Aftermath: The Armenian Earthquake of 1988
On December 7, 1988, at 11:41 a.m., the first of two powerful earthquakes measuring a magnitude of 6.8 hit three miles from Spitak, Armenia, a city of about 30,000 residents. Four minutes later, a second tremor measuring a magnitude of 5.8 struck nearby. These two tremors caused near total destruction to Spitak. In neighboring Gyumri, the second largest city in Armenia with a population of 300,000, about 80 percent of its buildings collapsed. This devastating event killed approximately 25,000 people. About140,000 Armenians were injured, 514,000 were left homeless, and nearly half a million buildings were destroyed.
Jeff Coyler, a medical responder during the earthquake and later governor of Kansas, noted at the 30th anniversary of the earthquake in 2018, that when he and his colleagues initially arrived in Armenia they faced a scene that was difficult to imagine.
“It is a scene that I cannot describe but we saw something special: we met the most fantastic spirit in Armenia, the spirit of love, kindness, and heroism. We met Armenians who were longing to overcome the tremendous disaster that came their way. Today, when I meet Armenians around the world, I meet them as very special people with culture, science, business, and dignity. And here is the great lesson of 1988. When we arrived in Armenia, many of us thought that the best days were behind, and today we know that Armenia’s best days are ahead of us, and here is why. Memory may be fading from many people but Armenians remember, that is why they are special.”
As international aid and relief began to flow into Armenia, the world observed a nation that would endure and survive this devastating tragedy. This historic event set in motion closer ties between Armenians in the diaspora and the homeland.
Asadour Guzelian, a young photographer who was three years into building his photographic practice supplying news and feature photography to the UK national newspapers, traveled to Armenia to capture this event impacting his fellow Armenians in the homeland. As Guzelian noted:
“I went to Armenia to cover the aftermath of the earthquake on two occasions. The first trip was in April 1989, five months after; and then November 1989, for the one year anniversary. Most of my work was in the north of England, but my Armenian heritage prompted me to offer the idea of traveling there to my media clients. I secured guarantees from The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Telegraph, and Independent for use of the images. The idea was to document the situation some months on and after the international news media had left. I was keen to do something to promote the country through my images.
In the face of this extraordinary human tragedy, Asadour Guzelian captured images of collapsed structures, rescue operations, cleanup and reconstruction, as well as images of the victims displaying emotional expressions of loss and survival. Guzelian’s captivating and evocative photographs taken in April and November, 1989 highlight the Armenian spirit of perseverance and resilience.
Guzelian was born in London and founded what became the Guzelian agency in1986, after cutting his teeth for eight years with Barry Wilkinson in Bradford. He has supplied news and feature photographs to Britain’s national newspapers. His exhibitions include one-man shows at the National Museum of Photography and the Cornerhouse, Manchester. He was twice won the prestigious Yorkshire TV Photographer of the Year.
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