Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the landlocked enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in the South Caucasus has been the core of dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
While its origins stretch back to the early 20th century, the current conflict began in 1988, when the Karabakh Armenians demanded independence from Soviet Azerbaijan. Tensions mounted into a full-scale war in the early ’90s, before a shaky ceasefire was eventually signed in 1994.
Documentary photographer Gus Palmer was crossing from Georgia into Azerbaijan by night train when he first experienced the hostility between the two countries.
“Crossing the border at midnight, the Azeri authorities got on board to stamp our passports,” recalls Palmer. “And the only question before returning my passport was, ‘have you ever been or do you ever wish to I go to Armenia?’ I was fascinated by the hatred between the two countries after that.”
It was from here that Palmer began his photography project The Karabakhians, which saw him spend 10 days exploring the region. While on the ground, he worked with Armenian journalist Arman Gharibyan, who was able to help him communicate and get around.
During the 10 days, Palmer travelled to the frontline, where Armenian forces face Azerbaijan Armed Forces from trenches often compared to those used in World War l.
They also visited villages across the region meeting local people. “This is how we happened upon the mother of Levon, for instance, through meeting one person in the village and them recommending we visit the next person, and so on,” explains Palmer.
Asked how his experience of Karabakh matched up with his expectations, the photographer says: “It is always a surprise going somewhere where there is a military presence and seeing the simple things, such as cafes or children’s play parks. In a very cliche way, even though I was slightly expecting it and looking for it, the way in which life continues is always a surprise.”
As Palmer only had a limited number of days to work with, finding time was the main challenge. “As with most self-funded projects, I find it is always a strain to get an adequate amount of time to actually shoot,” he says. “In 10 days, it is very difficult to get a proper understanding of each of the stories I wanted to tell.”
“It is, however, something I am going to revisit, and hopefully over the coming years I will create and develop a well-rounded body of work.”
Ultimately, the message Palmer hopes to convey is that “even in a place that has been dominated by war for much of its existence, you can still find beauty.”
Find more of Gus’ work on his official website.