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This work explores the aftermath of the 'denied' 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, and the reality of living as an Armenian in Turkey today.
Kathryn Cook

2012 — professional runner-up

Kathryn Cook earned a Judges Special Recognition award and received special grant funding from Aphrodite and Peter Tsairis, the co-founders of the Foundation, to complete her project “Memory of Trees,” which “explores the aftermath of the ‘denied’ 1915 Armenian Genocide in Ottoman Turkey, and the reality of living as an Armenian in Turkey today.”

The murder of some one million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey nearly a century ago disappeared into the void of forgotten history, as was the express intention of the perpetrators. My ongoing project, “Memory of Trees”, is a visual commemoration of those million and an active search for evidence of their existence.

The bloody events of 1915-1918 have been recognized by 21 UN member countries (and 43 states of the U.S.) as the “Armenian Genocide” - a definition Turkey vehemently denies. For me, the idea of this denied past is terribly alluring, and I want to refute the official historical narrative. I am further intrigued when Turkey threatens countries like France and the USA for mentioning genocide. Inside Turkey, novelists and publishers are convicted for printing it. Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink is murdered for defending it. And one can’t help asking what is being protected, hidden – what has happened on this land.

With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 1900s, a new Turkish nationalism took hold. The fledgling government's plan to unite all ethnically Turkic people left little room for its Christian Armenian citizens. On April 24, 1915 Ottoman authorities issued an order for the arrest and deportation of several hundred Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul. This act marked the beginning of the extermination of the Armenian population.

Before invading Poland in 1939, Adolf Hitler asked his commanders, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” This project is the antithesis of this reasoning. Since March 2007, I have traveled through Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel, sifting through what remains of this Armenian legacy.

A place that is central to this project is the village of Agacli, located in southeastern Turkey. In Turkish it means “place of trees.” Recently, the Kurdish inhabitants of this former Armenian village revived a scarf-weaving tradition that cultivates silkworms in the same trees used by the Armenians nearly a century ago. The trees are all that remain of the Armenian’s existence here. They symbolize their enduring legacy on their ancient homeland, hence the title for my project.

Now, with the assistance of the Alexia Foundation, I will create the intimate interior of this project with portraits of Turkey’s hidden Armenians - individuals who identify as Muslim Turks but have Armenian ancestry. During the genocide, some Armenians escaped death or deportation by converting to Islam. If children, they were adopted, given Turkish names, and assimilated. Various sources estimate the number ranging from 80,000 to as high as 300,000 in 1918. These Armenians kept their true identity a secret, even from their own children, and until very recently they have existed in quiescence. However, Turkish society is slowly transforming and people have started to question outdated orthodoxies. For a growing number of hidden Armenians, in parallel with the mulberry trees of Agacli, the time has come to reveal their true history – at least to me. Of those people I have contacted, about half have agreed to be photographed under the condition that I do not reveal their faces, while the rest are completely open. This visual contrast will illuminate the reality of living as an Armenian in Turkey today.

I will visit Sadik Bakircioglu’s family in central Anatolia. His mother is a crypto-Armenian, and says she goes to the mosque, but, “When I pray, I’m addressing Jesus Christ.” There are also the families of Agacli - the place of trees in my project - who know of their Armenian ancestry but identify as Kurds. For Bahar Bal, 27, this dual identity presents a heavy burden: not only is she trying to trace her “infidel” Armenian roots, but as a Kurdish minority she also suffers through Turkey’s other, more recent war. These are only samples of the opportunities that exist.

The world is watching Turkey’s behavior, especially as they consider EU membership. The Turkish ambassador to France was recalled in December after France voted in favor of a controversial genocide bill. And in the US, a longstanding military alliance is threatened. US Foreign Affairs Committee member Howard Berman remarked, “As crimes of genocide continue to plague the world, Turkey’s policy of denying the Armenian Genocide gives license to those who perpetrate genocide everywhere.”

In line with the mission of the Alexia Foundation, this work speaks to the importance of memory and the need for reconciliation. Without a doubt, the legacy of the Armenian Genocide lives on. But, as one survivor expressed, “What is the legacy of silence?”

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Children play in the courtyard of the old Ihlasiye Madresesi, or religious school, in Bitlis, Turkey. Bitlis's population was half Armenian before 1915, when the Russians advanced on Bitlis and the Ottoman Turks emptied the town of Armenians - most of whom were massacred. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
People walk towards the entrance of the Armenian genocide monument in Yerevan, Armenia to pay their respects on the eventing of the anniversary - April 24th. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
Before 1915, more than half of Agacli's inhabitants were Armenian.

Villagers harvest mulberry leaves to feed their silkworms. The silk is then used to make traditional scarves. Recently, the Kurdish inhabitants of this former Armenian village revived an Armenian scarf-weaving tradition that cultivates silkworms in the same trees used nearly 100 years ago. The trees are all that remain of the Armenians’ time, here. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
The portrait of an Armenian couple is seen in Ordu, Turkey. Most of the Armenians from Ordu and the Black Sea were deported or massacred. There are less than ten Armenians that now live in Ordu, and they do not celebrate Armenian traditions for fear of asserting their ethnic origins. Kathryn Cook
An unidentified woman is seen in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 2012. Her mother's family is Armenian, originally from the vilage of Sasun. The woman's identity card says she is Muslim. She and her father are the only members of her family who have not changed their i.d. card to 'christian' out of fear of discrimination. She said she hopes to change it after graduating from college and moving out of Diyarbakir.

When the woman was a baby, her grandmother took her to the Diyarbakir church where she was secretly baptized. Because the act was not official, the priest could not record it on her records. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
A field is seen just outside of Erzerum, Turkey along an infamous deportation route that led Armenians south toward the Kemah Gorge. According to eyewitness accounts and historical documentation, very few deportees survived this deportation route. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
A small child plays in the rubble of Sancak (Sanjak) camp in the Bourj Hamoud district of Beirut, Lebanon. Sancak was originally an Armenian refugee camp and is now a very poor neighborhood. As of 2008, the municipality had demolished part of the camp in hopes of eventually building a modern shopping and apartment building in its place. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
Behcet Sayan, one of the Surp Giragos Armenian church keepers, is seen within the church grounds, 2012. He has been a guard of the grounds since 1983.

Behcet's family is originally from a village near Lice. His paternal grandfather was Armenian, and 12 years old during the genocide. Behcet never converted to Christianity, but he says he loves it. He also said that when he meets other Armenians coming to visit the church, he feels he has found a lost family member. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
A group of boys catch fish in the Tigris River, just beyond the ancient city gates. According to historical sources from the Patriarchate in Constantinople, approximately 106,000 Armenians once inhabited the district of Diyarbakir and 15,000 in the city itself before the 1915 genocide. Eyewitness accounts describe attacks and massacres that took place as Armenians were deported on rafts down the Tigris River. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation
A photograph of a genocide survivor, named Fatma, is seen in her grandson's home in Hüyüklü, Turkey, near the border with Syria. Fatma was originally from the city of Erzerum, and was deported during the genocide with her family. Her parents were killed during the deportation march.

Fatma is her muslim name, given to her by a family that adopted her after she arrived in Hüyüklü. She never told her children her Armenian name. Kathryn Cook/Alexia Foundation