Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan: ‘There are women who find out they have HIV when they get pregnant and go to the hospital’

The artist has portrayed HIV-positive women in the former Soviet republic to help combat the stigma around the disease. Many are infected by their husbands, seasonal workers who migrate to Russia

Nazik Armenakyan
Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan presents her photo essay 'Red, Black, White' at the Giotto museum in Yerevan, last December.FOTO CEDIDA POR Nazik Armenakyan

In a village in the interior of Armenia where the men migrate for part of the year to work in construction and farming in Russia while women await the return of their men, a young woman who lives with her in-laws takes several pills daily, no questions asked. She does not know what they are for. Her mother-in-law gives them to her to take. She swallows them with a little water. Later she discovers the reason for the pills: she has HIV. Her husband infected her.

That is one of the stories depicted in Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan’s photo essay Red, Black, White. Armenakyan has spent over four years touring rural Armenia to hear the stories of women diagnosed with HIV. Her work was exhibited in December at Yerevan’s Giotto Museum. “I felt a very strong sense of injustice when I learned that there are women who only find out they have HIV when they get pregnant and go to the hospital,” the photographer exclaims in a video conference interview. “How can this happen in the 21st century?” she adds.

Neither the war in Ukraine nor the sanctions on Russia have slowed down what for some people is the only way of providing for their families in Armenia. According to data from the country’s government, at least 80,000 Armenians travel to Russia annually for temporary work. Their remittances account for 5% of Armenia’s GDP.

The scale of that seasonal migration is such that, for part of the year, entire villages are emptied of men, Armenakyan says. As she explains, in some rural regions of Armenia, a former Soviet republic, going to work in Russia was traditionally the only way to support one’s family. But once there, some engage in unsafe sex and become infected with HIV; when they return home, they pass it on to their wives.

“It’s a drama,” says Armenakyan. According to a 2016 study in the Journal of the International AIDS Society, in 2012, 62% of the 228 people who were infected with HIV in Armenia contracted it abroad (141 cases), and 126 of those cases took place in Russia (89.4%). 20% of these migrant workers’ partners were also infected (45 cases).

This is a vicious cycle in which a lack of information combines with the vulnerability of workers. A 2019 United Nations International Organization for Migration report on tuberculosis and HIV among migrants from Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia found that stigma was one of the barriers to testing. “Fear of deportation” was another factor, the UN study notes. Russia is one of 18 countries in the world that deports HIV-positive foreigners.

The number of HIV-positive Armenians is small but growing: a total of 4,356 people are infected, according to the latest data. Between January and October 31, 2023, 500 new HIV cases were documented in Armenia; 30% of them are women. Of HIV-positive men, the majority are between the ages of 25 and 39. This increase in HIV in Armenia has become a trend in the region. According to the UNAIDS 2022 annual report, Eastern Europe and Central Asia are the areas with the fastest growing HIV epidemic in the world; the same report says that, around the world, some 39 million people currently have the virus. In 2022, some 46% of all new HIV infections globally were among women and girls. In Russia, over 1 million people live with HIV.

A silent epidemic among women

Armenakyan explains that she discovered the issue by chance, in 2014, while talking to a friend. For a long time, she thought about how to make the problem visible without exposing the survivors. “I couldn’t show their faces so that their circle wouldn’t recognize them, but it had to be talked about,” she says.

She contacted Real World, Real People, an Armenian NGO that was founded in 2003 by a group of doctors and people living with HIV. There, Armenakyan received documentation and statistics. “And, when they saw that I was someone who was really interested, they introduced me to some women with HIV,” she explains. “In Armenia, there was still a lot of prejudice about HIV, because of the images we had seen in the 1990s. But these were ordinary Armenian women.” Some had only had that one partner; they had married early; they had gone to live with their in-laws; and they were taking care of their children.

Red, Black, White
One of the pieces from Armenian photographer Nazik Armenakyan’s collection ‘Red, Black, White.' FOTO CEDIDA POR Nazik Armenakyan

Initially, the photographer visited the villages with the most cases and tried various ideas to address the phenomenon, “even blurred portraits,” she explains. She drove along highways and dirt roads. She listened to the stories and sometimes cried with them, but there came a time when she had to stop. “First, because I didn’t really understand the subject matter and second, I didn’t know how to tell it.” It was 2016.

She took up the project again in 2019, this time with a very different approach. The result was a photographic series with 10 portraits and several still lifes. Nothing in them is coincidental, not even the red apples, a fruit that in Armenia symbolizes the bride’s virginity and is usually given by families on the wedding day. Then there’s a red table, “which seems like something very basic, but it is an object that exists in the daily life of every Armenian woman…which they [use to] do many things,” Nazik explains. “But it is also a table of sacrifice,” she adds. Upon learning that they have HIV, many women think that they have no other option but to stay with the men, with the families; even if they experience violence, they do not leave. Armenakyan observes that this is a story with many layers: a lack of education and prevention, a lack of opportunity, the taboo surrounding women’s sexuality, shame, male violence.

When Armenakyan’s work was exhibited in Yerevan in December, many students attended. The photographer appreciated that the young people asked a lot of questions. “When the time comes, they will remember these images and maybe change things a bit, because if an image can move you, you will live with it, that’s the ability that photography and art have,” she concludes.

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