The Last Bell
to leave or to stay
Some 1300 people live in a lush valley surrounded by majestic mountains in northeast Armenia. Besides agriculture, farming, and natural beauty, the town has little to offer to its people. To leave or to stay is a question all of them have to answer.
Wrtitten and photographed by Miika Koskela
I was invited to do a portrait series of the people of Sarigyugh by my friend Lucine Ellarian.
Lucy’s family is from Armenia and after spending two decades in Europe she has returned to her roots. In the summer of 2019, Lucy founded Project SARI, that is, an NGO providing resources to help empower the community in the town of Sarigyugh.
We came up with The Last Bell, that is, a photographic journey to the town and an attempt to document people building the community. The aim of the photo series is to draw more attention to rural Armenia and promote Project SARI.
- David is training hard to make it in Chess, that is, the national sport of Armenia.
- Khachick loves bootball. In life, he does not like to play by the rules.
- Aida lost her job as the cleaning lady of the high school because principal hired his relative. Aida is suing the school.
- Hovhannes has three kids with three different wives. He smokes three packs a day.
- Atlas has devoted her life to her kids after her husband died at an early age. Her smile is pure gold.
I REACHED the village from Georgia by a taxi in the middle of the night. At that moment I truly felt that I am far away from home. I first thought that finding faces for my portrait series would be difficult. Turned out I could not have been further away from truth.
The town is adorable. It is a gem. It lies in a lush valley that grows all sorts of fruits and vegetables. On the surrounding mountain slopes, you see pigs, cows and chicken running around. People live mostly in an exchange economy.
Besides agriculture the town has little to offer to its people. Especially the kids lack chances for finding inspiration, jobs, education, hobbies, and partners.
I WAS IN TOWN during the last week of school in May which was a highly symbolic time to be around. The kids were busy organizing all the festivities and dance balls, but most of them were going to be gone soon after their high school bells chime for the last time.
First, I followed the kids to find out who is leaving and who is staying. But soon I realized that I didn’t want to limit myself to the youth. Instead, I wanted to paint a more representative picture of the town.
I have a background in journalism and it defines my method. I would go around and talk to people and shoot some with interesting stories. Whoever was willing to pose was good for me.
The reception was warm. I shot nearing 50 people – all of them in the environment where I met them in natural light. Only one old man did not want to be photographed, and still he wanted to tell me his story.
The selection represents just a tiny fragment of individual life stories – only 15 names and faces. Yet I had an aim to portray the village lifestyle through these stories as fully as possible.