Santa Barbara: A Mother’s Courage to Achieve the American Dream


How does one begin to reconcile the unspoken sacrifices a mother makes to build her children a better life? For photographer, filmmaker, and experimental storyteller Diana Markosian, the key to understanding such mysteries of her childhood was through recasting long unexplained events in a monumental art project told through an embedded narrative—a nested story to honor her mother’s sacrifice.

Photographs © Diana Markosian

Above photograph: The Arrival, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

Markosian was born in Moscow, in 1989, to Armenian parents who had recently fled the war wreaking havoc in their home country during much of the 1980s and ’90s. “It was a very dark period in Armenia,” she says. “There was no electricity, and no water, which made it impossible for us to live there.”

Coming from an intellectual background with a passion for the arts and culture, her parents sought out the safety and possibility of a new homeland while pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences. Yet, the relative security of Moscow proved short lived after the Soviet Union’s collapse, on December 31, 1991. At that very moment in history, any glimmer of hope for the future was extinguished. “Suddenly, this place of opportunity became a nightmare,” she says. “We had gone from one refugee situation to another, and then suddenly we couldn't even feel safe in the second home we had just adopted.”

Moscow Breadline, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
Moscow Breadline, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

Within a short time, Markosian’s father, Arsen, an engineer with a PhD, was reduced to painting nesting dolls and sewing counterfeit Barbie clothes to sell on the black market. Meanwhile, her mother Svetlana, a budding economist, waited in breadlines for food. Young Diana and her older brother David did their part by scouring the streets for bottles to sell. The stress of such hard times soon weighed on familial interactions, causing the parents’ marriage to collapse and leaving Svetlana with two young children to raise on her own.

An American Fantasy

Among the few consolations to Russian citizens during this time of collective shock, privation, and lawlessness were regular state TV broadcasts of the American soap opera Santa Barbara—the first American soap to be aired in Russia. Although far less popular among American viewers than rival shows like General Hospital, Guiding Light, or As the World Turns, Santa Barbara enjoyed widespread international acclaim, debuting three days after the Soviet Union’s fall, on January 2, 1992.

My Parents Together, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
My Parents Together, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

Despite her tender age, Markosian has vivid memories of huddling in the family’s tiny studio apartment to watch the eventful drama and being introduced to a vibrant fantasy of American life in the process. “The show really became the image of what America was, or could be,” she says. “I doubt that any of us felt this was going to be our future, but I think my mom had this real fantasy of living with Americans.”

In addition to what she gleaned from TV, young Diana’s understanding of America was also framed by her mother’s coaching. In one example, she recalls standing in line to eat at Moscow’s first McDonald's. Once inside, Svetlana gave her children a lesson in using a fork and knife to cut the hamburger. “She told us that people were very civilized in America, and there was a real distinction to being an American,” recalls Markosian. “It was to be a certain elite, a certain culture. It was everything that our life wasn't. In our eyes, everything in America was better, and had sophistication.”

The Real Santa Barbara

Early one morning in 1996, Diana and her brother were awakened by their mother with news that they would be going on a trip. Without further explanation the three travelers embarked on a whirlwind journey half a world away, touching down the next day in the real-life city of Santa Barbara, California. At the airport they were greeted by a much older American gentleman named Eli, with whom they would live for the next nine years and come to call their father.

Catapulted into a new culture and a vastly different landscape, Markosian’s earliest memories of her new homeland remain very childlike. “Everything in California felt very clean, very big,” she explains. “I remember counting all the clocks and TVs at Eli's house the first night. I kept moving from one room to the next to the next, and I couldn't believe how many rooms there were. If I were to enter that house as an adult, I’m sure it wouldn’t seem anything like that,” she adds, “but in my little mind, and given my perspective on everything at that time, it really felt like a fantasy.”

First Meal in America, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
First Meal in America, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

The casual, relaxed ease of a California lifestyle was similarly a quantum leap from the strict culture of Russia. Instead of dressing in a drab school uniform and being forced to present her hands every morning to ensure clean fingernails, Markosian was now surrounded by girls dressed in jeans, sprawled cross-legged on the floor. “All these little details, from saltshakers to the free crayons at IHOP so you can draw, were things that had never existed for me,” she points out. “I never had a Barbie doll in Russia because we couldn't afford it, I just had all her dresses. But suddenly, when I came to America, I was given the doll. These things really marked a difference, not just of lifestyle, but also of privilege. It really left a mark on me and shifted the way I remember everything today.”

Discovering the Details

For much of her life, Markosian only knew the transition between her early childhood in Russia and her journey to America in terms of before and after. “I remember the before,” she says, “and then there was a real separation of the after, of what it felt like to become American.”

She had repeatedly questioned her mother about the circumstances behind their journey, with little success. Yet, eventually, given the distancing factor of time and the fact that her children were now grown, “my mother was finally in a place in her life where it didn’t feel like such a secret, the story started to feel okay,” Markosian says. Shortly after the 2016 elections, Diana finally learned that her mother had placed a classified newspaper ad with an agency that allowed Russian women to connect with American men.

The Wedding, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
The Wedding, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

She is careful to frame this matter with facts, saying, “The country was closed for so long, this became a window of opportunity for people. It wasn’t just my mother, it was so many women who needed to leave Russia, to find a way to escape. My mom has never been a victim of her story, she's never been one to look down on any of her decisions,” she adds. “And I think there's something very important to say about that, because I grew up with this feeling that everything's okay. And it's only 20 years later, when you start looking backward, it all starts to feel a bit like a soap opera and a story in itself.”

Art Imitates Life

By the time Markosian learned the backstory to her family’s immigration journey, she was an accomplished photographic storyteller with a wide-ranging portfolio of editorial assignments, personal projects, and prestigious awards under her belt. She quickly decided this needed to become her next creative endeavor, aiming to weave in the American soap opera Santa Barbara for its symbolic relevance to their lives. Within six months she had moved to Hollywood and contacted Santa Barbara script writer Lynda Myles. “I reached out to her just for a coffee, and I explained the influence that the soap opera had on my life,” she says. “I also just wanted her to get to know me. I didn't want it to feel like I was reaching out to her to really produce something.”

Mom and David after School, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
Mom and David after School, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

While Markosian wasn’t sure what her project would look like from its earliest stages, she began writing a script and sharing it with family members, asking for their feedback. She also started working with a casting agent to find actors to represent each character—her mother Svetlana, herself, her brother David, Eli, and her father Arsen. “The process of casting became a project in itself,” Markosian admits, describing how they interviewed more than 300 women and about 60 men over the next year and a half. Casting for the role of Svetlana was a particular challenge. “I understood very early on that it wasn't going to be a role anyone could play,” she explains. “It's not about just finding a brunette. It's really finding somebody with the depth and compassion to truly understand the story.”

After meeting with hundreds of Hollywood actresses without success, Markosian and her team traveled to Russia and Armenia to continue searching there, eventually casting a professional actress from Georgia for the role (and casting her daughter as young Diana). “That process, that commitment to finding the right person was really a test for me,” Markosian says. “There were so many moments when I just thought this project wasn't a real thing, because I couldn't find the right person to play my mom.”

A Project Within a Project

As elements to the project slowly began to gel, Markosian’s storytelling methods evolved, as did the project’s scope, which expanded to encompass a fine art photography book, a museum exhibition, and a short conceptual film. Her initial premise had been to develop a script that everyone would edit, yet at a certain point she decided to put the script aside and focus on her mother's perspective. “I understood that we would never agree, and that was okay,” she says. “I had to choose my mom's point of view, and I just ran with it because that was the story I wanted to tell.”

A New Life, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)
A New Life, 2019, from Santa Barbara (Aperture, 2020)

In some cases, Markosian made use of original props, such as having actors dress in her parents’ clothes from the era. She also used her mother’s 1990s Olympus point-and-shoot camera to lend a casual snapshot quality to still images reenacted for the book. “I think using her camera really switched everything for us,” she says. “It gave the photos another level of intimacy. The whole book was meant to be from my mom's perspective, so I tried to approach it in the way my mom would have,” she adds. “But sometimes I’d step back and approach things from my point of view, which is a little more cinematic.”

Making Santa Barbara ultimately involved a dedicated team of five, “who were handpicked over the course of the 18-month pre-production timeline, and a crew of about 25 people during the main production day. That meant finding the right cinematographer, production designer, costume designer and so on,” Markosian says. She collaborated with cinematographer David Feeney-Mosier on the project’s film segments, employing either a Mini DV camera or an ARRI Alexa Mini. “We talked everything out together and made a joint decision of what we were going to do,” she notes.

Rebuilding a Relationship

To unearth specific details from the past, Markosian had daily conversations with her mother about scenes being shot. It was a journey I took with my mom to really understand her,” she says. “This was a relationship that I was rebuilding with my mother. “She talked me through the whole thing every day.”

Over time, scripted scenes of this very personal story were layered with other types of storytelling elements, including excerpts from casting sessions in which actors tell of their character’s motivation. Often referred to as an embedded narrative or nested story, this device is charged with multiple levels of meaning in Markosian’s tale—from a metaphoric association to the Russian nesting dolls of her birthplace to the pointed way in which casting excerpts reveal Svetlana’s hidden desires. At one point, Markosian’s mother even visits the film set for an interview with the actress playing her role, which is also woven into the final narrative.

A short teaser for Markosian’s film, Santa Barbara, which will have a world premiere in New York as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Short Program.

When asked how the project Santa Barbara compares with her more journalistic work, Markosian says, “Honestly, I think it’s maybe the most courageous work that I've made. There's an element of risk in traveling to places that aren't always the safest or most predictable, but there's something much braver, more uncomfortable, and honest in just confronting one’s own stories. This was something so special, and I had to protect it and really give it everything I had. Whether it was financial or personal—all of me had to be in this one experience.”

As for how making Santa Barbara has affected the mother/daughter relationship, Markosian is quick to arrive at the word empathy. “You understand your mother as a parent, as a woman, as a friend, and I don't think I ever had the capacity to do that. But suddenly I might just have a little more of an understanding. I'm never really going to be able to tell her story,” she admits, “but I can give her the space to be something more in my life without that extra judgment I've carried for so long. I think that's all I can ask for.”

Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara was published as an Aperture monograph, in November 2020. The project was featured in a museum exhibition commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, on view from July to December 2021, and also shown at New York’s International Center of Photography from September 2021 to January 2022. Santa Barbara can currently be seen at the Photo Museum of Antwerp, in Belgium, through August 28, 2022. Additional venues in Europe include Vevey Images, in Switzerland, from September 3 to 25, 2022, and Gallerie Les Filles du Calvaire, in Paris, from September 1 to November 1, 2022.

Markosian’s short film, Santa Barbara will have a world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Short Program at New York’s Village East by Angelika theater, on Thursday, June 9, at 8:30 pm, with a second screening, on Thursday, June 16 at 5:00 p.m.