Lake Oswego's Emily Haas wins Peace Corps award with her photos depicting a country still in the grips of tragedy
Emily Haas is such a fine photographer that she captured Armenia at its very best.
One of her photos shows a picturesque town set in front of rolling mountains, a place where you would want to live, not just visit. A visual fairytale. More like a painting than a photograph.
However, many other photographs by the young Lake Oswego woman search beneath the postcard surface and show an ancient nation ravaged by centuries of war, haunted by its Communist past and plagued by the vast corruption of today.
Yet Haas' close-up shots of the faces of elderly people of the village are perhaps the truest portrait of Armenia, showing not just suffering but warmth and hospitality. They bring you right up to the table of an old Armenian lady, close enough to sit down and have a cup of tea with her, as Haas did in an award-winning shot.
'It was such a unique experience,' said Haas, 25, who spent two years in Armenia as a volunteer with the Peace Corps, returning this August. 'You live with the Armenian people. It was a great opportunity that you don't get very often.
'Armenians are very hospitable. They bring out absolutely everything they have.'
Sometimes Armenians were too hospitable in Yeghegnadzor, the town where Haas lived. One mother was constantly coming over to Haas' little apartment and asking Haas to marry her son.
Fortunately, Haas could speak Armenian and could politely but firmly reject the mother's request every time.
Haas' main purpose with the Peace Corps was to help create a media center, which was a very difficult job. Once dominated for decades by the Soviet Union, Armenia had no history of freedom of the press.
'It was extremely frustrating,' Haas said. 'But now, thanks to the media center, not only are the people of the Vayots Dzor region consuming real, local news, they are also learning of events via a very new - to them - technology: the Internet.'
When not on the job, Haas took her camera and sought to capture her host nation, something she was quite qualified to do since she had just earned her degree in photo journalism from the University of Montana. She discovered much in Armenia that is good.
'The creativity of the people is amazing,' Haas said. 'They are so hard working, and their land is very fertile. They grow apricots, pomegranates and grapes. Churchill used to drink Armenian cognac.'
On the other hand, Armenia is a country with lots of troubles.
'Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union their borders have been closed, except for Georgia and Iran,' Haas said. 'The corruption is terrible. Most of the money goes into the oligarchs' pockets. There is much censorship.'
Most of all, Armenia is a nation that cannot escape from its tragic history.
'It's a fascinating place, but the people have a sadness over wars and hardships,' Haas said. 'There are churches and fortresses everywhere, some of them from the ninth century.'
The worst tragedy that happened to Armenians was the genocide that has never been admitted by the nation that did it. One million Armenians were killed by Turkey during World War I. Some of Haas' most moving photos show the Armenian Genocide Memorial, with flower petals being spread to reperesent the countless victims.
These many woes made Haas have even more compassion for the Armenian people. They also made her appreciate her native country much more.
'I'm a lot more positive about the USA than before I went there,' Haas said. 'We have it pretty good here. There is so much corruption in Armenia, but we have a system that can prevent too much of that from happening here.'
There was one more thing Haas gained from her two years in Armenia - winning the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary photo contest with her photo of her fellow Peace Corps volunteer Danny Lovell sitting down to have tea with his grandmother.
It is truly a lovely, evocative shot, capturing an everyday occurrence in its full warmth and depth, just like a photo that would appear in National Geographic.
But to truly appreciate Emily Haas' accomplishment in Armenia you must view many, many more of her photos. Her lens captured the soul of a nation. To see more of her work, check out her blog at http://yeehaas.blogspot.com .