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reed magazine logoSeptember 2010

Points East

Portraiture from the South Caucasus by Thomas Burns ’98.

For decades, the countries of the South Caucasus have shared in a common struggle to reinvent themselves in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. At the heart of this rebirth lies the fading legacy of their shared Soviet experience, viewed most often by Western audiences through familiar images of decline: faded icons, rusted infrastructure, and war.

Cinematographer Thomas Burns ’98 is a Fulbright Fellow, who is producing a collection of still photographs in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which use large-scale portraiture to move beyond these traditional iconographies and explore the underlying issue of memory in a more intimate context. Inspired by Richard Avedon’s In the American West and decades of work by Magnum photographers behind the Iron Curtain, Thomas’ project focuses on ordinary citizens whose lives remain deeply influenced by a society that ceased to exist, almost overnight, nearly 20 years ago.

Armen Karabakhtsyan
Laleh Ahmadova
Robert Gamuyan and Garnik Agaveylan
Thomas Burns

Click to enlarge photos.

“My intention is to present these people not in a narrative context, but rather an emotional one,” Thomas says. “What do they feel when they are not busy acting in the story of their lives?”

The final images, each more than a meter in width, will be exhibited in the region’s three capital cities, as well as in the U.S. In a part of the world marked by shifting international boundaries, these exhibitions will be—for many—a first glimpse of neighbors long estranged.

The giant size of the images is part of Thomas’ overall strategy to “unburden” the relationship between subject and viewer. When the subject is presented in the same dimensions that we encounter in everyday interactions, the image becomes not a photograph, but an aperture. “Or in the best-case scenario,” Thomas says, “a mirror.”

Thomas describes the shooting process as 20 percent photography and 80 percent diplomacy, which is a good fit for the Fulbright program’s goal of fostering cultural exchange. “When you travel 16 hours up crumbling roads to a remote mountain village, you don’t just shoot your photos and go home. You have a responsibility, as their guest, to share your own life. Many of the communities I photographed had never met an American before. In these visits there was tremendous opportunity to shape how entire villages—generations of people—would view the United States. I loved this part of the process almost as much as the photography itself.”

Thomas found the shift from shooting movies to portraits a natural one. “One of the biggest factors distinguishing motion pictures from the stage is the intimacy of the close-up, cinema’s answer to portraiture,” he says. “Ultimately their goals are the same: to establish a private relationship with the viewer, and to suspend the audience’s disbelief.”

After Reed, Thomas worked for several years in Armenia and Georgia for an international development organization and also as the senior editor for a weekly English-language magazine. He later went to film school at Stanford University and apprenticed for cinematographers in Los Angeles on feature films, commercials, music videos, and dramatic episodic television. In 2009, he won the award for best cinematography at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris.

Having reconnected with film editor Derek Owen ’97 and storyboard artist Eric Hamlin ’98 in Los Angeles, Thomas is eager to meet more Reed filmmakers. He notes essential parallels between filmmaking and the Reed experience: both are driven by an all-consuming commitment, a multi-disciplinary approach, and intellectual engagement. “In this sense,” he says, “Reed is probably one of the best film schools around.”

—Anna Mann

Read more about Thomas’ work at

reed magazine logoSeptember 2010