Ian J. Cohn: Artist Statement About the Exhibition


"Every photograph is always and inevitably about the past, about an event to which we can never existentially return. But, like Eurydice, we cannot stop ourselves from looking back, from shuffling our packs of memories, for our identities are strongly memory-dependent. Those memories, showing who we once were, tell us who we are now, and are particularly poignant, particularly valuable for the displaced.”

— Peter Loizos, from Photography, Memory, and Displacement


We begin in a simpler place and time, forgetting that what we know today as history was then still an unknowable future. At Phlamoudhi, this is a time before the cell phone, the Internet, television, the telephone, the automobile, electricity, incandescent lighting, running water, and indoor plumbing. In other words, a long time ago.

All of the photographs on the walls of this gallery were taken in 1972. I was twenty-two years old, a graduate student of architecture at Washington University, St. Louis, when I was invited to join the Columbia University archaeological expedition to Cyprus as its photographer. For eight weeks, we lived in the small village of Phlamoudhi, population about 200–300, on the northern coast of the island. Taken for my personal use and only shown once publicly at the time, these pictures were stored in a box for almost thirty-five years before they were serendipitously “rediscovered,” declared a Cypriot ethnographic treasure, and exhibited in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia, in 2009.

Less than two years after these pictures were taken, on August 14, 1974, Turkey invaded Cyprus, forcibly displacing in a matter of days more than 155,000 citizens from the north, politically dividing the country, and effectively rendering a huge population of Greek Cypriots refugees in their own country. Subsequently denied entry into the north for almost thirty years, the former inhabitants of Phlamoudhi are to this day only permitted to visit their village, not to resettle it. These photographs offer a glimpse into life before the diaspora, a portal through which we can transport ourselves back in time to a place known otherwise only through the memories of a population that, with the passage of many, many years, is inexorably disappearing.

However, if these images are seen exclusively as documentary or nostalgia, then the story ends where it began, in the past. I would like to suggest an alternative. During my return to Cyprus in 2009, when I was reunited with members of the displaced community in the south, I took the opportunity to update portraits. I revisited the village (now named Mersinlik and occupied by Turkish citizens) and made a record of what I saw. Some of these recent pictures, juxtaposed with their archival counterparts, are in the Print Cabinets. It was then I realized the true storyline of Phlamoudhi is a remarkable one of transformation—from a physical entity (the village) to a state of mind (the community), and from an identity rooted in the land to one based on shared memories.

The perspective of the photographer is necessarily that of a foreigner—the person behind the camera an anonymous, unseen agent. We begin our work on the outside looking in, with hope that in the process we will connect with our subjects and be allowed to move into the space they occupy. The sequence of my photoessay reflects this reality: opening from a distant vantage point—the view of the village set within the landscape—I shifted my focus to individuals and families, and was welcomed into their homes, their lives, and their community. But, in this case, something more happened. Without realizing it at the time, Phlamoudhi became a part of me as well.

Pictures like these may help us understand what is lost for anyone displaced from their homes, whether by natural disaster or the misfortunes of war. As you look at these pictures, imagine what you might see if you were standing on the hills above Phlamoudhi, looking out at the endless expanse of the blue Mediterranean horizon. Then, consider the view metaphorically: this is the shared vision that binds the Phlamoudhi community together despite their physical displacement. After all these years, forty-seven and counting now, I discovered that what I captured on film, from without, is something a Cypriot feels deep within: the image of the village imprinted in the soul.

Ian J. Cohn