For decades hatred has seemed to be the only visible common value between Armenia and Turkey. This is largely due to the territorial, cultural, and social differences the two states have had over the last century. If you ask the governments, their diplomatic groups are working on resolving these differences, but sometimes you need to take the conflict out of politics, and take it to the backgammon tables just to show people how similar they are and how they can contribute to conflict transformation.

The Storyteller’s Café NGO, supported by the U.S. Embassy in Armenia, started their series #BridgingStories to show the people of Turkey and Armenia how much they have in common. The initiative brings together twenty young photographers from both countries for a workshop and a series of events to help show what people see, feel, and experience in both countries and how alike those experiences are. The initiative includes National geographic photographer John Stanmeyer, and VII Photo Agency Photographer Anush Babajanyan ’00 (Yerevan, Armenia/ Citronelle, AL).

John and Anush came up with the idea for #BridgingStories because they were both interested in the Turkish-Armenian conflict. The purpose of this series was to join the two communities, that are near and connected, but far and apart, through the power of photography. “#BridgingStories is a journey for all of the participating photographers – in building friendships, creating amazing photography in Armenia and Turkey, sharing it through exhibitions, a book, and social media, with thousands of people,” shared Anush.

Each word, gesture and thought matters, when the topic is as sensitive as a century-long conflict. The photographers must make sure never to let their guard down and not to hurt anyone when knowing that they have the opportunity to interact with people who have long viewed them as the “enemy.” While this seems a very tolerant and considerate gesture, only a meaningful environment helps a person get out of their comfort zone, even when they least expect it.

This is what happened to Tamara Harutyunyan ’13 (Gyumri, Armenia/Grovetown, GA). “When you’re working alone as an individual photographer, you’re somewhat oblivious to how things are outside of your perceptual window, but when you’re among such talented people not even to mention with such great mentors, you just automatically get out of your comfort zone,” said Tamara. She made a promise to herself in 2015, when she initially attended #BridgingStories I, to become a participant of the next phase. The final exhibition of #BridgingStories I, which included three of her fellow FLEX alumni, mesmerized Tamara and she fell in love with the concept of the project.

Today, Tamara is one of the few people who has had the chance to explore the differences and similarities between the two cultures through the eyes of a camera. When asked if FLEX made it easier for her to address the political conflict, she said “I feel like FLEX has changed me so much for that matter. I became more thoughtful when it comes to such sensitive topics. I’m forever grateful for my FLEX experience.” #BridgingStories has been a life-changing experience for the participants. As Anush states, #BridgingStories “grew my belief in the fact that ordinary relationships and friendships between humans can make positive changes and actually build bridges.”

Armenia sends FLEX finalists to the U.S. every year, and upon their return they keep progress moving within their community while inspiring FLEX alumni that come after them.

Written by Khanoum Gevorgian ‘16 (Karakert, Armenia/ Waimea, HI)