Diana Markosian Revives Family History in “Santa Barbara”

“I started to understand that it was really not about what happened. It was about how we all experienced it that mattered.” 

Diana Markosian, taken by the artist’s father. Artist's father

Artist and photographer Diana Markosian is not afraid of much. She rattles off her brushes with danger: deported from Azerbaijan at 21, smuggled into Burma (now known as Myanmar) at 23, placed under house arrest in China at 24. But when we come to her latest project about family, her tenor changes, leaving the practiced composure of someone who has spent the last few years speaking publicly about her family’s difficult past. “Every family has a secret and every family has one story that they like to repeat,” Markosian told me for Observer on a beautiful Sunday morning in Brooklyn.

For Markosian’s family, their story — and their secret — revolved around their journey to America in 1996. Born in Moscow in 1989, Markosian lived between Russia and Armenia until the age of seven. After the Soviet Union collapsed, her family hit hard times. Her parents’ marriage fell to pieces and food and resources were scarce. The family had one telephone, one bed, and one television they would gather around to watch the glitzy drama of American soap opera, Santa Barbara. One night her mother, Svetlana, a Ph.D educated economist, packed up Diana and her older brother and took them to the United States. Only at 27 years old did Markosian learn that the man who met them at the airport and soon became her step-father was not actually a family friend. In reality, Svetlana had placed an advertisement in search of a man to help her and her children leave Russia — and Eli answered. The four of them lived as a family in Santa Barbara, California until Markosian was 14 years old, when Eli dropped them at a motel and disappeared. 

Chinwe Davis, 12, left, and sister Ifetayo Davis, 10, right, in Portland, Oregon Sept. 6, 2020. Photo by Diana Markosian for National Geographic Photo by Diana Markosian for National Geographic

Markosian’s film, photography, and book project Santa Barbara  (open now at the International Center for Photography (ICP) in New York City) is a staged recreation of this story, imagined from her mother’s perspective. Part documentary, part historical fiction, Markosian’s work is exemplary of a growing category of personal, memoiristic art that blurs the real and the fake, recognizing and representing the insufficiencies of chasing a single objective reality. Markosian was committed to collaborating with her family on this project, triangulating and reconstructing a version of the truth that felt emotionally salient if not always precisely accurate. “I started to understand that it was really not about what happened. It was about how we all experienced it that mattered.” 

Santa Barbara was first commissioned by SFMoMA in 2018. What followed was a project of snowballing proportions, including a year and a half of intensive casting (including re-casting her father after her biological father, Arsen, pulled out a day before shooting), and another year and a half of traveling and shooting. Markosian describes casting as one of the most unexpectedly difficult parts of the project. It felt at times, she said, like she was attempting to replace her own family. The project hinged on her finding actors who not only looked like her parents, but felt like them on a personal level. 

When I spoke to Gene Jones, the actor who played Markosian’s step-father Eli, his fondness for the story and the team bubbled through the phone. He had his doubts, he tells me, when he was first approached about the project, which was “unlike any acting job I’ve ever had,” but he was soon won over by Markosian’s intelligence and enthusiasm. On set, Markosian knew what emotions and scenes she wanted to portray, but beyond that gave the actors space to improvise their lines, Jones explained to Observer. Ana Imnadze, who played Svetlana, said via email that she and Markosian would have “long conversations” before shooting. “Quite frequently Diana used to ask me what would Svetlana do in a given moment,” Imnadze said. If she didn’t know, they would call the real Svetlana for an answer or further context. “It was not just a project to me,” Imnadze said, “it was the life of people which are really valuable to me, the life I shared for a while…” Imnadze’s actual daughter played the role of young Diana.

Girls play in a remote part of Chechnya. Diana Markosian

When I speak with Markosian she is just back from a shoot for Vogue in California. We meet at a cafe in Fort Greene, near one of two residences she keeps these days (the other is back in California). She has a warm and engaging energy to her. This is my second time encountering Markosian. The first time was from afar, when she performed at a Pop-Up Magazine event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in February 2020, right before the world closed down. Her story stuck with me — the drama, the secrets, the sparkling specificity, all accompanied by rich imagery that hovers deliciously between cinema and documentary. “I remember when Pop-Up reached out to me in 2019 and I just started crying about the idea of having to talk about this,” she told me. “The idea of making this public felt so terrifying.” Now at 32 she has become more accustomed to discussing her personal history with strangers, though she has managed not to fully dissociate herself from the work and her voice still carries inflections of genuine emotion and passion as she speaks.

People, especially artists, like to believe that art can transform even the darkest days into stories of beauty and resilience and meaning. For Markosian, it’s clear that the therapeutic nature of the work was integral to the success and purpose of the project. She wanted to understand her mother, to pay homage to Svetlana’s strength and courage, and also unravel the hidden threads of her own upbringing. “The moment we as a family normalized it, we found almost a sense of relief within the story and within each other. There was a resolve suddenly.” 

Her earlier forays into introspective, personal work focused on her biological father, whom she hadn’t seen since she left her life in Russia behind. “It was really about the search for a parent, for this presence that so many of us — even when we know our parents — is missing.” The intimate and domestic images show the estranged duo at the kitchen table, re-learning how to exist in the same space, trying in earnest to reach across the distance.

From the series, The Big Sea, which documented kids learning to swim as a way of overcoming trauma. Hanna, 15, came to Germany from Iraq in 2015. When she recalls her journey, she closes her eyes, and speaks softly through tears. “I don’t know why this happened to us,” she says. “All I remember was water. I didn’t know how swim. I thought we were going to die.” Diana Markosian

For Markosian, photography has always been as much about access as it is about art—access to relationships, experiences, to the world at large.  She first found photography while completing a graduate program in journalism at Columbia University. “There was always this fire in me that wanted to see more, that wanted to experience life differently and really feel alive.” At 20 years old, she booked a one-way flight to the part of the world her mother had left over a decade before. From there, Markosian placed herself in some of the most precarious situations she could find, including documenting terrorist bombings in Moscow, the lives young women in Chechnya, the struggles of people addicted to heroin, survivors of the Armenian genocide and more for publications including Reuters, National Geographic Magazine, and the New York Times. Maybe, she suggests, it wasn’t about seeing the world as much as it was escaping her own. “I just wanted something hard, something difficult, something painful […] When you come from a broken family or broken past, you want to replicate that pain, you feel like you have to exist in that pain in order to make work.” 

“I remember having no money and hitchhiking from Tajikistan along the Silk Road into Afghanistan,” she tells me. From an internet cafe she wrote to her mom with an update. She recounts her mother responding something along the lines of, “I hope those images are worth it.” Well, were they? “Everything I’ve done has felt worth it,” she says with a certitude I find deeply admirable. “And it wasn’t about the images being worth it,” she continues. “It’s about feeling like I was doing exactly what I wanted to do […] whatever was in my head, I never found an excuse not to do it.” 

“I think sometimes it comes across as impulsive, but in my way, it’s honoring who I am.” This steadfast pursuit of a vision is a hallmark of Markosian’s work ICP’s Manager of Exhibitions and Collections Sara Ickow describes Markosian as collaborative, seeking out the opinions and input of trusted parties, workshopping approaches and ideas, but always holding onto the creative reins: “once she’s made a decision she’s made a decision,” Ickow told Observer. “I’m just really excited by the photographers these days…especially young women, who are trained in this photojournalistic practice but end up being able to do something much more layered and textured with it,” Ickow says. At ICP, Markosian monitors the installation process, rearranging images and props to align with her vision. From including Svetlana’s original wardrobe in the images, to flying the cast to Moscow to shooting scenes in the actual house Markosian grew up in, she and her team have gone to extraordinary lengths to get at the heart of this story. They’ve made it this far, why give up on the details now? 

‘Santa Barbara’ by Diana Markosian Aperture

At coffee, I pull out a copy of Santa Barbara, a beautiful hardcover monograph released by Aperture in 2020. Markosian tells me that she doesn’t own her own copy. You’re supposed to have other people’s work, not your own, she explains. Her home is decorated with the work of her friends — the likes of Gregory Halpern, Jerome Sessini, Trent Davis Bailey, Todd Hido, Jim Goldberg, Cristina De Middle, David Hurn, Paola Ventura, and her grandfather — a painter and fellow “misfit” in her family. She flips through pages of her book with an appreciative yet critical eye. She lights up at the fidelity of the details — her father’s watch, the color of a rotary phone — but also points out the pieces she’d change, small improvements that most casual viewers would never notice.  

More than technique or composition, Markosian is focused on the conceptual elements of this work; it is more about the story and the ideas than the images themselves, as painstakingly created as they are. When we get to the chapter depicting a family vacation to Disneyland, the images lose their glamorous shine in favor of a more grainy realism. “I think when I was making this chapter, I felt so happy because it had nothing to do with good photography in the way that I’ve been shaped to understand what photography looks like. It was all shit. And that was the good part of it.” The project includes stills from Markosian’s childhood, staged recreations, and behind-the-scenes imagery from casting, costuming, and more. This quality is no doubt why Jones described the project as a “disco ball.” The metaphor evokes an image of its many facets throwing light unevenly and beautifully upon the surface of both memory and genre. 

Santa Barbara marks a decisive turn away from photojournalism for Markosian, who plans to continue to expand her photography practice. “I’m 32 I’m not 62,” she tells Observer, “My best work hasn’t been made.” On the heels of a shoot for Vogue, she seems refreshed. “I feel so happy that I’m doing something that isn’t about me, isn’t about death and destruction and difficulty.” She may be changing paths, but she’s not slowing down. “It’s bittersweet,” she says, to leave documentary work behind, but after years of grappling with heavy subjects she’s ready to make room for some levity, too. “For the first time I’m almost craving this feeling of touching joy. And being okay with having that in my life, because I didn’t understand that I could.”

Diana Markosian Revives Family History in “Santa Barbara”