HomeUKThe big picture: my mum was a mail-order bride

The big picture: my mum was a mail-order bride

In 1996 Diana Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, decided she had to abandon her life in Moscow. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of her marriage she had been dreaming of a new start in California, which she mostly knew from the soap opera Santa Barbara. Through an agency, she advertised to be a mail-order bride and, having chosen a new partner, Eli, from a stack of replies, left her home and got on a plane with her two children. Diana was seven years old.

Santa Barbara was not how Svetlana imagined it. And neither was Eli, who was waiting at Los Angeles airport with a bunch of flowers – 20 years older, and a hundred pounds heavier than in the photograph he had sent. They married anyway and lived together for eight years. Diana was asked to call Eli “Dad” and did not see her own father again until she was in her 20s.

By then, she was an award-wining photojournalist for National Geographic and the New York Times. This photograph is taken from her first book, Santa Barbara, in which she has minutely recreated scenes from her uprooted childhood, using actors and a storyline from the soap opera’s original scriptwriter.

“This image reflects the end of my parents’ relationship for me,” Markosian says, of the imaginary return to her seven-year-old self. “There are a handful of memories I have of them together, but the more constant memory was of a divide between them. It’s painful to recreate a scene like this because I know at one point my parents were in love.”

Markosian had found it hard to reconcile herself with her mother’s choices; the book was an effort to better understand that family history.

“My mother was very much a part of the project as I was making it,” she says. “I think the process of creating the work was important for both of us. It bridged something deep, and allowed us to be honest with each other.”

Santa Barbara will be published by Aperture in mid-November ($65/£50). A solo exhibition of the same name will open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in February 2021

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