Ever thought about moving to Armenia to join the Military? No? Well, me neither. But sometimes little photo trips turn into adventures, which can almost turn into joining the army. Let me explain . . . . . .
It was one of the first lovely spring days of the season in Vanadzor and there was a mountain outside my kitchen window. The view over my soup bowl was framed with bright green trees full of leaves, all the while birds were singing and bees buzzing as they moved from branch to branch. Juanita and Hazel were happily playing so I decided that the mountain wasn’t really that big, would be a perfect spot for some bird & wildflower photos, plus an absolutely fantastic view over the city. The temptation to shoot was too great.
I selected some camera gear, packed up my backpack and headed up the mountian. The way started with a nice road that included stairs up the side. While for some of us the stairs might be enough, for myself the going started to get tough when the paving ended and the ground became a sleugh of rancid mud. Once you get off the main street you can easily be subjected to those special little presents that the free-range cows like to leave for the random wanderer. The desentegration of the path also meant that there was no direct route, so between that and the mudpies I found myself plugging my nose looking for landmines rather than noticing the scenery. After about an hour of walking, climbing, slipping and sliding, I discovered animal tracks that led me further up the hill, away from civilization and closer to the highly anticipated view. Occasionally I’d pass a fence but they were always broken and fallen down, not causing much in the way of a deterrent.
Another hour passed and I’d only made it halfway up. After all that grappling with the terrain I was pooped. Why is it that mountains look so much friendlier and inviting from a distance (i.e. when you are looking at it from over a bowl of soup in the kitchen)? At this point I decided that the top of the mountain was not going be visited that day and explored where I was at for a bit. I found a nice little spot to sit down and rest before I began snapping my shutter at the birds and flowers. It wasn’t the top of the mountain, but the nature surrounding me was still beautiful.
In the true untameable spirit of mother nature the birds would not co-operate and I soon got bored with frames whose only sign of a captured bird in the images were their blurred back sides. Fed up I started back down the hill towards home, leaving my camera with its big 70-200mm lens out and attached to the tripod so I could have it handy for any thing that popped up. Seeing a different and easier looking path, I thought I would cut at least 30mins off my walk home and plunged through the bush through an open field and towards a group of buildings. The discomfort of dicrepid fences and cow paddies seemed a thing of the past.
There was construction going on at the buildings across the field and as I walked past the builders I gave a nod of my head as a passing “Hello”. Everyone I encountered were looking at me quite strangely. I noticed that they were all wearing army fatigues, and while this is not at all uncommon here in Vanadzor I realized that I was the only person NOT wearing them. Finally, I was approached by a group of about 10 guys who had been sitting around talking and smoking. They asked:
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
To which I of course answered:
“I’m a photographer and I’m taking photos.” 🙂
This is when they politely informed me that I was walking around an Army base where I was not even allowed to be, let alone taking photos! Oops! Luckily, they seemed more interested in me and my camera than the fact that I was most likely breaking the law in a foreign country! Deciding to play it cool we chatted for a bit until one of the more senior guys yelled at one of the younger, more timid guys to go and make me coffee! So there I was talking, drinking coffee, while this group of soldiers smoked and asked me question after question.
“Whats your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“What are you doing in Armenia? Why did you come to Vanadzor?”
“Well, I’m a missionary here with my wife and daughter, and we like it here in Vanadzor”
“What? you like Vanadzor? Really? Why?” (This is actually a very typical response from Armenians when we talk about Vanadzor. It’s a dying city which in the last 10 yrs has gone from about 175,000 people to under 80,000, with people complaining there is no work, nothing to do, and a generally strong pessimism/hopelessness regarding the lack of cash flow in the area.)
I was asked if I wanted a girl. I told them I was married and had an almost 2 yr old daughter. They informed me that that’s ok, but do I want a “girl”. Oh, ummm no thankyou. I’m more then happy with the one I have but thanks for asking! J
After talking with these guys for a good 30-40 minutes I began to gain an understanding of the hopelessness and pointlessness that consumes every aspect of the life they are living. This specific group were all 17-19 yr old conscripts. In Armenia, it is a requirement for every 17-year-old male to fulfill a 2 year commitment of military service. There are 2 extremes to this service. First, you can get posted to a place like Vanadzor. It is quiet and boring. The guys spend their time drinking, smoking, sitting around talking and chasing girls/prostitutes. They are rarely given anything developmental or constructive to keep busy. Second, you can be posted to the Nagorno-Karabakh region- a militarized zone. An official cease fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan was called in 1994. However, skirmishes are frequent and it is one of (if not the most) highly land-mined area in the world. Every year upwards of 30 people are killed from sniper fire alone. At one point in our conversation I asked these young men if they were worried about the war, and about having to fight. Their response was that they never really think about it. Living in Australia it is not strange for people to not have heard about this conflict. It is tiny and doesn’t impact our lives there. But living here in Vanadzor, merely 100km from Nagorno-Karabakh, we still hear nothing about this conflict. That is, until you are sitting in a taxi having a chat with the driver who at some point mentions that his son is there fighting. Right now, fighting as we drive and naturally the driver is worried for his son’s safety.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, three of the soldiers decided that they would take advantage of my photographic skills and get me to do some photos of them. I was more then happy to oblige, so we snuck off, slipping around corners and dodging superior officers, etc. until we got out the back of the base where I was able to take some portraits of them. When I finished they revealed my escape route- a secret little hole in the fence. It appeared to be the preferred get away method for these soldiers as well. Their hospitality went so far as to walk me half way home. Indeed, they would have gone with me farther had they not looked at the time, swore, and started running back to the base. Hopefully they didn’t get into trouble for going AWOL.
The moral of the story: The photos I end up with are often worlds away from what I set out to capture. I am beginning to realize that this day, with all of it’s muddy twists and bends, embodied what travel photography is all about. Adventures find me when I least expect it and my best image might just come about by being here, ready to go, when they do.