A photographer tells her family's story about the dark side of an American dream
Published 9th March 2021
Credit: Courtesy Diana Markosian
A photographer tells her family's story about the dark side of an American dream
For 20 years, photographer Diana Markosian thought she knew her family's immigration history -- or the gist of it, at least. In 1996, when she was seven, Markosian's mother, Svetlana, woke her and her older brother, David, in the middle of the night, telling them to pack all of their important things: the three of them were going to see America. The way Markosian remembers it, neither of them asked any questions. That night they boarded a plane in Moscow bound for Los Angeles, without saying goodbye to their father.
When they disembarked at the airport, the family was greeted by Eli, a pudgy, much-older, American friend of their mother's, who brought them into his home in coastal Santa Barbara. The trip, Markosian was told, was meant to be a holiday. But after Svetlana and Eli married less than a year later (they remained so for nine), Santa Barbara became home.
"When we came to America in the '90s, it felt like an absolute dream to be here. (My mom) fell in love with being an American, she embraced it," Markosian recalled in a phone interview. "I am not sure my mom was leaving anything behind. Everything had already been taken."
Even before they lived there, Markosian had been aware of some version of Santa Barbara. The 1980s American soap opera of the same name was the first TV show of its kind to be broadcast in post-Soviet Russia, and her mother was among the millions of Russians who made "Santa Barbara" a hit, escaping into a world that felt exciting, exotic and far-removed from their own.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Svetlana, an economist, and her husband Arsen, an engineer -- Armenians who emigrated to Moscow to finish their doctorates, and separated before Markosian was born -- were living in poverty, amid widespread unemployment and hyperinflation. Arsen hawked Matryoshka dolls in Red Square and sold homemade Barbie dresses across Moscow to make ends meet. Svetlana assisted him with his bootleg Barbie business, and waited in the bread lines for handouts to feed the family.
But in January 2017, when Markosian was 27, that narrative was disrupted. As the newly ascended President Trump enacted his first travel ban, Markosian, who was then working as a photojournalist for the likes of National Geographic and the New Yorker, began pressing her mother about their own immigration story.
"I just started talking about it and trying to understand: How did we even manage to do this? How did we manage to come to America? And I saw [my mother had] this real desire to tell me, and this readiness to reveal something that felt so shameful, so difficult to tell me. And that's kind of how it came about" Markosian said.
In reality, Svetlana, enamored with the vision of America she'd seen on TV, had met Eli through an ad she'd had circulated in American newspapers and magazines through a Russian agency that matched Soviet women with American men -- a popular route for women looking to immigrate at the time. Her proposition was simple: "I am a young woman from Moscow, and would like to meet a kind man who can show me America." Her first husband had had no idea she was looking to move, and was blindsided when she flew across the world with his children and severed communication. (When she was 22, Markosian and her brother tracked her father down during a trip to Armenia. He had returned to Yerevan, the capital, where the family had lived when Markosian was a child.)
Markosian was stunned. "You hold your parents up on a pedestal and I think, for me, there was this anger, (this feeling) that this can't be our story. Why didn't I know more about this? Why wasn't I included in this decision?" she said. "It's not just us coming to America and living an American life. It's us coming to America, keeping this secret of where we are for 20 years, and of not seeing my father for 20 years. It's completely abandoning our past for this dream."
To help her process the revelation, and learn to empathize with her mother's decision to abandon her life in Moscow, Markosian set out to reenact her family's journey on camera, through a short film and an accompanying photo series titled "Santa Barbara." Shot from her mother's perspective, the project saw her auditioning hundreds of actors to play her family members (she looked at 384 women before she found an actor to play Svetlana, someone "who would understand what it meant to give up everything for this one decision"), and shooting in locations across California, as well as the family's former apartment in Yerevan . (The current tenants allowed her to rent the space.) Ana Imnadze, the actor who plays Svetlana, even wears pieces from her mother's wardrobe; Armen Margaryan, who plays Arsen, wears her father's watch.
"I started seeing it as a story, and trying to divorce myself from my own life," she said. "It needed to be a work of fiction, almost, for me to accept it, to process it, to fall in love with it. Because otherwise, it just felt too, too painful."
The photos that comprise "Santa Barbara" are a careful mix of the cinematic and the personal, fantasy and reality. There are dramatically framed domestic scenes, moodily lit (nodding to the dark Americana of Gregory Crewdson and David Lynch), and overexposed snapshots, including one that shows her "father" holding out a birthday cake, a still life with cigarettes and a cherry-red rotary phone, which looks like its been borrowed from a family scrapbook.
Similarly, Markosian said the accompanying film, running about 15 minutes, "relies on all these different formats to kind of understand a chapter in my family's life." Recreated moments from Russia and California are intercut with Super 8 videos and photos from Markosian's childhood, as well as auditioning actors' screen tests. Much of the dialogue is organic: At various points, Svetlana is interrogated by her doppelganger, dressed as her younger self, over the dinner table; and Markosian and Svetlana have their own back-and-forth in voiceover.
Markosian had originally intended for the project to be scripted. She even recruited one of the original writers from "Santa Barbara," Lynda Myles, to pen a script, and gave her family the opportunity to edit it. In part, this was a way to mitigate her own anxiety about telling a story in which she felt like a bit player.
"The hardest part of this project was coming to terms with the fact that I was the narrator," she said "I sometimes sit with that thought and think why me? I was the youngest person in the room; I really didn't have a voice in any of the decisions that were made. Why am I the one who's in the place to tell this story? "It was a collective memory, and we all had our own version."
But finding a version of events that her family could agree on -- from the nuances of Arsen and Svetlana's relationship, to the realities of life in California -- proved impossible. She brought Myles' script to her father in Armenia, giving him the opportunity to inject his own perspective, but when she returned to California, her mother ended up crossing out his words and replacing them with her own. The process repeated when she handed the script to her brother.
"The whole thing is disputed (but) I think we reached a place of understanding that we were never going to really agree on any of it. (The differences were) not so dramatic that I couldn't put out a project, but enough that I started to understand how fascinating memory is, and that if I leaned into the gray, if I leaned into every perspective, I would arrive at a closer version of the truth than just this one version that I called my own," Markosian said. "I looked at the script (after everyone had added their notes), and it became a piece of art in itself."
In November 2020, Markosian released "Santa Barbara" as her debut monograph with Aperture. This summer, she will exhibit the photos and debut the finished film at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, sharing one version of her family's American dream with the world. There are also plans to turn it into an immersive show at the International Center of Photography in New York in September.
"I remember how special it was to come to America, and I never took that for granted. It just came with a very big sacrifice for all of us," she said. "That second chance to remember and recreate a part of your life is an absolute gift, and I think that's what art has given me."