Approximately 30% of Armenia’s 3 million people live below the poverty line, unable to provide for their basic human needs. According to the World Bank, poverty in Armenia increased for the first time in over a decade in 2009: Measured at 25.6% in 2008, the proportion of Armenians living below the official poverty line reached 28.4 percent a year later – an increase of over 90,000 persons. The World Bank also estimated that the level of extreme poverty had nearly doubled to 6.9 percent – an increase of over 107,000 people.
The Foundation quickly noticed this trend, as its colleagues and partners responded to more and more desperate calls for help. Yet, despite these staggering statistics, many of these lives remained publicly unseen and unheard. Although the Armenian Diaspora travels to Armenia and engages the country and its people, the lives of those struggling with extreme poverty are often out of sight, and there is a lack of awareness and understanding of the depth and character of the poverty crisis.
In 2009, the Foundation approached photojournalist and attorney Sara Anjargolian and proposed a collaboration – to document the face of poverty in Armenia with the goal of raising awareness, inspiring dialogue, and sparking collective action around the issue. Sara had previously lived in Armenia for two-and-a-half years, and possessed the sensitivity and knowledge to portray the subject with dignity and respect for the truth. In July of 2009, Sara returned to Armenia and began documenting the lives of families struggling with extreme poverty. She encountered people living off garbage dumps, children battling malnutrition, families ripped apart by alcoholism and domestic violence, and metal shipping containers and barns serving as homes.
Through our collaboration with Sara, the now well-known “How We Live” project was born. “How We Live” documents the face of poverty in Armenia as told through the personal stories of families living along the margins. The lives depicted in the images Sara created show families prevailing against inhuman odds and simultaneously making peace with what should be unacceptable. The project became a large-scale exhibition, a book of photography, and a documentary film. The exhibition opened in Los Angeles in March of 2009 at Casitas Studios, which is home to a thriving arts community in Los Angeles. During its short run, the exhibit attracted over 1000 visitors, garnering tremendous support from the local community, and generating coverage by various media outlets and arts and photography collectives. The multimedia exhibit/installation, designed and curated by architect Narineh Mirzaeian, features forty of Sara’s photographs, printed as translucent screens each measuring 5×7 feet, and suspended from an intricate tensile network.
A beautiful 96-page hardcover book of photography was also produced, designed by graphic designer Mary Minassians and edited by photojournalist Eric Grigorian, and features the stories and photographs of nine of the families documented by Sara. Moreover, a moving 13-minute documentary film was created by editor Karlo Gharabegian, which features video interviews and footage collected by Sara while interacting with the families depicted in the project. The film also features a beautiful original score by singer/songwriter Gor Mkhitarian. Since the creation of “How We Live,” Sara has toured to cities throughout the U.S. and Canada, giving lectures/photography presentations about the topic and project.
“How We Live” raised widespread awareness and sparked waves of dialogue throughout the Armenian Diaspora and also among non-Armenian circles by illuminating the daily challenges of poverty and exploring the socio-economic and political basis upon which poverty exists and is perpetuated. Simultaneously, the project shined a light on lives that might otherwise pass quietly into oblivion. The exhibit, book, and film helped raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Zangakatun (Belltower) Social Services NGO in Armenia – which consists of dedicated and selfless social workers who, since 1999, have been working to heal Armenian families broken by poverty.