By Allan Lengel
As a photojournalist, Michelle Andonian has captured many compelling images over the decades.
But her photo collection from Armenia and Turkey for her new book, “This Picture I Gift,” may be her most personal. It commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, and traces, through words and photographs, the footsteps of her grandmother back home.
Her grandmother, Sarah Andonian, survived the genocide which began in 1915, during World War I. About 1.5 million people perished at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, which is now Turkey. In 1922, she came to the U.S. and settled in southwest Detroit. She passed away in 1988, but not before sharing stories of the homeland.
Over many decades, Turkey has refused to acknowledge responsibility for the genocide, despite pressures from many fronts on the world stage. Andonian says she’s long thought about that dark chapter in history.
“I have been trying to find a way to tell the Armenian story for the last 25 years,” Andonian explains, sitting in her photography studio near downtown Detroit. “After my grandmother died and after the earthquake (1988) there, I went to Armenia, and that trip has kept me going back again and again for the last 25 years.”
“So in last three years I’ve really made a concentrated effort to publish this book and get a body of work out in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide.”
“I felt this book was a way to bring Turkey and Armenia together, to tell the story of genocide, to tell the story of my grandmother, who is a survivor of the genocide, and just put it out there for what it is,” says Andonian, a former photographer for the Detroit News.
On Friday, the Center Galleries at the College For Creative Studies will host a book signing and launch an exhibition, which includes photographs Andonian took of children and Armenian churches from Turkey and Armenia in recent times. The exhibition will run through Oct. 24.
Also, in October, she’ll put on performances to commemorate the genocide, “Hope Dies Last,’ a collaborate effort that combines live music and visuals. The show will premiere at the Detroit Institute of Arts on Oct. 18, with a second showing on Oct. 29 at the Macomb Center. She’s producing it in collaboration with Alexandra Du Bois, a music composer, and the Detroit Chamber Winds.
The book includes photographs from Armenia and Turkey over the past three years, plus a photo of her grandmother in 1987 in southwest Detroit. One of the photos (displayed above) shows Kurdish children standing in a historic Armenian graveyard in Turkey.
The forward in the book is written by her cousin, native Detroiter Robert Ourlian, a former Detroit News reporter who now works as a national security editor for the Wall Street Journal in Washington. Ourlian has always taken a keen interest in Armenia and the genocide.