TAKEN AT DAWN on a large-format Linhof Technika four-by-five camera, Hrair Sarkissian’s Execution Squares, 2008, show intersections in the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Damascus, and Latakia where criminals were publicly hanged; many of these sites have been used for this specific purpose since the Ottoman period. The suite of fourteen photographs was inspired by the artist’s childhood memory of encountering three suspended corpses on his way to school one morning, an image so indelibly imprinted on his psyche that it continues to haunt the ways in which he navigates his home city of Damascus.
Sarkissian’s compositions are careful and considered, displaying a familiarity with the spatial conditions and shifting light of each site, but what is exceptional about the pictures is how ordinary, even banal, they first seem. Many familiar features of Levantine cities appear: midrise residential buildings made of concrete, painted in sandy shades and lined with balconies; palm trees, box hedges, and patches of grass that fill the urban interstices with greenery; a skeletal apartment tower under construction and an almost complete new mosque. Political posters and monumental sculptures appear alongside billboards and commercial signage in multiple languages and scripts. Cobbled streets, remnants of city walls, and other, older stone edifices, such as the late-nineteenth-century Bab al-Faraj Clock Tower in Aleppo, evoke epochs past. The suite’s almost too literal title is the only intimation of these locations’ significance, of the violent acts that were committed there. For those unfamiliar with these cities, the disjuncture between this textual provocation and the scant visual evidence provided to support it is a prompt to look closely, to scan each image forensically for clues of what has occurred. For those who actually inhabit these cities, or others where public capital punishment is, or was till recently, still common practice, traumatic memories similar to Sarkissian’s own may arise, instantiating the types of shared social and ethical relations that Ariella Azoulay has theorized as photography’s “civil contract.”
It is eerie how empty these scenes are. Devoid of the bustling crowds of the storied Arab street, the cityscapes are quiet, still, almost hollow, like our locked-down metropolises during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sarkissian rarely photographs the human figure (exceptions include series that predate Execution Squares, such as Zebiba, which documents marks of piety—scars or calluses resulting from hours of kneeling in prayer—on the foreheads of Egyptian men, or Front Line [both 2007], a project revisiting Nagorno-Karabakh, the disputed enclave at the center of the 1988–94 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, that includes portraits of some who fought in the conflict). He concentrates instead on empty interiors and structures, on desolate, moody landscapes and monuments that may already be ruins. One might say that his images are all ground, but that is never their only subject. For Sarkissian, the ground serves as a substrate that registers the trace of something altogether more elusive: an affect, a feeling, a lingering memory, an unrequited desire.
Sarkissian conjures the spectral afterlives of violence: the sharp heartache of exile; the gnawing melancholy of diaspora; the dull, daily anguish of remembering a loved one who was disappeared, continually mourned because they can never be laid to rest.
“Spectral evidence,” the titular phrase coined by Ulrich Baer in his analysis of photographs of and about the Holocaust, perfectly encapsulates the effect Sarkissian achieves in his pictures. In such images, Baer notes, “absence becomes the referent”; the void is not merely a lack or a negation but comes to hold meaning itself. It testifies to truths that haunt, that may be known but remain unfathomable, inexplicable, and invisible. Rather than the more familiar documentation of the camps when they were liberated—horrifying shots of hollow-eyed, rail-thin survivors and piles upon piles of skeletal corpses—Baer focuses on photographs that seem to bear witness not just to an incomprehensible act of violence but to the very condition of that incomprehensibility itself, images that—contrary to the medium’s indexical function—show history and photography in and as a crisis of representation. A grandson of survivors of the Armenian genocide, Sarkissian has inherited a complex multigenerational legacy of trauma and its persistent symptoms. Across his oeuvre, he addresses many such phantasms: the horror of pogroms and forced displacements; the sharp heartache of exile; the gnawing melancholy of diaspora; the lingering afterlives of violence, both quotidian and extraordinary; and, with his recent, gut-wrenching body of work Last Seen, 2018–21, the dull, daily anguish of remembering a loved one who was disappeared, continually mourned because they can never be laid to rest.
Wielding light and shadow with great dexterity, Sarkissian imbues his photographs with what he calls, simply, “feelings.” In Unexposed, 2012, his tenebrous portraits of an Armenian community in Turkey—descendants of those who converted to Islam to survive genocide but have since returned to their Christian roots—carefully orchestrated shadows cloak his sitters in protective anonymity while symbolizing their ongoing invisibility and alienation from both Turkish and Armenian society. In Execution Squares, he introduces the ineffable through light. What we get, in place of the absent figure, is an uncanny aura. Though Sarkissian may have shot these photographs at daybreak for other, conceptual and practical reasons—to coincide with the time of day executions were most commonly carried out and to ensure the absence of people from the image—it is the liminal quality of dawn that really makes them. Illuminated by the gentle radiance of the rising sun, they have a soft but saturated glow. In one, a shaft of early-morning light hits the side of a building, making it glisten a delicate gold. In another, the sun peeks out over the horizon, its rays breaking through the foliage of a tree. Yet, in others, it appears there still isn’t enough daylight for the streetlamps to be switched off. One senses that these photographs were not the product of a split-second shutter release but required an extended exposure of a second or two. I imagine that if I had been with Sarkissian when he shot these scenes—my eyes slowly adjusting to the growing light—they are not what I would have seen. They are not a mere slice of reality frozen by the camera but images made, conjured up, by the photographic apparatus, through the concentration of daybreak’s modest light. They share this quality with photographs from the medium’s first decades, as they do some of the wonder and magic those pictures once elicited.
The absence of people also makes the Execution Squares imagesfeel timeless, as if they sat, arrested, outside of history itself. Their durational present both encapsulates the memory of violence and, as the artist has suggested, imagines a future when his childhood trauma will have finally been expunged, when these squares and intersections will have become as banal as they at first appear to us. But from our current vantage point, fifteen years after they were made, the suite feels premonitory. Only three years later, the tumult of the Arab Spring would engulf these cities in a profound rupture whose effects continue to be felt. The ethereal glow captured in these photographs now feels elegiac, mourning a future that today seems impossible, mourning the very capacity to imagine otherwise.
Murtaza Vali is a writer and curator based in Sharjah and Brooklyn.