An interview with a guy who knows the industrial heritage of Armenia better than the average local
If you are a fan of Soviet abandoned places, the architecture and interior design that was created back 50-60 years ago and now is hiding inside abandoned industrial zones, so you would notice the huge concentration of such beauty in the Instagram account Avarathewanderer․
Who is the guy who knows not only almost every hidden corner of Armenia, captures them before it is being vanishing or destroying by the owners, but also with his Instagram page helps you to travel similar gems from the Middle East to Eastern Europe?
British photographer Avara (aka Gurdeep Mattu) has been interested in different architectural structures since his youth. As the fans of architecture and vanishing heritage we've talked to Mattu about his roots, his connection with the Armenians, covering the Artsakh war and his visit to Azerbaijan.
As a child I was not really involved in taking photos. But my acquaintance with the world of photography began with my father with his analogue camera. It was my father with his analogue camera. In my teenage days in the early 2000's I remember buying a cheap digital camera and using it to take photos of people and street scenes in my hometown of Leicester in the UK.
Photography is a hobby of course. I have a main job that I work remotely. If I didn't have a job I'd be unable to live in Armenia these days. Photography pays me nothing.
Is there a history related to the election of your nickname?
The name Avara, it's something my parents have called me since I was young. It translates to "someone that drifts place to place with no home". In my culture it has more of negative tone when someone calls you Avara, I managed to turn that around. My parents are from the Punjab. It's half divided to Pakistan and half to India in 1947 by the British. So I'm also from a "broken homeland" that doesn't exist. It's one of the reasons I feel a connection with Armenians as well as their being a few genocides against my people in the 1700/1800s. At one point in history we didn't exist. We were in hiding in the jungles. So these are some of the reasons I feel compelled to discuss Armenia history etc .
Nevertheless your parents used to refers to you as Avara, they didn't mind you traveling and especially alone to the countries where safety not always is stable?
My parents have no idea where I go, unless they heard the name of the country on the news. I am a male, sad to say but being a male has given me opportunities my sisters would not have for example. I am the "black sheep" of the family as we say in England. My parents know that I love the thrill of adventure and they know if they tell me not to go I will go anyway. They let me be.
Can you recall your first trip to Armenia?
Yes, it was in 2016. I was backpacking through the caucuses. It was definitely a magical experience. The people and the culture were vibrant and it was very easy to make friends. Later I visited in 2019 for a few weeks. Then I lived here for about 2.5 years between 2020 and 2023. I do however come back for a few months at a time each year to see friends and explore some places. I don't have a current home for now. I'm drifting between places.
How did you get the idea to photograph architectural structures?
I always had a fascination about architecture but whilst living in Armenia I realised no one is really documenting them to my level. So I started to find and documenting Soviet architecture here.
Do you have a language barrier traveling to remote corners of Armenia? Are you traveling alone?
Most of the time yes. I have picked up a few Armenian words to do with architecture and buildings. In some occasions I'm using hand signals or taking out Google translate if I have internet. I sometimes travel alone or with friends but with my Armenian companions it gets easier since they can do the talking for me. The abandoned places are either totally abandoned so you can just enter or there is a guard for you to talk with you to gain more information.
What attracts you the most in the architecture of Armenia?
The style at times, especially interiors, can be similar to churches but I like Soviet architecture in general. The difference here compared to other architecture is the red tuf stone and even black tuf. I love to see black tuf stone buildings from the Russian imperial era in Gyumri and in Kars. Armenia does have its own unique style compared to other former SSR nations. Another example being ancient Armenian churches and monasteries, they are very particular with their style, a style that's distinctive and one off. Especially some of the ones I saw in ancient Western Armenia.
After 2020, lots of people became suspicious of any unfamiliar people; did you face the same, and how do you solve it?
My appearance is automatically suspicious since the 2020 war. I've been detained and questioned by police around 4 times already since 2020. And on all occasions I was just walking or driving and not in any sort of suspicious areas. After questioning they realise that I'm just a tourist who's been here for a while and is exploring the country but to get to that realisation they go through a host of questions including about my background since I don't look English but was born in England for example.
Recently you have been to Western Armenia; can you share emotions and what interesting or wondrous experiences can you share?
I'm not Armenian so my emotions won't be as strong, but I do feel sadness that some amazing villages and churches or monasteries have been left destroyed and abandoned. I try my best to photograph as much before it disappears. I was recently in the border area of Turkey/Armenia and visited Horomos monastery. One of the best monasteries I have seen. It's half in ruin and half standing and me and a Turkish friend walked 7 hours there and back just to see it. Also it's forbidden to go without permission so we took a risk.
Your photos are mostly dominated by places with murals and Soviet-era paintings on the interior walls; how do you find these places? And how do you get inside the buildings?
I can't explain completely because it's mostly instinct and research. Sometimes I feel a building will have such works and most of the time I am correct. Not to sound egotistical of course.
Some are owned by rich oligarchs. These ones refuse entry regardless of what I say to them. Sometimes I've met nice owners who let me in and other times there's no guard but packs of dogs so I have to creep around them. Been chased and bitten by dogs before but it was worth it at the time. I even came across a group of drug addicts in one factory who use anti radiation pills to get high, they saw me and ran away. Probably because they tend to cause hallucinations
Are there places where you are not allowed to take photos, and if so, how do you manage to take photos?
A couple of places I have been able to enter but for some reason was not allowed to take photos but I managed to sneak some photos whilst the guard was distracted. Sometimes it because of this "Soviet mentality", especially with elders. They think I'm a spy from the west taking photos to use against the country or something. Or they think the authorities will come and make a complaint against them because of damage to these artworks for example. I have explained to them that the factory is privately owned and any artworks inside can be destroyed easily by the owner if they wish because they belong to him/her and the government has no power or rights to protect things like mosaics and murals in privately-owned buildings.
During the 2020 Artsakh war, you had a chance to face the war as a photojournalist. Would you like to talk about your experience? Which media outlet did you represent during those events? How did you deal with the challenge of being a professional who has to capture the reality and a human who sees the sufferings?
I have done a little bit of photojournalism before but not at a professional level. I was in Armenia when the war started and the next day I took a taxi to Stepanakert. I didn't want to sit and watch the news when I could go and help somehow, be it through my photos or just being there on a humanitarian level. So I was more freelance than representing a media outlet. I saw suffering and a lot of tragedies there but I know Armenians are resilient and whatever would happen the Armenian people will overcome and continue to survive. I met a lot of children and elderly who were pushed from their villages, I met soldiers who lost friends and parents who lost sons. Some journalists move from war to war and they treat their subjects like zoo objects. I remember visiting Hadrut where an elderly man lost his wife in the bombings. The photojournalists around me were constantly taking photos of this man as he cried talking about his wife, I felt compassion not to take any photos right away but to comfort the man and hear his story before politely asking for one photo so his story will be out there in the digital world.
Except for Armenia, you have been to the same abandoned places in other countries. What are the common and the most significant differences you see between them?
Most common link I can think of is factories. Especially when visiting former SSR countries. Some managed to survive but many were left to crumble. They all have similar set ups, some have monumental art works on the front of the buildings, some have heavily decorated culture houses with mosaics and murals. In all the places I visited I always came across paperwork but I can't read Russian so I would take photos and translate it later.
Before your trip to Azerbaijan, you've been to Armenia and Artsakh; didn't it cause any problems entering that country, and what interesting details can you share about your trip?
I was held at Baku airport for about an hour answering questions about Armenia. They did not know I visited Artsakh previously otherwise I would not be allowed to enter Azerbaijan. A similar experience happened in Yerevan too when I entered the airport and they saw my Azerbaijan stamp, they asked me questions about it.
The trip itself was more about me exploring a place I haven't been. I went to a few mosques and fire temples and tried to visit the Armenian church in the centre of Baku but it was closed at the time. I met some people that sympathised with Armenians but many that didn't.
Do you have plans to publish a book or present your works in an exhibition?
I don't want to really do any sort of exhibition , I'm not a fan of those things. I will however maybe make a book in the future.