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Powerful Photos Dig Into Turkey’s Taboo History of the Armenian Genocide

By Jakob Schiller  
Kathryn Cook’s book Memory of Trees tells a complicated and moving story of the Armenian genocide through a visceral and broadly visual survey of the people and places that were, and still are, affected by the tragic events of a century ago.“I hope that it presents a unique way of looking at the issue,” she says. “I think photography perhaps is one of the only ways to keep exploring the story because it leaves room for interpretation and can capture some of the pieces that people haven’t already heard.”
A horse wanders through a meadow outside of the town of Arapgir, Turkey, formerly inhabited by a significant Armenian population. Kathryn Cook

Kathryn Cook’s book Memory of Trees tells a complicated and moving story of the Armenian genocide through a visceral and broadly visual survey of the people and places that were, and still are, affected by the tragic events of a century ago.
A view from a train that runs from Adana to Istanbul. According to eyewitness accounts, detention camps formed along the sides of the tracks, particularly between the cities of Konya and Gaziantep. Defending themselves again bandits, starvation and disease, thousands perished in the camps or en route to Syria. KATHRYN COOK

Ayşe Bal, estimated age 98 (in 2012), is seen in her home in Ağaçlı , Turkey. Ayşe’s mother, originally from the city of Muş, was hidden and saved during the Genocide. She was converted to Islam and latter married a Muslim. KATHRYN COOK
“I hope that it presents a unique way of looking at the issue,” she says. “I think photography perhaps is one of the only ways to keep exploring the story because it leaves room for interpretation and can capture some of the pieces that people haven’t already heard.”
Along the road between Deir-Zor and Hassakeh, Syria. In 1915, a decree was issued that forcefully deported thousands of Armenians from Ottoman Turkey to the deserts of Syria and Iraq. KATHRYN COOK

Visitors walk toward the entrance of the Armenian Genocide monument in Yerevan, Armenia to pay their respects on the evening of the anniversary – April 24th. KATHRYN COOK

Hundreds of silkworms feed on mulberry leaves in the room of a house in Ağaçlı, Turkey. KATHRYN COOK
Historians peg the start of the genocide as April 24, 1915, when the government arrested more than 200 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and what is now Turkey took shape. Discrimination against Armenians continued for decades, and even now many Turkish citizens of Armenian descent hide their identity and history for fear of 
Silk cocoons from the village of Ağaçlı, Turkey. An Armenian silk-weaving tradition was revived in this village, boosting silk production. Worms are raised by families, and these small cocoons are processed to make silk thread, which is then woven on looms into scarves.  KATHRYN COOKreprisals.
Silk cocoons from the village of Ağaçlı, Turkey. An Armenian silk-weaving tradition was revived in this village, boosting silk production. Worms are raised by families, and these small cocoons are processed to make silk thread, which is then woven on looms into scarves.  KATHRYN COOK

Cook was drawn to the story shortly after moving to Turkey in 2006 and seeing how the issue of Armenian identity and history bubbled under surface. She decided to explore the issue through photography after Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian descent, was assassinated because of his outspoken views on Armenian identity. His death helped prompt a growing social movement to address the Armenian plight in Turkey.
Silk cocoons from the village of Ağaçlı, Turkey. An Armenian silk-weaving tradition was revived in this village, boosting silk production. Worms are raised by families, and these small cocoons are processed to make silk thread, which is then woven on looms into scarves.  KATHRYN COOK

“I photographed the funeral, and from there things just took off,” she says.
Snow blankets the countryside along a road between Van and Doğubayazıt, Turkey, close to the border with present-day Armenia. KATHRYN COOK
Women enter the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, Turkey in 2010, during the first service in the church since the Armenian Genocide. KATHRYN COOK

Cook started photographing sites throughout Turkey linked to the Armenian community–churches, monasteries, and other Armenian buildings that were destroyed or left to crumble from neglect. For her, these structures represented disappearance and erasure. To this day, the Turkish government disputes the notion that Armenians were systematically targeted, but these destroyed buildings seemed to say otherwise.
Tables and chairs are set up before the start of an Armenian celebration in Vakıflı, Turkey. KATHRYN COOK
A Genocide survivor is seen in his home in Gyumri, Armenia. KATHRYN COOK
What broke the story open for Cook was her visiting the small village of Ağaçlı in southeastern Turkey. She happened upon the village after reading about the mayor’s decision to resurrect the Armenian tradition of weaving headscarves from the cocoons of silk worms. The scarves and silk cultivation had become an important source of income for the community, and Cook was fascinated that the tradition had been revived–and in a Kurdish community. “It was exactly the kind of work I wanted to dive into because it was on the human level,” she says. “It was this subtle way of remembering and celebrating the legacy of a people and a very charged topic.”

A flock of birds flies over the coast of Lake Van in eastern Turkey where the largest population of Turkey’s Armenians had lived for centuries. KATHRYN COOK

Women attend a religious service at the Church of the Holy Cross on Akhtamar Island in Lake Van, Sunday Sept. 19, 2010. This was the first religious service to take place in the church since the Armenian Genocide nearly 100 years ago.  KATHRYN COOK
Over time, Cook took half a dozen trips to Ağaçlı and got to know the community well. The name of her book comes from the name of the town, which means “place of trees.” As she spent more time in the town, her connections grew and she met more and more people willing to be photographed. The project still unfolded slowly, but she’d finally found a way into the Armenian communities. “I just had to be patient,” she says.

A priest’s frock hangs out at an Armenian abby in Jerusalem. KATHRYN COOK

Cook also traveled the well-known routes along which Armenians were forcibly evacuated during the genocide. She visited locations in the Syrian desert, for example, where men, women and children were prodded along death marches toward concentration camps. She also went out into the Black Sea and made pictures where boats full of Armenians were purposely sunk. Without knowing the historical context or the significance of the location, many of Cook’s photos can be hard to read. But as viewers come to know the story, her seemingly abstract approach makes sense. Many of the photos seem overly vacant, for example, but that’s intentional, because so much of the story is about absence.
“In this context, the emptiness means something,” she says. “It’s sort of like everything that’s not said, speaks.”
Cook spent seven years on Memory of Trees and says she could have kept going for many more. But she felt the work needed to be seen. The timing of the book also coincides with what continues to be a growing movement in Turkey of people demanding justice for ethnic Armenians and others who face discrimination.
“I think a new national narrative is slowly starting to get written,” she says. “And hopefully the work plays a part in exploring this change.”
http://www.wired.com/2014/05/kathryn-cook-memory-of-trees/#slide-id-946751

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