Inhabitants of the Empty


11.41am, 7th December 1988

Our theme ‘An Instant’ can be interpreted in many ways. For photojournalist Yulia Grigoryants, that ‘instant’ was 11:41 local time on December 7th 1988, when a 7.0 Richter-scale earthquake struck northern Armenia, killing at least 25,000 people, injuring many more, and leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Gyumri, Armenia’s second largest city bore much of the damage, and this damage was further entrenched by war by the early 1990’s, the collapse of the Soviet Union, an energy crisis, and a blockade that left landlocked Armenia with just two open borders. Now, a quarter of a century later, the repercussions are still felt. The city has the country’s highest poverty rate, and has lost almost half its population through labour migration. Many families that remain live in the ruins, not considered direct victims of the earthquake and so ineligible for new housing, making the best of what they have.

While driving through the city, Yulia took a wrong and stumbled upon the carcasses of two huge twin dormitory buildings. She was transfixed not by the decaying concrete walls, collapsing roofs and smashed glass, but by a line of laundry, hanging from a second floor window. She introduced herself to the first person she saw, and discovered that just four families live in the buildings, that at one time housed around 60 families each. She was struck by their hardship and struggle, but also their humanity, and over a year later returned to document their lives.

We asked Yulia to share some of her experiences with us.



“I introduced myself as a photographer and mentioned that I would like to photograph them, and they were OK with this. I spent nine long days in those buildings, visiting the families each day. After some time they became very comfortable with my presence and sometimes didn’t notice me at all. It was very important to reach this stage of intimacy with them”.