Karen Mirzoyan | Unrecognized Islands of Caucasus

Country of origin: Georgia
Project location: Caucasus
Program: Magnum Foundation Fund
Year: 2010

Civilians and soldiers alike navigate a region torn apart by years of war.

The Unrecognized Islands is a project that Mirzoeyen started several years ago. His aim is to document the transitional state of unrecognized republics in the region. This photograph is from Part I of his project, which documents Armenians who were killed during the Nagorno-­‐Karabakh war (1991-­‐1994).


During the making of Karen Mirzoyan's project Unrecognized Islands of Caucasus, Mirzoyan kept a journal. Mirzoyan used the journal to explore new project ideas, document his experiences in new regions, and contemplate the meaning of photographing an unrecognized people.


Somehow I wanted to photograph people who took part in wars. I could have gone and photographed the war heroes, but there was something else brewing in my mind and the only thing that I had sketched and written about in my notebook was that I wanted to go to some villages where were active zones. I had decided to put old photographs of the people who had died during war in the field in the same places they were gunned down and photograph the scene and that's it. That was only ambition. But then this contemplation originally evolved and I understood that it would be more pertinent to photograph the children of those who had died in the same place they had fallen for the sake of their children's survival and prosperity. This thought led to the formation of the idea of past and future within the story and I decided to logically divide the story into three parts (chapters) – past, present and future. The children aptly occupied the section of the story representing the future. The past is depicted by the gravestones of the fallen heroes. I photographed the gravestones which had the picture of the buried person portrayed on the gravestone in order to omit some feeling of vitality—holding onto their Kalashrikov rifles and staring back—manifesting some movement within the photograph.

The Past - The Dead

The present is represented by the portraits of the war heroes, but I chose to photograph the ones that had been injured during combat and still had shrapnel wedged deep in their bodies. For a long time I had worked to do stories that will allow me to incorporate x-ray images, but I was waiting for the right opportunity and story, and here I feel it is absolutely befitting.


Part 2, Story 2


This series is about the people are lost without at trace. There are so many stories. So many names; a boy goes to war and is lost without a trace, there are those who were killed but the corpses were never found and there are incidents when a 71 year old is abducted from his house and is never heard again. To just come take someone and put an end to their story! I was photographing these people's mothers, relatives, children who were left alone with the photographs of their loved ones, no other proof of their life and no grave to mourn on. But what grabbed my attention the most were not the faces in the photographs but the special relationship between those who are waiting and the packs of photographs.

Part 2, Story 3

Kodor Valley
I had been trying to get through all the documentation and finally get to the restricted area of Kodor Valley for two years. Waited to go to the edge of the border and see for myself where the Russian solders were situated and where were the Abkhaz forces. I was thinking [text crossed out] that Russians would be in the fornt rows because that is what I was told by the media but take it from an eye witness that is not the case. The closest to the border stand the Abkhaz troops, the Russians come kilometers after them.

I'm not allowed yet to reveal the name of the post I visited or the names of the soldiers I talked to and took a stroll with through the hills and the forest. There are no captions. People here have no NAMES.

Part 2, Story 4

Soldiers with no names are not the only anonymous characters in my story. Such places with no names applied in the story as well. I had no idea that after the Georgia's conflict in 2008 with Abkhazia and South Ossentia there are still many Georgians living in both countries. It is related that there were mixed marriages but there still are villages populated wholly by Georgians which interestingly enough is not publicized much.

I wanted my own, first hand insight into the situation, wanted to find out what is going on and document it. I went to the Gal district or region, near the border with Georgia and what do you know!!! The border was open; Georgians freely moved back and forth. The border is open.

There and I talked to many people and was welcomed at many homes but no one consented to an interview or allowed me to take their picture. I found it odd since they were not critical of Abkhaz authorities but still did not want to be photographed. Sure for all they know I could be with the Abkhaz secret services. It took me some 20–25 visits to people's homes to be able to photograph 7 people. Some of them wanted to conceal their faces, some refused to give me their names and those who did give me a name most probably lied about it. I could not pinpoint the source of their anxiety until one of them explained, "You see, we go back and forth in between Georgia and Abkhazia both countries. Your photos might travel the world and Georgians might see them as well. We don't want to have problems with Georgians; we don't want to take sides."