Episode 3: When family secrets (and soap operas) fuel creativity

National Geographic photographer Diana Markosian tells the story of an unusual childhood and how war reunited her with her long-lost father.

“This is the closet thing I had to an image of my father—a cut-out of him in my mother's photo album,” says photographer Diana Markosian. "An empty hole. A reminder of what wasn't there."
Photograph by Diana Markosian

National Geographic photographer Diana Markosian recalls her mother waking her up in the middle of the night to board a plane from Moscow to Santa Barbara, California, to begin a new life with a man she’d never met before. Years later she would learn that her mother had become a mail-order bride to help them escape life in Russia. Markosian’s career as a photographer led her into the war in Chechnya—and eventually to her long-lost father’s doorstep.

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DIANA MARKOSIAN (PHOTOGRAPHER): I think—when I think about my childhood, it feels split. There's my childhood in Moscow and my childhood in Armenia, which came at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. So my first memory is of us standing in bread lines. Second memory is of us collecting bottles—my brother and I—exchanging them for food.

PETER GWIN (HOST): This is National Geographic photographer Diana Markosian.

And in Armenia, my memories are of us—with my family, my extended family, playing cards, wearing all of our winter clothes at home because there was no electricity. My family went from my parents being professors, Ph.D.s, to my father painting nesting dolls, selling them on the Red Square. He would sew Barbie dresses and sell them on the black market. And my mom—I think my mom just felt like the dream that she had for her country became the prison that her kids were living in.

Wednesday. You're wearing the same sweater you wore on Monday. I ask you to change. "I don't have enough sweaters for this project," you say.
Wednesday. You're wearing the same sweater you wore on Monday. I ask you to change. "I don't have enough sweaters for this project," you say.
Photograph by Diana Markosian

GWIN: And then one night, Diana’s mother wakes her up and tells her they’re going on a trip.

MARKOSIAN: And she asked me to pack all my important belongings. And I had this little backpack with Bambi on it that my dad bought for me for the first day of school. And I placed a doll, her clothes. And she gave me a ticket, my boarding pass, and asked me not to open it. And we boarded the flight, and I didn't know where we were going.

I’m Peter Gwin and you’re listening to Overheard, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have here at National Geographic and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, Diana Markosian discusses her strange journey from Moscow to the beaches of Santa Barbara, California, and about the secret reason for that midnight trip.

We’ll also hear how becoming a photographer helped her journey back to Russia to find her father and seek answers about her past.

More after this.

GWIN: So let me just make sure I understand. So you've got your mother, and you are how old at this stage?


GWIN: And your brother ...


GWIN: David is 11. So it's the three of you. And you get to the airport, you don't know where you're going.

MARKOSIAN: I'm the only one that doesn't know, yeah.

GWIN: Oh, your brother knew?


GWIN: OK. So you get off the plane. Who do you meet? What happens next?

MARKOSIAN: Yeah, I remember my mom feeling really anxious and she was holding my hand. And I asked her where we were, and she said, We're in America. And she said that we were going to Santa Barbara. And Santa Barbara was a TV show that we used to watch. So my mom was holding a picture of a man who met us, and he was much older than the picture that she had. And he had this blue windbreaker, these roses, and he was much, much older. And he was unlike anybody I had ever seen. And I'm not sure what I even mean by that, but I just had never seen somebody like that. And I asked my brother who he was and he said he didn't know, but he said mom said he was going to help us. That was the narrative.

What I didn't understand is that my family is full of secrets, and my mom didn't properly explain to me that this man was a man who had written to my mom, just like many other men. In the ‘90s, basically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, people wanted to leave Russia, right, and everybody was leaving Russia. And for many women, the opportunity was to marry someone and to find a husband or to find somebody who could sponsor them to go to America.

My mom put an ad in a catalog through the classifieds and received dozens and dozens of letters. So not only was she now learning about America through these letters, but she was now meeting Americans. So this is pre-internet. The closest thing we had to an idea of America was the TV show Santa Barbara. So now she was having this opportunity of interacting with Americans through these letters and to learn about America.

So I think when she chose Eli, part of the reason was because of Santa Barbara and because he was stable, as she described it. But when I learned about this, you know, I'm learning about this as an adult. And to now see your mother through this different light, through this different perspective—I think that was the hardest part of this to process.

GWIN: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about how you picked up a camera. You know, so you have this really, you know, unique childhood/growing-up period. And you’re obviously a talented storyteller, but the mechanism that you've chosen is photography. So how did you choose that?

MARKOSIAN: So I was in graduate school for writing. I had just finished my master’s. And I think about midway through the program, there was a woman who came in and shared her work, and she was a photographer. And I remember thinking, Wow, I want to—I want to disappear. I want to disappear and be where no one else is and create—and writing never came naturally to me.

And when I finished my master’s, I remember meeting with a young photographer who said that I should move back to Russia. And I just remember saying, I don't really know anyone in Russia. And he said, Well, you'll meet someone. That was on a Monday. And on a Friday I had a one-way ticket to Moscow.

GWIN: Well, you're in for these abrupt departures.

MARKOSIAN: It's in the genes. But, you know, it felt so free. What did I have to lose? What did I have to lose? And that's what it felt like. It felt like I had this fire in me that I just wanted to see the world.

GWIN: What do you mean by this, saying that you wanted to disappear? What do you mean by that?

MARKOSIAN: I think there's this part of me that just processes things very independently. And for me, understanding why I'm here—my purpose, my interaction with people—takes time. And I think to me with photography, when I understood that it took time to make images, that's when I became attracted to it. Because that's when I understood that I had the patience for it. And I could sit in a room for days and not do anything and be OK because I was processing.

GWIN: So what was the first story that you—so you have a camera, you’re back. You're in Moscow. You speak Russian. You've got this education in your—so what do you do?

MARKOSIAN: So I remember working for state media. I remember working, translating. Then I remember being at the airport when the first—it was in January 2011, there was a terrorist bombing that happened. And I was at the airport, and I remember making one image that sold to an agency and it paid 50 dollars. And I remember thinking, Well, at least I sold one, and then thinking, That's not how I'm gonna find my voice.

GWIN: What was the image? Do you remember the image?

MARKOSIAN: It was a crowd. It was very irrelevant, let’s just put it that way.

GWIN: So news photography.

MARKOSIAN: News photography. Yeah.

MARKOSIAN: So then the name of the airport bomber was announced, and he was my age and he was from the Caucasus—so from Ingushetia. And I remember reaching out to that agency that had purchased the image and asked, Do you want a portrait of the family, of his family? And they said, Well, look, it's not the safest thing to do, and the photographer at the New York Times was detained. And if you can do it, great. And I purchased a ticket to Chechnya. And again, this feeling of what do I have to lose? And got up at five in the morning, got a taxi to Ingushetia, which was about an hour and a half, and there were posts along the way.

So you basically had to bribe every officer to get through to the next republic. And this is right after the insurgency—or the insurgency was happening at that point. And I get to the village and—usually the villages after a situation like this, they're blocked off with security forces because there is an investigation happening—it was clear. And apparently all of the officers were at the mosque praying.

And so I knocked on the door of the mom. And she sat on her son's bed and she was crying and apologized for what he did. And I remember sending that picture right before I boarded the flight back to Moscow. And by the time I landed, it became the “photo of the month” at Reuters, became picture of the year. It was the first break that I had. And it was more of a mental shift—that I understood I had to be where nobody else was. And that became kind of my guide to where I needed to go to make work.

GWIN: So another project that you did while you were in Russia was to find your biological father. So how did you go about it—how do you track him down? 

MARKOSIAN: Started in Moscow and went back to that childhood home. Saw the childhood home and decided I don’t want anything to do with this because I—it hurt, it really hurt, and waited another year, then went to Armenia. And my brother—I was with my brother at that point—and my brother remembered where he lived. And so we went there.

I remember not even wanting to knock but run. I was so scared at that point. We knocked on the door, and this frail man opened the door, and it was my grandfather—and I remembered him better than my father. He had these eyelashes like snowflakes, and he said, “Can I help you?” And I said, “That’s David,” and then my brother said, “That’s Diana,” and my grandfather said, “Who?”

And then he just closed his eyes, and I think he nearly had a heart attack—he couldn’t stop crying. And my dad wasn’t home, and we sat on the sofa for about 30 minutes or so, and then he arrived. And I remember my grandfather walking to the other room and saying, Your children are here.

And my heart just stopped, and I didn’t even understand what would happen. And then, you know, hearing my dad’s story, I think, helped quite a lot, because my dad had a suitcase of all these items he had collected when we disappeared. And, you know, that suitcase of things that my dad collected for us was kind of the opening that allowed me to understand that I mattered to my dad, that he loved me, that those 15 years weren’t just, you know, spent forgetting me—but he was searching.

GWIN: So I really want to ask you. I know—I mean it seems like you go from one really, really hard thing to one next really, really hard thing. But I wanted to ask you next about your Armenia project. And, you know, that's—tell me a little bit. So you've described how Armenia is part of your identity, but how did you get the idea to go back and look at Armenia from this sort of historical point of view?

MARKOSIAN: So the project came about—I was living with my father, and I was commissioned by a foundation to find the remaining survivors of the 1915 genocide. So I'm in Armenia, a hundred years later, the foundation reaches out to me and says, Could you find the last remaining survivors of the genocide that happened in the Ottoman Empire and tracking down survivors that fled from Turkey to Armenia? And there's no list that has a record of who is still alive.

And I turned to voter registrations—so who is registered to vote, who was born before 1915—and started traveling throughout the country, knocking on doors, and asking family members if anybody escaped from Turkey. And I found 10 survivors. And by the time that I had created their portraits and gone back, only three of them were still alive. So this is about nine months later. And when I started interviewing the survivors, they felt like grandparents. And, you know, I was separated from my history in a way, because we didn't grow up feeling Armenian, Russian. I grew up feeling American.

And that—it never felt like my story to tell. So when I met these survivors, what I felt was my connection, and my in to the story was this longing to go back, to see what your childhood home looks like. And I remember Movses, one of the characters, just saying, I want to go back and see what's changed and what's remained the same and...

GWIN: Go back to Turkey?

MARKOSIAN: His home, his village. He wanted to go back to see if anything had changed. And it was so simple, being in this position where I could do that for him. I could go back and I could photograph it and bring it back so he could see it—felt like the one sense of closure that I could bring to him that he didn't necessarily have in his life.

Because, you know, these survivors, it's not that they live in the outskirts of the capital. So they live about an hour, an hour and a half, away. And I interviewed each one of them, found out where they grew up—the village—traveled back to the village in Turkey, photographed it, came back to Armenia, and created these massive billboards for them to interact with, so they could now see what their homeland looked like.

GWIN: OK, so you say billboard. What do you mean?

MARKOSIAN: Three meters high.

GWIN: So, well, so like almost life-size?

MARKOSIAN: It was life-size. And the idea was that they could be transported back to their land. And when Movses saw it—you know, it's one thing to do it. It's another thing for it to actually resonate with them. He danced, and he sang, “my home, my Armenia,” and he's a hundred and five. So to them, this felt like it wasn't something that they only identified with, it felt like home.

And I think that's what the project was for me. And that's what so many of my projects are. It's this feeling of this ability to go back in time, to understand something for yourself and bring it back to the present. I think that has been the biggest gift photography has given me, is a second chance to really understand my place in the world and how I relate to it—and how I can do that for those that I photograph as well.

GWIN: Diana Markosian, thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

MARKOSIAN: Thank you.

GWIN: To see some of Diana’s work, including her Nat Geo story about how a high school in Wisconsin honored its graduating seniors during the pandemic and also her coverage of Oregon wildfires, check out the links in our show notes.

We also have a link to a clip from her film Santa Barbara, which is showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until December 12 and the International Center of Photography in New York until January 10.

You can also see her photography on Instagram @markosian and @natgeo.

You can find links for all of that in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please rate and review us in your podcast app and consider a National Geographic subscription. That’s the best way to support Overheard and hear more great stories. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Brian Gutierrez, Jacob Pinter, Bianca Martin, Marcy Thompson, and Ilana Strauss.

Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Robert Malesky also edited this episode.

Our senior producer is Carla Wills.

Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan, who produced this episode.

Our fact-checkers are Robin Palmer and Julie Beer. Michelle Harris also fact-checked this episode.

Our copy editor is Amy Kolczak.

Hansdale Hsu sound-designed this episode and composed our theme music.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners.

Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences.

Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director.

And I’m your host, Peter Gwin. Thanks for listening, and see y’all next time.


Want more? 

Check out Diana’s film Santa Barbarawhich is showing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until Dec. 12 and the International Center of Photography until Jan. 10.

Read her account of finding her father, grandfather, and a piece of herself in Armenia. 

And to see more of her photos, follow her on Instagram @markosian.

For subscribers: 
See Diana’s photographs showing how a Wisconsin high school graduated its seniors in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And her portraits of a small town in Oregon that was destroyed by wildfires in September 2020 and a resident who lost her home.

If you like what you hear and want to support more content like this, please consider a National Geographic subscription. Go to natgeo.com/explore to subscribe today.