Elsbeth Tijssen - Nagorno Karabach


Young women in the park In 2005 the IISG displayed a small photo exhibition in its public space. The exhibition showed photographs made by Elsbeth Tijssen on daily life in Belarus. The photos portrayed simple, messy lives, but had an extra quality that caused them to rise above the clichés about Eastern European decay after 1989. While it is difficult to put into words what that extra quality is, but it emerges from the way people are portrayed: recognizable, clear, sympathetic, and concrete.
The IISG wanted to give Elsbeth Tijssen the opportunity to show more of her work in the program "Platform for Photography" Michel Pellanders, who preceded her, showed Mexico in 1982/83. For her work, Elsbeth Tijssen went to the east. In her exhibit, she presents a series of photos made in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2008. This not officially recognized country is one of the fragments left over after the Soviet Union fell apart. In this introduction we can only briefly suggest something of the complicated history of the region.

After the 1917 revolution the communists continued the Russian expansion in the Caucasus. When the Soviets were in control, they pursued a cunning policy of divide and rule. Stalin, the originally Georgian commissar of Nationalities, separated the Armenian enclave Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia and annexed it as a self-governing region to Azerbaijan. This added to the traumas of the Armenians, who were already dismayed from the mass killings by the Turks a few years earlier. In the Soviet Armenian Republic it was better not to speak about this past. But the hidden tension increased as the Armenians felt that the Azeris were engaging in a deliberate population policy with the aim of becoming the majority in the region. Already three years before the collapse of the Soviet-Union these tensions manifested itself precisely in this region. The first violent scenes took place in 1988 in the town of Askeran. In February of that year Azeris from Agdam clashed with Armenians in Askeran.
From then on the fighting increased, and the ethnic cleansing on both sides began. There followed a Proclamation of Annexation by Azerbaijan, there followed a Proclamation of Reunification by Armenia, which, in 1991, led to a full-blown war. Armenia supported Nagorno-Karabakh in this war, while Azerbaijan could count on the support of Afghan and Chechen fighters. Both sides used Russian mercenaries. Some 20,000 to 30,000 people died, and hundreds of thousands lost their homes. In 1994 a cease fire was reached, which is still in place, despite many incidents. Today, a stalemate exists, in this corner of the Caucasus which is littered with minefields. Nagorno-Karabakh proclaimed its independence, and is supported by Armenia via the Latshen corridor, conquered during the war. But Armenia cannot officially recognize Nagorno-Karabakh, nor annex it. Azerbaijan lost territory to Nagorno-Karabakh, and Nagorno-Karabakh lost territory to Azerbaijan, though less. Four times more Azeris lost their homes than did Armenians. Another consequence of the war is that Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh now suffer economically because of the closing of its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan. Yet another example of recent local conflicts in the region was the fighting between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. This conflict concerned the unrecognized states of South Ossetia and Abkazia, and showed how easily and quickly such quiescent conflicts can flare up.

The photos of Elsbeth Tijssen look at the life and rituals of the people in this unrecognized, isolated state in such a situation. There is a real danger that the next time names such as Stepanakert, Latshen, Askeran, Agdam, or Shushi reach the news desks of the international press agencies, fighting will have erupted. For now, let the soldiers stand as guards of honor, the dignitaries lay flowers, and girls in the square of an unrecognized capital dream on. This strange reality has been captured beautifully by Elsbeth Tijssen.

Huub Sanders, February 17, 2009

In the last quarter of 2008, Nagorno-Karabakh has occasionally reached the pages of the Dutch press:
There was an article in Trouw (.pdf, 1,4Mb) by Jorie Horsthuis with photo's by Elsbeth Tijssen on 21 of October 2008.
- Jorie Horsthuis and Elsbeth Tijssen published also on Nagorno-Karabakh in De Groene Amsterdammer (.pdf, 192Kb) on 24 of October 2008.
Both these articles can be seen here in pdf files. We thank Trouw and De Groene Amsterdammer for their permission.
- Elsbeth Tijssen's travel companion, Jorie Horsthuis, published an article on Nagorno-Karabakh in Folia no. 15, 2008 (.pdf, 873 Kb).
- Finally, Olaf Tempelman published an extensive report with photos by Marco van Duyvendijk in De Volkskrant of December 27, 2008.