Words & Photos: John Lee
The first time I gave Armenia any thought, I had to look it up in Wikipedia.
It was March of 2015, and I had woken up to an email from Eric Grigorian, an old college photographer buddy. I hadn't spoken to him in a few years, but in the email he wanted to know whether I would teach a food photography workshop to a bunch of high school kids in Armenia.
What I thought I knew about Armenia was limited to two things: one, that a lot of Armenians live in Glendale, a suburb of LA. And two, that radio DJ Casey Kasem was Armenian. (This turned out to be wrong. He was Lebanese Druze. Thank you Wikipedia.)
I had also always vaguely known that Eric was Armenian, but I knew him first for his profession: he's a terrific photojournalist—a recipient of the prestigious World Press Photo of the year. I also knew him as of Iranian descent, but I didn’t put one-and-one together, that he was Iranian AND Armenian. Nevertheless, he moved from LA to Armenia a number of years ago, and we hadn’t hung out since.
When I got that email from Eric, I rolled over to show my wife, gauging her reaction at the thought of me leaving her and our two little kids for a few weeks while I went swashbuckling around a country I had never given a thought to. Her immediate response was an emphatic “DO IT!” (Thinking back, this was probably the obvious response from one of the few people I know who actually READS the articles in National Geographic.)
And that's how I found myself strolling around Republic Square in Armenia’s capital Yerevan, trying to shake off the jet lag that came with a three-leg, 26-hour trip halfway around the world to the capital of a post-Soviet state positioned at the crossroads between Europe and Asia.
A very brief background: Armenia’s adjustment to independence has been long. It was a republic of the Soviet Union, but emerged as an independent state when the USSR collapsed in 1991. During Soviet times, one kept the same factory job for life. But in the new Soviet-free Armenia of global trade, the working population was used to leaning heavily on the old socialist structure to provide for them, and wasn’t equipped with the tools—or education system—to compete in a post-Soviet world.
This problem was not lost on the huge and affluent Armenian diaspora, which was how Tumo, the organization that was sponsoring my photography workshop in Armenia, came to be. Armenian-Texan philanthropist Sam Simonian and his wife Sylva, founded the Tumo Center for Creative Technologies with a mission to close the education gap, especially with technology and creative endeavors. And led by the indomitable Marie Lou and Pegor Papazians, Tumo has educated thousands of Armenian teenagers through after-school classes and workshops led by everyone from Google engineers and pioneers in robotics to internationally acclaimed film directors and musicians (and even the occasional food photographer). Since then, Tumo has opened up satellite campuses across Armenia. It even recently opened up a Tumo Paris.
So three days after setting foot in Yerevan, I was standing in front of two dozen Armenian teenagers in a Tumo classroom, listing out the plan for the two-and a-half week course. We would travel to home kitchens, restaurants, farms, the countryside, lakes, and—eventually—Artsakh, a war-torn territory that has declared its independence, though most countries and Google Maps consider it to be part of Azerbaijan.
While I was the “leader” of this food photography workshop, it was the students, my fixer, and the school organizers who led me through their country. I was taken to the town of Gyumri (Kim Kardashian’s ancestral home, for those interested) where I tried a simple and brilliant Tatar Boraki pasta/yogurt dish, a Bavarian-esque lager at Alexandrapol Brewery, and Kalla, a bluntly rustic dish made from a cow’s head.
The train trip to Gyumri was just as blunt, a five-hour, 75-mile trip on rusted Soviet-era trains. It is also the primary transport for farmers taking fruits and vegetables from the countryside into Yerevan, the capital. Boxes of golden ripe and honey sweet apricots shared space with sturdy Armenian women, their knee-high nylons rolled down to their ankles in the heat.
The rest of the trip fell into similar patterns: the students and Tumo organizers each morning would gather me up and take me to yet another eye-opening and revelatory (to me) locale — a 9th century monastery here, an abandoned Stalinist architecture building there, and absolutely wonderful farms and homes of equally wonderful Armenian families in between. And among it all were these glimpses of a country that was modernizing in its own unique way.
These days, whenever I find myself chatting with an “Odar” (Armenian for “stranger” or “outsider”) who has spent any time in Armenia, we end up sharing this little excited smirk with each other, like we’re in on a secret: that Armenia is this unknown off-the-beaten-track place that only we’re aware of. It’s like we’re pulling a fast one on the rest of the travelers of the world, who tick through the obvious international tourist spots, fighting for space on those “hop on, hop off” double-decker tour buses which seem to be everywhere these days. In our little secret land, we're not elbowed by selfie stick-wielding mainland Chinese tourists, or feel like we’ve been taken through the ringer by shitty tourist traps who see us only as walking credit cards. The folks in our secret little land are genuinely excited to meet visitors, and welcome us into their homes and their dinner tables and break bread (lavash) with them.