Photos exploring the cost of the American dream

Photos exploring the cost of the American dream
Welcome to Santa Barbara — When photographer Diana Markosian was younger, her mother whisked her away from Moscow to America to start a new life. In a new book, Markosian pieces together those memories.

On January 2, 1993, Santa Barbara became the first American television show to air in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The beloved 1980s soap opera chronicling the lives of the wealthy Capwell clan of Southern California became a sparkling image of the American Dream, captivating a nation just liberated from the yoke of a communist regime.

Born in Moscow in 1989 – the year the Berlin Wall fell and the Eastern Bloc began to crumble to dust – photographer Diana Markosian grew up idolising Santa Barbara. “It was a window to another life that didn’t belong to us,” she says. 

“We had nothing as a family. My brother and I were picking bottles to buy bread for my mom. Both my parents had PhDs, but couldn’t get work. My father was painting nesting dolls for tourists on the Red Square. They were reduced to nothing and they weren’t the only ones.”

Mom by the Pool, 2019

A New Life, 2019

Refusing to give into circumstance, Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, made the decision to escape. She began a correspondence with an American man living in California. In 1996, Svetlana moved to Santa Barbara, bringing only her son and daughter. 

It was a decision that changed Markosian’s life forevermore. Nearly 25 years later, the photographer returns to this turning point in the new book Santa Barbara (Aperture), a multifaceted story of family weaving together staged scenes, film stills, and family pictures, along with pages from a script written in collaboration with one of the original Santa Barbara writers, Lynda Myles.

The project began as a personal discovery and a desire to understand the circumstances that brought her to America. “I was so blindsided by so many decisions; I was like carry-on luggage – there for the ride,” Markosian says. “When we arrived in America, I felt like I was transported inside the TV and was now part of the fantasy.”  

Eli’s House, 2019

To make the book Santa Barbara, Markosian decided to look at the story from her mother’s point of view to understand the courage it took to abandon everything in search of a better life for herself and her children. “I saw in her this sadness for everything that happened to us from the Soviet Union collapsing to the separation between her and my father. It was this overall feeling of, ‘This can’t be my life.’ She taught me what it meant to not be defined by circumstances, and to forge your own.”

At the same time, Markosian felt anger and disappointment for not having a say in the decision that would forever change her life. “Losing my father, my culture, my family in Armenia. We lost the same thing and for what?” Markosian asks.

“The American Dream was her dream but it wasn’t mine. It feels painful to say this because I don’t even know what would have happened if we stayed. All of this comes from sadness that I can’t go back in time and make my own decisions – but this project allowed me to piece something together and have a chance to relive it.”

Moscow Breadline, 2019

Lifeline, 2019

The Wedding, 2019

Mom Alone, 2019

Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara will open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on February 13, 2021. The work will then be exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York. Markosian has launched a personal print sale on her website through the end of November benefiting Armenia Fund.

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