It was night when Hanan and her family boarded the boat. "I was scared," Hanan, who is 15 and grew up in Iraq, told Diana Markosian. "All I saw was water."
Hanan had never seen an ocean before. She was one of 50 other refugees crammed together on a rubber boat. As it pushed out to sea and the waves started to rise, water started to rush in. "I didn't know how to swim," Hanan told Markosian. "I thought we would drown."
Hanan, miraculously, made it to Germany. A year later, she did what any teenager might do – she started to take swimming lessons. But this was different: Hanan had developed a pernicious phobia of water.
"When I am in the water, I still think about the boat," Hanan says. Plunging into a pool in a swimming costume is summer fun for most of us. For Hanan, this was a form of therapy.
Yet she remained determined. "I want to swim in the big sea," she told Markosian. "That’s when I'll be free."
Diana Markosian, a 28-year-old Armenian-American photographer, knows what it’s like to be uprooted as a child.
Markosian was born in Moscow to Armenian parents. When she was 7, her mother told her and her brother they were going on holiday to America. They packed their bags, flew to California, and never came home. Her mother had left Diana’s father behind – she went as far as to cut his image out of the family photos. Diana grew up in sunny California, but never had the chance to say goodbye to her father. In time, she almost forgot what he looked like.
At the age of 22, Markosian travelled to Armenia and tried to form a relationship with her father, an experience that coincided with her emergence as a conceptual documentary photographer. She used her camera as a way of reconnecting with him, a visual documentation of their relationship – and the distance they had to navigate – which resulted in the remarkable series Inventing My Father. From there, she worked on 1915, a collaborative photography series focusing on the aged survivors of the still-unrecognised Armenian massacre carried out by the Ottoman government – an event which, generations down the line, precipitated Markosian’s childhood journeying across the world.
"Photography," she came to realise, "is ultimately an expression of myself: all of my feelings, revealed in a moment, in an image."
Now among the youngest photographers to be invited to be a member of Magnum Photography Agency, Markosian’s new series came from a separate commission to photograph refugee children in Germany, back in September 2016. While there, she spoke with a little boy from Afghanistan. As they walked near the sea, she casually asked him if he liked to swim.
He told me he would never go in the sea again.
"He told me he would never go in the sea again," Markosian says. "And I suddenly realised how scared he was of the water. I thought about the journey many refugees like him had made to Europe. They were often travelling for months, but this one episode – crossing the sea – will affect them forever. I wondered if a real trauma, a real fear exists for refugees that have come to Europe."
Markosian titled the new series The Big Sea. She learned of a swimming instructor in a small town near Wolfsburg who was giving classes to the town’s refugee children. Markosian began to attend the lessons with her camera, photographing children from war zones in a community swimming pool in small-town Germany.
The series, it turned out, would be difficult. "The light was so delicate, and there was only a small window every day where I was able to take the kind of photograph I wanted," she says. In the first month of visits to the pool, she took a single photograph she was happy with – a portrait of Hanan leaning on the side of the pool, looking into the distance, the light slanting across her face. It would require 10 separate visits to the town near Wolfsburg, over the course of 18 months, to produce a series of 10 images.
In that vein, it took time for Markosian to realise what was at the heart of this series. "I came to the pool with an idea of what I wanted to see," she says. "But, as with every body of work I’ve ever created, I had to crush that initial idea and rebuild it. I had to let the children tell the story for me. I started to realise that this series was not going to be about movement, not going to be about action. It would be about quiet, in-between moments."
She would watch a young boy attempt to enter the water. "He would lie by the water for 20 minutes at a time, not moving at all," she says. "He would lie there again and again before finding his way into the pool. Watching him improve over the course of 10 visits was a beautiful thing to witness."
The time and effort paid off. From photographing the children as they gained the confidence to submerge themselves in the water for the first time, Markosian captured the sheer, overwhelming excitement that only children can experience as they learn to power their limbs through the water – as they overcame what held them back and experienced, finally, what it feels like to be free.
"Hanan is now a qualified lifeguard," Markosian says. "She has just passed her test. I asked her what she would do if she saw the sea again, and she smiled at me and said: 'I’d swim in it.'"
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