Approximately 28% of Armenia’s 3 million people live below the poverty line, unable to provide for their basic human needs. According to the World Bank, poverty in Armenia increased for the first time in over a decade in 2009, partly as a result of the global economic recession. The World Bank estimated that the proportion of Armenians living below the official poverty line reached 28.4 percent in 2009. The official poverty rate stood at 25.6 percent in 2008, meaning that the number of poor has risen by at least 90,000 since then. The World Bank also estimated that the level of extreme poverty has nearly doubled to 6.9 percent, an increase of over 107,000 people. The Zangakatun social services NGO noticed this increase first hand as its staff rushed to respond to more and more desperate calls for help. Yet, despite these staggering statistics, many of these lives are unseen and unheard. Although the Armenian Diaspora travels to Armenia and engages the country and its people, the lives of those struggling with extreme poverty are often out of sight, and there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the depth and character of the poverty crisis in Armenia.
Our Response In 2009, the Tufenkian Foundation approached photojournalist and attorney Sara Anjargolian and proposed a collaboration - to document the face of poverty in Armenia with the goal of raising awareness, inspiring dialogue, and sparking collective action around the issue. Sara had previously lived in Armenia for two and a half years and possessed the sensitivity and knowledge to portray the subject with dignity and respect for the truth. In July of 2009, Sara returned to Armenia and began documenting the lives of families struggling with extreme poverty. She encountered people living off garbage dumps, children battling malnutrition, families ripped apart by alcoholism and domestic violence, and metal shipping containers and barns serving as homes.
JAMES TUFENKIAN’S FOREWORD - HOW WE LIVE BOOK
Thanks to Sara Anjargolian for having the courage to step into the world she brings to us with these photos and stories. It is difficult to look poverty straight in the eye. Especially when that eye looks back. And when it looks like your own. Or that of someone you love. Armenian Pride. I think I have lots of it. Where do stories like this fit in? Stories of Armenians brutalized and abandoned by other Armenians. I am not proud. Of course they are far away. And my life is very comfortable. I have lots of ways to forget and to preoccupy myself. But often, in the middle of the night, I wake up suddenly. I worry what is my life about? How have I used my gifts? And sometimes wonder what if I was waking in a freezing metal boxcar, and my child was starving to death on the mat next to me. What questions would I ask? As if I can imagine... When compassion and guilt are fighting inside of me and I know I have to act, I am blessed that I have a response. I contribute more to the NGO Zangakatun. They are a group of unbelievably dedicated and selfless individuals who, since 1999, have been my heart and hands and feet, working to heal Armenian families broken by poverty. Because of their work I am able to enjoy at least an uneasy peace. The problem is there. We are looking at it. I hope you are fortunate enough to find your own ways to respond. Many do. These days, that is my Armenian Pride.
The Result As a result of the Tufenkian Foundation’s collaboration with Sara, the now well-known “How We Live” project was created. “How We Live” documents the face of poverty in Armenia as told through the personal stories of families living along the margins. The lives depicted in the images Sara created show families prevailing against inhuman odds and simultaneously making peace with what should be unacceptable. The project became a large-scale exhibition, a book of photography, and a documentary film. The exhibition opened in Los Angeles in March of 2009 at Casitas Studios, which is home to a thriving arts community in Los Angeles. During its short run, the exhibit attracted over 1000 visitors, garnering tremendous support from the local community, and generating coverage by various media outlets and arts and photography collectives. The multimedia exhibit/installation, designed and curated by architect Narineh Mirzaeian, features forty of Sara’s photographs, printed as translucent screens each measuring 5x7 feet, and suspended from an intricate tensile network.
Exhibit designed & curated by Narineh Mirzaeian
The Book A beautiful 96-page hardcover book of photography was also produced, designed by graphic designer Mary Minassians and edited by photojournalist Eric Grigorian, and features the stories and photographs of nine of the families documented by Sara. Moreover, a moving 13-minute documentary film was created by editor Karlo Gharabegian, which features video interviews and footage collected by Sara while interacting with the families depicted in the project. The film also features a beautiful original score by singer/songwriter Gor Mkhitarian. Since the creation of the How We Live project, Sara has toured to cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, giving lectures/photography presentations about the topic and project.
The “How We Live” project raised widespread awareness and sparked waves of dialogue among both the Armenian Diaspora and within non-Armenian circles by illuminating the daily challenges of poverty and exploring the socio-economic and political basis upon which poverty exists and is perpetuated. Simultaneously, the project shined a light on lives that might otherwise pass quietly into oblivion. The exhibit, book, and film helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Zangakatun (Belltower) Social Services NGO in Armenia - which consist of a dedicated and selfless group of social workers who, since 1999, have been working to heal Armenian families broken by poverty.
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