Words & Photos: John Lee
Food photography is not supposed to be dangerous.
Sports photography? Get hit in the head by a screaming foul-tipped baseball. Wildlife photography? Get mauled by the wildlife. War photography? Get killed by bullets or bombs. But I’ve never heard of a photographer getting injured while shooting a salad.
I should know. From the mid 1990s to the mid '00s, I was a staff photographer for the Chicago Tribune, covering everything from riots at the Republican National Convention to a military coup in Haiti, Islamic fervor in Peshawar, Pakistan after 9/11, and spending three months on assignment in Iraq during the war. There, among other dangers, I was comically bitten by a dog while running through a village. My reporter companion had to spend a week watching me to make sure I didn’t start foaming at the mouth from rabies. Essentially, I was in the middle of many things that could do damage.
When I pivoted towards freelance food photography after moving to San Francisco, I assured my wife that my swashbuckling conflict photojournalism days were over. It was a win-win: she was happy, and I LOVE all things gastronomic. And since I am a dad of two, I'd stay safe for the sake of my family. A plate of spaghetti wasn't going to bite me.
So when the Lavash team —Kate, Ara and I— chose April and May 2018 to travel through Armenia to gather and research recipes, we assumed it would be a lovely, peaceful few weeks wandering the Armenian countryside eating cheese and bread. The most danger I'd face was having one too many shots of vodka. We had chosen April and May for two reasons: Springtime foraging, and the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day on April 24th.
What we didn’t anticipate, though, was that just weeks prior to our trip, the Armenian citizens would begin their largest political action since the country’s independence after the fall of the Soviet Union.
A few weeks before we left for Yerevan, news reports about protests and marches in Armenia began popping up in my Facebook feed. I was curious, but didn’t give it a ton of thought. I had seen reports of protests in Yerevan before, specifically the week-long Electric Yerevan protest, which shut down much of the downtown core a mere week before my first trip to Armenia in 2015. By the time I had arrived for that trip, hardly any evidence of mass unrests remained. I assumed the 2018 protests would blow over, too.
But I didn’t realize how fed up Armenians were with their government: the cronyism by muscle men in the pockets of oligarchs among other things. As an outsider from half a world away, I also didn’t understand the nuances and ramifications of the power grab that then-prime minister Serzh Sargsyan performed, when he tried to maneuver his way into political power for life.
In the two weeks prior to our arrival, Armenia was beginning to explode. Marches and protests led by a charismatic journalist and former political prisoner Nikol Pashinyan erupted throughout the country, energizing Armenia’s youth. Pashinyan organized street shut-downs and marches throughout Yerevan and the countryside. By the time I landed at Zvartnots airport in Yerevan early on April 22nd, Armenia was already a powder keg.
A Not-So-Lazy Sunday
My original plan for April 22nd was this: I was to arrive with Chronicle Books art director Alice Chau (who wanted to check out the country to help her get a better sense of what was needed for the book design). We arrived before dawn a day ahead of Ara and Kate. If timing worked out on our first day, Alice and I thought we'd simply stroll around central Yerevan at sunrise to grab some cappuccinos and check out Mt. Ararat from the steps of the Cascade. Then we would hop into a taxi and make the 45 minute drive to Geghard Monastery and hopefully be spectators to a Sunday service.
We got as far as cappuccinos and the Ararat view. Soon after, we stumbled into a large group gathered in front of the Marriott Hotel in Republic Square. My first thought was that a celebrity was in town, and the crowd was trying to catch a glimpse. (The Marriott is the hotel that accommodated the Kardashians, among others.)
But something about that crowd did not seem festive. They were angry. I called my local buddy, photojournalist Eric Grigorian, to see what was up. He said Nikol Pashinyan was in the Marriott with Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, and that their conversation wasn’t going well. During the meeting, Pashinyan demanded that Sargsyan step down—which he refused to do. Sargsyan stormed out of the meeting with threats of arrest directed at Pashinyan.
The Trouble Begins
The problem with being a former photojournalist, is that you never stop being a photojournalist. It doesn't matter how many salads I photograph, the news bug is imbedded deep within me.
So when Pashinyan and his entourage emerged from the Marriott with fists raised, my photojournalist brain went on autopilot and I began to cover the events that unfolded. I elbowed my way into the front and began making photographs as Pashinyan proceeded to lead a march to the suburb of Erebuni, collecting protestors along the way, a number that grew by the thousands. I followed.
I’ve photographed many protests and marches over the years. Some fizzle out towards the end, some are met with mild police action with a few protestors symbolically arrested, and some get violent. Pashinyan protests had been largely peaceful, and Armenia is a relatively peaceful country, with a population small enough that everyone seemingly knows each other. I assume this would end peacefully, too.
About an hour into the march, I watched a line of unarmed police officers begin to walk alongside the front of the march, flanking them on each side. No guns or batons, just a bunch of portly men wearing police uniforms. Some were chatting and smiling with shop keepers along the route. That remained the status quo until we reached an intersection blocked by a line of heavily armored police in paramilitary uniforms. These men wielded metal riot shields, some dented and nicked from prior use, a sign that felt ominous and medieval, perhaps because of the raw hammered metal and the battle-earned patina. As Pashinyan and the marchers entered this intersection, the shields began to clang and bang in unison. My imagination wandered to an army during ancient Rome.
Pashinyan was met by a high-ranking police official. A few sentences were uttered in Armenian by both of them, as a pack of media swarmed around them. Then without warning (at least to me perhaps because I don’t understand Armenian), he was grabbed by plain-clothes police that had surrounded him, and pulled violently into a waiting car, the scrum of media pushed along as protestors screamed.
Throughout this, I was shooting, first with my iPhone to capture the video, then switching to my still camera to shoot the melee. I bounced between police officers with arms interlocked and the lineup of shield-wielding paramilitary, their clanging morphing into a deafening thunder. I pivoted from one side of a van to the other, trying to get a better angle while my senses went into overdrive. As I reached the other side of the van, an elderly woman started yelling at me as loud as she could, her arms waiving wildly in the air. She was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t understand.
Then as I turned my gaze towards the ground, I saw a flash of bright yellow light and white smoke at my feet. Soon after, a deafening piercing ringing in my ears. Things moved in slow motion, with muffled screams muted by the ringing. My legs felt hot, as if I accidentally had leaned against hot metal. Oddly, I recall looking down at my legs to first make sure they were still there. To my relief, they were.
Once I realized I was okay, I ran as fast as I could through a cloud of white smoke to the sidewalk. I looked at my legs again and saw that my jeans had holes and gouges and still felt hot. Through the ringing, I heard muffled explosions. Flash grenades were being lobbed at the protestors from behind the line of shields. I realized then that I was the recipient of the first grenade.
One trait of my news bug is to keep shooting, regardless of what happened. Realizing that I still had my legs, I took off my wide angle lens and switched to a safer and more sensible telephoto lens that gave me distance from the explosions. Not my preferred way to cover a riot but probably wiser. By then, Pashinyan had been whisked away, and the protestors were riled up like bees. Police would grab a protestor, then a small opening would appear from the lineup of shields, and the protestor would be swallowed into it, with the hole immediately closing up behind him. Some protestors were carried on shoulders like sacks of potatoes, disappearing into the shields. Skulls were met with batons, and an elderly man was bleeding from the top of his head. Women were screaming as if they were shaming the police. This went on for about another 30 minutes.
Soon after I recovered my senses, I immediately felt a deep guilt at what I had done. I am a husband and a father and was in Armenia to shoot a cookbook, not cover a riot. I also had an obligation to the Lavash team to stay healthy for the remainder of our trip.
I went looking for Alice Chau who had kept a safe distance, and we found each other about a block or two back from the riot. Alice had this look of horror as she saw my legs. But I was able to walk, and assured her that I was okay. In reality, my legs were tingling, and I felt drips of warm blood down my legs. My jeans were pockmarked at the shins, and a gaping hole was on my left inside thigh of my jeans.
Before any of this happened, Marie Lou and Pegor Papazian (the duo behind Tumo) had been texting me to be careful. They wanted to meet us once we were back from the march. The plan was to walk up the steps of the Cascade and meet them at their house, which would require climbing more than halfway up 572 giant limestone stairs. Once Alice and I passed the tail end of the march, we headed back to the same coffee spot near Cascade where we had cappuccinos that morning. I went into the bathroom to check my legs, discovering a gaping hole in the inner thigh of my jeans that was the size of a quarter. It looked deep, like maybe half an inch. I panicked a little.
I walked out of the bathroom, and Alice looked concerned. "How are you?” she asked, offering me a few Band Aids that she had carried with her. I tried to joke, saying that I needed more than Band Aids. Then we began slowly walking up the stairs toward the Papazian's house, but the tingling in my legs were replaced by pain. We arrived at their house, Pegor and Marie Lou warmly welcomed us, then Marie Lou asked me to sit down.
“I’m sorry, but I’m afraid if I sit down, I might bleed all over your white chair,” I said. I then outlined my injuries, much to their horror.
Soon after, I found myself in their car, as they rushed me to a hospital. Marie Lou was friendly with one of the head nurses and called ahead to prepare for our arrival. Within a few minutes, I was in a wheelchair and whisked into an operating room. An English-speaking nurse expressed embarrasement that a foreign guest had been injured in such a way and during such political upheaval. I remember also feeling embarrassed, partially because I couldn’t stop shaking, which made it harder for them to treat me. This was the first time I had ever been operated on. The hospital refused to charge me any money, a gesture for which I am eternally grateful.
About three hours later, a few pieces of shrapnel from the flash grenade were removed from my legs, my gaping hole in my inner thigh was stitched up, and my legs were covered with bandages of varying sizes. I was delivered back to the Airbnb by the evening.
Recall that the purpose of this Armenia trip was to research a cookbook, and not to cover a revolution. Armenia has a time difference of about 12 hours from San Francisco, so the entirety of my day’s adventure had happened while my wife was asleep. I was dreading explaining my day, but I made the call and assured her that I was okay and that our kids still had a father.
More than a year later, I think she now forgives me.
When Kate and Ara arrived later that evening, I met them at the door in shorts, my legs wrapped in gauze and bandages.
“Hey guys,” I said. “I’ve got a story for you."