After his father died, Aram Balakjian began the long job of clearing the family home. The house was large, with seven bedrooms and a cellar, and had belonged to the Balakjians for 27 years. The scale of the task overwhelmed him; both parents were artists and printmakers, with busy studios full of objects he had never been allowed to touch. His mother’s death from cancer four years earlier had already triggered a career change: in the year that followed, Aram wound down his web design business to develop his passion for writing and photography, and now, as he started clearing it, he began to take pictures of the house.
“I thought, ‘I’ll never really see this again,’” he says. “I wanted to capture how the house was. I wanted to get those things in my head.” He knew that the process of dismantling nearly three decades of family life would be laborious and painful. He was six when the family moved into the house in north London, and the photographs were a way of securing the memories for him, his sister Tamar and any future children.
But it was hard to know where to start. The house was awash with loss. His father, Marc Balakjian, had died in the living room, the same room in which his mother, Dorothea Wight, had passed away four years earlier. Together, his parents had built up the business of Studio Prints, printers to Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Paula Rego among others, and it took Balakjian a week, “intermittently breaking down”, just to sort through the papers in the room they called “the computer room”. He thought, “How can we ever let go of this house? How can this ever not be our house?”
Daily he was floored by “emotional grenades”: a diary his father kept after his mother died, his grief-stricken poems, the sheer volume of stuff
, or as Balakjian puts it, “all these things that meant so much to someone who meant so much to you”. Each one required an emotional valuation. “You’re dismantling their lives. It’s the end of their story. You really have this sense of what’s left after we die. Just a bunch of things, really.” And, of course, hundreds of family snapshots.
When Balakjian had finished, he reached for his camera again, this time to photograph the empty rooms. “It wasn’t the house I was struggling to let go of. It was the memory of our parents, that whole life, growing up, our youthful innocence.”
He had the idea of juxtaposing or conflating these empty images with the ones he had taken of the house immediately after his father’s death when it was still full of his parents’ things, “to show this weird contrast of what I experienced as I was clearing the house… this slow hacking away of emotions, and separation of them from the physical space”. He held up a printed photograph of a room full of family paraphernalia, and reshot it in exactly the same place, now empty. The image, showing both the before and after in a single frame, excited him. He tried the same with one of the hundreds of family snapshots he had unearthed. “That’s interesting,” he thought. “I can make the two images line up. It feels like looking through a window of the past.”
Here was the warmth of a family moment – each one raising the spectre of a lifetime of similar moments – suspended within a bright, empty room. Sometimes the inset pictures overlap with their host image; others butt up against them starkly. Still others show family moments appearing to hover in thin air. It is hard to tell which image feels more ghostly, the occupied or the unoccupied room. They haunt each other.
Making the two photographs line up seamlessly, as Balakjian first intended, proved impossible. As a result, the viewer sees both the continuities and discontinuities between the spaces the two cameras captured, the parquet kinks and the wood panelling warps where the past and present meet.
Bookshelves burst with books then terminate in emptiness. Flames flicker in one half of a fireplace while the neighbouring coals lie cold. The leaves of a copper beech glow burgundy, then abruptly wither. Random and bizarre episodes from years of family life are held to the light: a child (Balakjian himself) larks around the kitchen holding an orange, with a silly hairdo; his father carries a packet of flour; teenage girls, one of them Balakjian’s sister, rock face masks in a stupendously carpeted bathroom. All families know their lived space by heart, but every image here ends with the same heart-wrenching dispossession.
Yet for Balakjian, the process felt constructive. “The only way I could do the project was to detach myself from what I was looking at,” he says. “Most of the time, I didn’t look at the snapshot I was holding. I wouldn’t allow myself to ‘go there’ and to be in that room. I was thinking from a very technical point of view.”
Over two months, he took nearly 3,000 photos. Each time, he had to place himself in the footprints of the person who had taken the original image – usually his father. Marc, the son of Armenian genocide survivors, was “not emotionally open at all”, says his son. Presumably, trying to see long-forgotten family moments from his perspective must have created its own challenges.
“By the end, it wasn’t emotional,” Balakjian says. The process of clearing, sharpened by the practise of photography, led to a sort of disinvestment. “I was actually really happy to hand the house over to a new family,” he says. “I felt we’d borrowed this space for 30 years. We built these amazing things, and now it was time for someone else to come in.”
• Go to arambalakjian.com/work/the-house to see more images from Aram’s project
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