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Diana Markosian

Hi Diana. Where are you based and how did you end up there?

I work out of Russia and the former Soviet Union. I can't say I am based out of one specific city or country. I am essentially living out of a suitcase and traveling from one assignment to the next. Currently I am in Chechnya, working on two assignments and a personal project.

Judging from your work, Russia and the former Soviet Union are incredibly rich places for photography. What do you like about working in that part of the world?

This is an incredibly dynamic and diverse region. I am fortunate to be working here - yet, it isn't always easy or enjoyable. It can get pretty grim in Russia and I often find myself alone, especially when traveling. I am motivated and energized by the people I meet along the way. They make the experience much more enriching and worthwhile. It isn't so much about the region - it is about the people who I am surrounded by.

Can you tell us about the project you did near the site of the Chernobyl disaster? How did the series get started?

This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. It was also the year of the Fukushima accident in Japan. I had no desire to travel to Chernobyl. Most of my friends and colleagues had made the run already, and I was afraid I would simply be repeating their work if I went. About a month before the anniversary, I got an assignment to go to Chernobyl and photograph the nuclear plant. Afterwards, I decided to stay on for another week to see if I could find something personal. I didn't know what I was looking for, but I knew I wanted to humanize the story to the best of my ability. I went from village to village and bounced around different story ideas. Nothing seemed to work. I even managed to get kicked out of Belarus for trying to enter the country to report about the nuclear disaster. That same day a driver took me to Redkovka, a small village that was never evacuated at the time of the accident. I started walking around the abandoned village, and the first house I walked into was the couple who I eventually profiled.

How did you get such intimate access to the Masanovitz couple?

The process itself was pretty slow. They both thought I was bit crazy, and at one point I remember they wanted to call the local police, but their phone didn't work that day. I visited the village every day and met with every resident there, but I something drew me back to the Lida and Misha. There was a special dynamic between them. Once they got to know me, they took me in as their daughter. We talked about everything from the Chernobyl accident to their marriage. It was all about building a relationship.

Have you always wanted to be a photojournalist?

No. I came to it quite accidentally. I was in graduate school enrolled in a broadcast journalism course. We were learning how to use digital SLRs and a female photographer came into our class as a guest lecturer. She had so much passion and energy about photojournalism. She showed us her work one day, and I remember pausing and just being in awe. Each image had so much grace and dignity. It wasn't about her; it was about the people she photographed. There was beauty and meaning behind her work. This same photographer, Melanie Burford, later became my photojournalism professor at Columbia University and has been my mentor since. That was almost two years ago.

When you realized you wanted to pursue a career in photojournalism, how did you get started? And how did you build up such a great body of work in only 2 years?

I threw myself in. I started to look at photography every day. I also tried to get to know the photographers I admired. This helped me a lot. I started freelancing in January 2011, while also pursuing my personal projects. I've matured so much as a photographer within this year. My advice is to do the stories you care about and to pursue your passion. You'll have to fight for it – but damn is it worth it.

Have you run into any situations where being a female photographer has worked to your advantage?

I think being a female has helped me tremendously in gaining access, but not always. For instance, it's hard to get officials in the male-oriented North Caucasus to take me seriously. As a female, I also can’t stay for prayers to photograph men at the mosque. Just getting permission to photograph them walking in requires lengthy negotiations. Those who are slightly in power seem to always like justifying their position. I've had situations where guards or local politicians would tell me not to look into an issue or topic because it was "too dangerous for a woman." This can of course be frustrating and discomforting, but you find ways to work around it.

Have you ever found yourself in an especially dangerous situation while shooting?

Scary things have happened. I am usually alone on shoots, which is probably not the wisest approach when working in regions like the North Caucasus and Afghanistan. But I try to be as cautious as I can.

So you primarily work as a freelancer?

Yes. I shoot still images and video for different clients. It is not always easy to make a living, especially when you are starting out - but when you get to cover stories you genuinely care about, there's really nothing more rewarding.

What other individuals do you respect in photojournalism today, and why do they get your appreciation?

I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by supportive professionals who are also my friends. They are always open to looking at my work and offering a fresh perspective. Off the top of my head: Karen Mirzoyan, Sergey Maximishin, Denis Sinyakov and Melanie Burford are all photographers who inspire me. Their work has dignity and beauty to it. They have the ability and talent to find the quiet moments within situations. It is rare. I look up to my peers a lot as well. One of my good friends, Ed Ou, has been an incredible influence in my career. He is one of the most humble photographers I know - yet his work is so breathtaking and powerful. He has always pushed me to aim higher and higher in my photography and never settle for anything less. He is an incredible inspiration, and I feel very lucky to call him my friend.

What advice do you have for young photojournalists who are considering a freelance career?

Stay humble and fight for what you want to do. It has to be passionate - whether an assignment or personal project - our profession is a gift. Don't abuse it.

What’s next?

I have been in this region for a year and a half now. I would like to finish my project in Chechnya and then move out of Russia for a while. I am looking at Pakistan, but we'll see. I still have a month here. That's a pretty long time for me to decide.

About the photographer

Diana Markosian

Diana Markosian is a freelance photojournalist and multimedia producer working out of Russia and the former Soviet Union. Her work has appeared on The New York Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, ABC News, The Washington Post, The Times of London, The Guardian, Reuters, Observer, Vanity Fair Italy, Slate, MSNBC, and Human Rights Watch. She is a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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