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Memory of Trees

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Memory of Trees
Memory of trees-kathryn cook.jpg
Author Kathryn Cook
Publication Year 2014
ISBN ISBN 978-3868284416
Format Hardbound
No. of Pages 159
Language English
Category Society & Culture, Genocide

Contemporary photography book of Western Armenia with the theme of the Armenian Genocide.

Memory of Trees; photographs by Kathryn Cook; essays by François Cheval, Karin Karakasli, Kathryn Cook; 159 pages; Kehrer; 2014

In the early 1900s, as the Ottoman Empire collapsed, a fiercely nationalistic movement took power. As with all ideologies, their taking hold meant the termination of what didn't fit its new identity—its Christian Armenian citizens.

Memory of Trees follows the remains and traces of an ambiguous, dark history—the great crime recognized today as genocide by more than a dozen countries. Kathryn Cook traveled across Turkey and Armenia, to Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, sifting through the remains of this legacy and tracking down survivors. Her images emphasize the emotional tonality of the story rather than documenting specific events.

Powerful Photos Dig Into Turkey’s Taboo History of the Armenian Genocide

By Jakob Schiller


Kathryn Cook’s book Memory of Trees tells a complicated and moving story of the Armenian genocide through a visceral and broadly visual survey of the people and places that were, and still are, affected by the tragic events of a century ago.

“I hope that it presents a unique way of looking at the issue,” she says. “I think photography perhaps is one of the only ways to keep exploring the story because it leaves room for interpretation and can capture some of the pieces that people haven’t already heard.”

Historians peg the start of the genocide as April 24, 1915, when the government arrested more than 200 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople. Some 1.5 million Armenians were killed as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and what is now Turkey took shape. Discrimination against Armenians continued for decades, and even now many Turkish citizens of Armenian descent hide their identity and history for fear of reprisals.

Cook was drawn to the story shortly after moving to Turkey in 2006 and seeing how the issue of Armenian identity and history bubbled under surface. She decided to explore the issue through photography after Hrant Dink, a Turkish journalist of Armenian descent, was assassinated because of his outspoken views on Armenian identity. His death helped prompt a growing social movement to address the Armenian plight in Turkey.

“I photographed the funeral, and from there things just took off,” she says.

Cook started photographing sites throughout Turkey linked to the Armenian community–churches, monasteries, and other Armenian buildings that were destroyed or left to crumble from neglect. For her, these structures represented disappearance and erasure. To this day, the Turkish government disputes the notion that Armenians were systematically targeted, but these destroyed buildings seemed to say otherwise.

What broke the story open for Cook was her visiting the small village of Ağaçlı in southeastern Turkey. She happened upon the village after reading about the mayor’s decision to resurrect the Armenian tradition of weaving headscarves from the cocoons of silk worms. The scarves and silk cultivation had become an important source of income for the community, and Cook was fascinated that the tradition had been revived–and in a Kurdish community. “It was exactly the kind of work I wanted to dive into because it was on the human level,” she says. “It was this subtle way of remembering and celebrating the legacy of a people and a very charged topic.”

Over time, Cook took half a dozen trips to Ağaçlı and got to know the community well. The name of her book comes from the name of the town, which means “place of trees.” As she spent more time in the town, her connections grew and she met more and more people willing to be photographed. The project still unfolded slowly, but she’d finally found a way into the Armenian communities. “I just had to be patient,” she says.

Cook also traveled the well-known routes along which Armenians were forcibly evacuated during the genocide. She visited locations in the Syrian desert, for example, where men, women and children were prodded along death marches toward concentration camps. She also went out into the Black Sea and made pictures where boats full of Armenians were purposely sunk. Without knowing the historical context or the significance of the location, many of Cook’s photos can be hard to read. But as viewers come to know the story, her seemingly abstract approach makes sense. Many of the photos seem overly vacant, for example, but that’s intentional, because so much of the story is about absence.

“In this context, the emptiness means something,” she says. “It’s sort of like everything that’s not said, speaks.”

Cook spent seven years on Memory of Trees and says she could have kept going for many more. But she felt the work needed to be seen. The timing of the book also coincides with what continues to be a growing movement in Turkey of people demanding justice for ethnic Armenians and others who face discrimination.

“I think a new national narrative is slowly starting to get written,” she says. “And hopefully the work plays a part in exploring this change.”

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Review: Memory of Trees by Kathryn Cook

Kathryn Cook‘s Memory of Trees is one of those books that’s almost impossibly hard to make. How do you take photographs of something as big as the Armenian Genocide? How do you even approach it? How can you possibly do such a topic justice? And how do you tell the story in the form of a photobook?

The facts of the Armenian Genocide can be established fairly easily, the ongoing fights over what to make of them notwithstanding. But just like in the case of any genocide, when the sheer numbers approach hundreds of thousands or even millions our capacity to grasp what this might have meant breaks down.

Imagine (or maybe remember) the pain caused by losing a very closed loved one. Then try to imagine that pain multiplied by one million.

Or try to imagine a culture being uprooted from its land and made to disappear.

But then isn’t photography the ideal tool to do this, given all its limitations, in particular its inability to show what can’t be shown? Aren’t photography’s limitations, when used well, exactly what can help us imagine things, what can help us try to get a better understanding, to the extent that it is possible?

I want to think that because photographing around the Armenian Genocide would appear to be almost impossible – that is exactly because it has to be done. Photography’s various shortcomings mirror our own – taken together photography’s shortcomings and our own can help us approach a subject that on the surface looks so unapproachable (beyond historical facts and statistic).

For Memory of Trees, Cook traveled to the parts of Turkey from which Armenians were uprooted and expelled. One hundred years later, “this land calls a return to the history of Armenians, this garden worked by their hands once,” the photographer writes. “The story of these gardens imparts instructions on remembrance; the more one tries to forget, the more one has to remember what to forget.” And: “The woman gives me a branch of a knowing tree, hung with silvery cocoons. The rings of memory recorded each year in its trunk, which defy the force of forgetting.”

Photography always in part is an act done to do just that, to “defy the force of forgetting.” Even if what must not be forgotten can only be photographed in part or indirectly, it is the act itself that carries most of the weight. And this act is then matched by a viewer’s willingness to engage with the photographs.

Seen this way, the act of photographing and the act of looking are what can help us try to understand something that might previously have been only a collection of facts too immense to register deeply.

Memory of Trees, the book, thankfully is an initially modest affair. You can easily hold it in your hand and look through it. In other words, its makers resisted the temptation to create an object that would also physically heavy (think Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath, which I’ve always felt was just way overdone). I have a few minor quibbles over how the book occasionally feels a little designy, but in the end the photography completely won me over.

Looking at the book won’t do – the viewer is asked to feel what is in the pictures. And the book refuses to reveal itself in single viewings. The viewer needs to come back to it, so that subsequent exposure amplifies what was noticed earlier.


Memory of Trees; photographs by Kathryn Cook; essays by François Cheval, Karin Karakasli, Kathryn Cook; 159 pages; Kehrer; 2014

This article contains text from a source with a copyright. Please help us by extracting the factual information and eliminating the rest in order to keep the site in accordance to fair use standards, or by obtaining permission for reuse on this site..

Facts about Memory of TreesRDF feed
Book AuthorKathryn Cook +
Book CategorySociety & Culture + and Genocide +
Book FormatHardbound +
Book ISBN978-3868284416 +
Book LanguageEnglish +
Book Pages159 +
Book Publication Year2014 +
Book TitleMemory of Trees +
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