Article by Tom Vartabedian, published in 2005 in Asbarez newspaper --
If a picture is worth a thousand words, as the saying goes, imagine what 50 years of intense
photography will do.
It goes without saying that Harry L. Koundakjian has remained an impresario in a business where only
the very fit survive and the weak diminish. The man has not only captured history, he’s been a
component of it after a half century with the Associated Press (AP).
You’ll find him, at age 74, high on the building tops of New York City. If he isn’t shooting, he’s sorting
through film as international photo editor, grudgingly.
The office stuff isn’t really his potion. Put him in a desert shooting an uprising or in Monaco capturing
royalty, and Koundakjian is inside his element. Photographers like him are a breed apart.
We caught up with the veteran during an exhibit last month at the Armenian Library and Museum of
America, commemorating his golden anniversary with 50 of his works chosen indiscriminately.
“They’re the ones that made my heart beat faster, sharing the joy and calamity of world events,” he
The milestone event also hooked him up with colleagues Boston Herald photographer Garo
Lachinian and Boston Globe editor and investigative reporter Steve Kurkdjian in a panel discussion
titled “Image Is Everything: Photography and the World’s Defining Moments.”
Both program and lecture were under the auspices of Project Save and its tireless executive director,
Ruth Thomasian, who was amazed by his human-interest focus and boundless energy.
One scene shows Koundakjian drying film over a charcoal fire during his coverage of United States
First Lady Pat Nixon’s tour of West Africa; another depicts him accompanied by a British bodyguard
while he captured the moment.
“I have an Armenian nose,” brought out Koundakjian, pointing a finger to his face. “I smell. I see. I
click a shutter. It’s rather automatic. I feel my subjects and shoot my way.”
You don’t question “Harry the Horse,” as he’s known throughout the industry. The “horse” in him
pertains to sense, but he’s been known to buck the system to get his shot–and with the fastest
camera this side of anywhere.
Over these 50 years, Koundakjian has captured world leaders, natural disasters, Armenian subjects
of every kind, and world-defining moments. Of that tenure, 35 years have been spent with the
Associated Press and 15 as a stringer in his native Lebanon.
As the AP’s chief photographer, he’s taken charge of all 13 Arab countries in the Middle East, North
and East Africa, plus Turkey and Iran. He has had preferential treatment into public and private
events, recorded death and destruction, and photographed life at its highest and lowest extremes.
His images tell many a unique and compelling tale. He’s been a target of revolutionaries He has
witnessed the human misery of earthquake victims and the shattering actions of assassins.
Admittedly, none of these international disasters can compete with the photo of a Vehapar kissing his
mother on the cheek in a quiet moment of affection.
“For me, love in the family is important, regardless of your rank,” said Koundakjian. “I search for
unusual elements, tender moments. I look for subjects apart from their normal realm. That’s what
separates mediocrity from excellence.”
Koundakjian pulls out a letter specifically addressed to him from Catholicos Aram I, dated November
13, 2004. The religious leader commended him on his milestone and offered some words of praise.
“Your photographs eloquently testify that you are not a sheer photographer in the ordinary sense of
the word,” he wrote. “You are an artist par excellence. Through your shots, you have been able to
catch the defining moments of people, and discern beyond mere facts and scenes the real message.
“You have fulfilled this vocation with faith, commitment, and vision. You deserve the high esteem and
full support of all those who have known you as a humble man and a dedicated photographer.”
To know Koundakjian is to respect his work. Anyone with such a passion for so long needs to truly be
admired, especially in a profession of gamble and chance. Had he not been in the right place at a
given time, would he have shot the paraplegic taking a fall from his wheelchair in a New York City
Had it not been for intuition, would he have gotten a cat inside a Greek Orthodox Church during an
explosion in Cyprus? A cat? His subject was the only living object in a pile of ruins and lent subtlety
to the grim aftermath.
A Lufthansa hijacking in 1977 competes favorably with his cover photo of Peter Balakian for AIM
Magazine as “Man of the Year.” Or “Sugar Mary,” a survivor of the Armenian Genocide shown
entertaining at a club, and Cyprus-born violin virtuoso Levon Chilingirian.
All have a tender place in Koundakjian’s heart and camera. With some 10,000 pictures and 80,000
negatives in his collection, there seems to be no shortage of memories. Add to that more than 300
magazine covers and 3,000 newspaper prints, and you have yourself one wholesome and fulfilling
Being Armenian and neutral in Middle East conflicts, Koundakjian was the only remaining photo
editor during and after the Munich Olympic massacre. He’s covered Miss Europe pageants during
five years in Beirut and has traveled with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in Air Force One during
their shuttles to make peace between Arabs and Israelis.
Another assignment revolved around several picture stories of Leila Khaled, the notorious Palestinian
woman who hijacked a TWA jetliner to Algiers, and another of a terrorist aiming his pistol at a pilot’s
Among other prizes is Pope Paul VI praying, Yasser Arafat embracing refugee children, and a King
Hussein wedding. Several have found their way to such publications as “Life” and “Time.”
“It’s not only photography but journalism,” he tells you. “The ultimate goal is to get the picture, no
matter what the risk. God had looked out for me.”
So has Aida Poladian, his wife of 49 years, who has tolerated and endured the demands of such
“I adapted myself to it,” she concedes. “It’s been exciting to meet such personalities like Peter
O’Toole. We went to a casino together in a taxi and I was part of that moment. I’m very proud of my
husband’s long and distinguished career.”
What transpired was a series of 200 images of the great actor during the filming of “Lawrence of
Arabia” over a three-month stretch that found Koundakjian on the set daily in Jordan.
The family also includes son Vicken, 46, a diplomat with the Canadian Department of Commerce, and
daughter Lola, 40, a computer analyst. Vicken speaks eight languages, like his father.
It all began as a youngster at age 6, when his mother bought him a camera. Koundakjian took apart
the bellows and never put it back together again. Now, nearly seven decades later, he still has the
pieces waiting to be reassembled. Two years later, along came a more sophisticated model from his
mom, an accomplished photographer.
In 1962 he began working as a stringer for the Associated Press, selling his prints at the going rate
and building himself quite the portfolio. And so it went, from one assignment to the next, as AP’s
preeminent photographer in the Middle East.
There’s been no end to the adventure, seeing the newsmakers in action, no matter the danger or
In 1979, Koundakjian was transferred with his family from Beirut to New York City for what was to be
a three-year assignment as International Photo Editor.
He keeps asking, “When will the three years end?” No one has yet replied.
He’s rubbed elbows with the best around, including Pulitzer Prize winner Eddie Adams; Ara Guler, a
Turkish-Armenian photographer decorated by the French government for his work; and the inimitable
Karsh of Ottawa, renowned for his portraitures.
“Karsh had an eye that was peerless,” described Koundakjian. “He was a trailblazer in this
profession, proving that we, as Armenians, possess a sense for beauty and personality. Karsh was
very approachable and willing to share his ideas. I found his work all-consuming.”
A cat with nine lives, Harry’s been injured by a knife, another time by shrapnel, and caught in the line
of fire more times than he cares to admit. A picture shows him on the 11th floor of a Beirut complex
in 1975 following another brush with mortality.
A sniper fired a round through a window where he worked, striking a telephone.
“If I didn’t have my eyeglasses, I might have been blinded by the shattering glass,” he recalled. “I’ve
lived life on a photographic tightrope–fires, wars, earthquakes, cyclones, and world catastrophes.
Nobody said it would be easy.”
Every bit the tradesman he tends to be, Koundakjian still resorts to the basics. He won’t answer to
technology or the intrusion of digital photography. A 35mm camera is still preferred, alternating with
medium format types. No more assignments, however. He still works independently, paid by
Eighty percent of his work deals with Armenian subjects, and he continues to do his own editing. On
the docket will be the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide this April and a book or two
compiling his best work. Retirement isn’t in the plan.
“My future is today,” he says. “I’ll always have a camera around my neck, even when I’m buried. It’s
been a productive career, one rich in satisfaction and joy. Every day is still a fresh adventure.”