Capturing the Armenian experience through photography and film

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The title screen of the film created by UConn’s various groups and departments along with other supporting groups, “The Dildilians: A Story of Photography and Survival.” The film features the collection of photographs and memoirs of the Dildilian family. Photo provided by author

Between the years of 1914 and 1923, approximately 1.5 million ethnic Armenians were executed or expelled from Turkey under acts imposed by the government of the Ottoman Empire. While the Armenian Genocide may not be a well-known event, particularly in the United States, it remains an incredibly painful and emotional part of Armenian historical memory found in Armenian communities around the world. 

UConn’s Office of Global Affairs, UConn’s School of Social Work, Norian Armenian Programs, Human Rights Institute and the Department of Digital Media and Design all came together to create a film entitled “The Dildilians: A Story of Photography and Survival.” Additional support and sponsorship was provided by the National Association of Aremenian Studies and Research (NAASR), the Ararat Eskijian Museum and Project Save: Armenian Photograph Archives, Inc. 

The film showcased the vast collection of photographs and written memoirs of the Dildilian family — a family of Armenian photographers who documented their lived experiences before, during and after the Armenian Genocide through their subsequent immigration to the United States. 

The film premiered online on Thursday evening to an audience of nearly 200 viewers tuning in from nations around the world. After the film, several of the project’s collaborators spoke in a panel discussion, answering questions and telling stories about the film’s creation. 

Armen Marsoobian, a professor of philosophy at Southern Connecticut State University and a Diddilian Family Historian, is a descendant of the Dildilian family; he provided the materials of his family’s collection for the School of Fine Arts to bring to life in a modern format. 

A photo of the Dildilian family, a family of Armenian photographers that documented their experiences. This was a part of the film titled, “The Dildilians: A Story of Photography and Survival.” Photo provided by author

Marsoobian began working on this project more than a decade ago, with several works and publications researched on the topic. However, Marsoobian says the roots of this project run much deeper. 

“As you saw from the film, it was a family project,” Marsoobian said. “My ancestors, my grandfather, his siblings and their children, all made an effort to preserve the life that they lived in Anatolia, Merzifon, Samsun and Sivas. They were the ones, at great peril, who kept the story alive and brought it to the United States.” 

This was very much a passion project for Marsoobian, as he believes it is his job to bring his family’s story, as well as that of the Armenian experience, to greater audiences. 

“It’s important to bear witness to our ancestors, whether they’re Armenian ancestors in Ottoman Turkey or Irish ancestors from those shores,” Marsoobian said. “It is important to give those ancestors a voice and it’s also important for our own identity to understand who we are and where we’ve come from.” 

Catherine Masud, an award-winning filmmaker and adjunct instructor of digital film and video production at UConn, taught a digital media and design course titled “Visual Representation of Armenian Memory.” With the assistance of Marsoobian, Masud supervised a small team of School of Fine Arts undergraduate students as they produced the film over the course of the semester. 

An array of photos from the Dildilian family as a part of the film “The Dildilians: A Story of Photography and Survival.” Photo provided by author

“It’s been a personal journey for me, as well, to delve more deeply into this part of history which is so little known outside the Armenian community, but is so important to understanding the continuing conflicts that reverberate in our world today,” Masud said. 

Armenians still face discrimination in regions of Turkey today, making it all the more important to understand what they have already gone through as a people. 

“In 1915, Armenians felt abandoned by the world, and I’m sorry to say, many Armenians are feeling that today, in the fact that the world has done little to notice what is going on in the Caucuses,” Marsoobian said. 

The film stressed the idea that people of the past are just like people of today, and if we listen to their stories with empathy, we will have a greater understanding for the suffering of individuals today and every day. 

“An understanding of the past is crucial,” Masud said. “Not only to understand the present, but also to chart a path towards a more peaceful and just future.” 

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