our approach to honor people with that title  wither by awarding all or only those who have shown exceptional courage.  We have thousands of missing people and are not aware of their deeds, maybe heroic as they are deprived of that honor. Not only our approach to heroes is worth to be changed but everything in our country. We have taken a wrong direction and are moving forward. We started the first Artsakh war with fedayi movement and ended with a regular army, while the recent war was started with the regular army and ended with fedayi units. What was this if not a collapse, chaos, uncoordinated and negligent approach. 


- Is there any hope? 

- The only way out is through education and work. I have always repeated everyone should be in their place and do whatever they do well. Any profession is a responsibility. We need a leader who will acknowledge this truth. We need a space to live and name it a country. We should understand who are our lords and what they want from us, what can they cede for what and what are the common threats we face. We are in a struggle for sphere of influence. We must get orientated and self-organize. We face an issue of survival. We need not a progressive but a standing Armenia. We need not revolutions and shocks but a smooth change of generations in all spheres. If we do not get that it means we are reconciled with being defeated all the time. We need a leader who is able to take the responsibility for both defeats and victories. We should live, love, create, protect, demand and never give up the hope to have a better country. We must never stop dreaming about jumping higher than our head and free. 


Photos were provided by Zaven Khachikyan. 


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