Zohrab Markarian: The Late King’s Photographer – Exclusive Interview

If you don’t know who Zohrab is, allow me to introduce you; Zohrab was the official photographer of the Late King Hussein of ‎Jordan for 22 years, some even dare to say he’s the first real photographer in Jordan, he published several books such as King & Country (1985), Jordan: A Land for All Seasons (1988), Kingdom of Peace (1995), Jewels of the Crown (1996), Jordan: Dawn of a New Century (1998), Jordan in the Eyes of Saraya (2001), Al Hussein (2001), Amman (2007), Salam Weekly Planner (2008), Jordan (2009), Rouge (2009), Amman the City of Hills and Open Doors (2010), King & Country (part2) (2012), Queen Alia (2013), and his latest published book Jordan Team of Dreams (2013).


When I was 17, my mom thought I should enhance my photography and be an apprentice to Zohrab Markarian. I liked photography, I photographed everything, my mom always said that I made everything look its best. She said I had an eye for beauty. So one afternoon, we went to Zohrab‘s studio in Abdoun.

I should him so of my work and photographs, he and my mom talked and he agreed to tag me along for the summer and teach me some secrets.


I came almost everyday, photographing along, watching him and his team of two schedule photo-shoots, describing the light and so on. I liked it especially out of the studio, I attended two weddings and a royal engagement, one in Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea which made me want my future wedding there and the other was a royal engagement and wedding parties to the same couple which was beyond cool! It was magical! The 17-year-old me flyed in clouds that whole summer. I even met Ragheb Alama  while we were in Sarya and we had juice together!

While being tutored my companion book for the summer was Almost a Lady by Jane Feather, so Zohrab kept calling me “The Almost Lady”!

Ten years passed, I went through so much and changed dramatically from a teen to a woman; I met Zohrab again. This time I was 27, writer, blogger and freelance journalist. We met in the gala and marathon and I asked him for an exclusive interview, which he kindly gave me.


So in Tuesday, February 18, 2014, we sat down in his studio while his three children (around my age) were sitting in the next room working, the sun was warm and coming through the windows talking about the hot spring to come in an autumn promise.

Zohrab was tanning his legs by the window, telling me how much he misses the sun while traveling around far away and cold places like Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Now that you have come back from two extreme trips in 2013 and 2014, do you plan to embark on any upcoming ones?

It actually depends on two things: time and how hard is the next location. Though Mostafa Salameh (team leader) always has this knack to belittle the hardness of the journey and then we get shocked of how hard everything is; for example take the blizzard in Kilimanjaro!

A Blizzard?

Yes! When we asked they told us it has been years since they’ve seen anything like it! I guess it was our luck! The tinny roads on the mountain shut down, everything was slippery and dangerous from that point on. So we started the climb around 11 and reached our destination around 8 so we can reach it in the morning light, we climbed mostly at night. In the next book I’m working on, I would like to say that the hardest 15 hours in my life was reaching the top of Kilimanjaro.

Where does the hardness lay in such trips? You know, like the thing you always forget about but when you relive it you remember how hard it is.

Humans forget. If you ask me now to climb a mountain I would say “No way!” But if you come back to me in a month, I might have forgotten how hard it was and I’ll do it all over again. I can’t pick one, all of the experience is hard. I go to such adventure because in all honesty I hate routine. It’s not for me. One of the best things in my life is that no matter what I dream of, I achieve.

So you always get what you want?

No, it’s not like that. It’s just I feel like God always gives me what I work hard to get. As if an invisible force is always with me. Take climbing at night for example, by the end, most of the team couldn’t make it, the rest were very tired, it was damp, cold and dark. I felt like I’m walking with death, felt it hovering around me, I was blind to my surroundings and very tired. So I prayed, I touched my bracelet of Saint George, I begged him silently “Help me.” It was so unlike me, I felt defeated but suddenly as if by magic I reached the top and I’m the eldest in the group. Humans have superpowers.

I believe in that, we all have our power and magic within us.

Yes, that’s true. Unlike most people here, they are the walking dead, living but not alive. Routine is killing them and they let it.

Routine kills the soul.

Thank you! That’s true! Their souls are already dead!

I believe the comfort zone is like a prison, if you stick in it, it will eventually kill you.

That’s what I’m saying, living like them is not life at all, I prefer to die! Dying slowly is the worst kind of death! Adventure right now is my life, my soul and my passion! And it benefits humanity! You see, I love books. I made around 15 books so far. I wouldn’t go to such adventures if I didn’t have a subject for an upcoming book. It’s not just all about adventure to, my passion for photography conquers all, I go there to photograph.

Does each book have a new theme and different photos? Or do you stick to one type or category?

No book is like the next. Each one is different and for a different subject. Some are about Jordan in general, others specialize in a certain area or city like Aqaba, Wadi Rum or Amman. Some about royalty alone. King Abdulla and King Hussein have individual books. I take care of them like my own children, each book is my baby.

Who are your sponsors?

I was just about to talk about them, I would like to thank my sponsors, who sponsored my books and journeys to achieve my goals such as Jordan Ahli Bank, ToyotaAkel Biltaji the secretariat of the capital, a dear friend, Hussein Hazza Majali, Interior Minister, Ducati Amman, Mira Blbasi, who offered her support with no return but I insisted to return the favor, she has a small boutique called Cotton Candy so I supported her by getting some stuff from her shop. Abdali Boulevard supported me as well.

Does it really need all that support to launch such a project?

Of course!

How much does it cost to climb a mountain?

Starting with 5000 JODs.

How about that book and launch?

With the climbing it would be around 20 to 25 thousands JODs.

When will the next book be launched?

We are in February… by the end of April.

That’s quick!

Yup, I’m in a hurry. The Everest book took around 6 months, but I need to finish this one on 2 months because I have many ideas and I don’t want them to die.

Are all your books visual/images only? Or do you write in them as well?

Words aren’t for me. I barely can stand quotes.

You’ve traveled around but what was the moment that you thought “I’ll climb a mountain!”? It’s not an everyday activity.

It never occurred to me to climb any mountains! It wasn’t part of my plans or dreams! Actually it was Mostafa Salameh who picked me. He came to my studio and convinced me to join, I tried to say “in my age?” he laughed and said “I’m positive that you can do it!” and persisted that I must join, so I did. And I climbed Everest, 16 days of walking. Between 6 to 9 hours a day. Kilimanjaro might have been 8 days of walking, but it was much harder than Everest to me.

I was shocked by the beginning of the interview when you told me there was a blizzard! How was it?

Mostafa was shocked and under so much pressure. It was a huge responsibility to get us all back alive and unharmed. 25 people!

Did anyone get seriously hurt?

Of course! As I said death was always our companion. People forget death, but it’s always there lurking around. If everyone remembered it constantly, humans would be much nicer. Mountain climbing teach us to be wiser, to see things differently. I suffered in Everest because of the bathroom situation.

How so?

I think girls who climb mountains are even braver than men, there is no privacy or delicacy up there. No bathroom time or anything like that. It could be hard. In Kilimanjaro Samer Sunna’  was my roommate in the small tent, so we agreed to keep the bathroom equipment outside beside us so not to walk in the cold.

Is there flat parts to settle in during sleeping hours?

Yes, there is. It doesn’t seem like it but there is. We and our guides who carry our stuff, help us settle in every day after climbing for hours.

What kind of food do you eat up there?

Food was much better than in Everest. Soups, cheese, hot dogs, fruits and vegetables and so on.

Let’s change the subject! Let’s talk more about your career, how long have you been a photographer?

The first time I held a camera I was 17, before that I was a guitarist in a band called The Believers and we were the first western band in Jordan, we played mostly for the Beatles and Rolling Stone.

How did you jump from music to photography?

My goal has always been to reach King Hussein. Since the beginning he has been my goal, and I knew that through music I won’t reach to him so I changed my career. The most two important people in my life have always been my mother and his majesty King Hussein. They both changed the path of my life. I own both of them everything.

How much did your first camera cost?

30 JODs. A Russian Zenit.

How did your mom change your life?

My mother suffered a lot. She lost my father and got widowed at a very young age of 28. She never got married after him. Now she’s 87. She put all her love and energy in us, my siblings and I. She was a great mother.

How about King Hussein?

I was young, not very well-educated, orphan, with no money, we had to leave school early to support the household. My sister and my mother needed me. Even my English was bad. So he sent me to the American Center. Then he sent me to New York to study photography.

How did you meet his majesty?

I met him through his late wife Queen Alia. Queen Alia was opening an exhibition for an Englishman in Jordan Hotel around 1973. I thought to myself, “That Englishman is a horrible photographer, I could do a better job!” I think his name was Alastair Duncan. I introduced myself to her majesty, and asked for her to sponsor my work to photograph Jordan. She gave me her companion’s number and name, she told me to exhibit my work and she will personally open it for me and she did!

Was she a new bride then?

Yes, she had Haya and she was a baby. Then, there was a competition in The Wild Flowers of Jordan. I entered with the Black Iris and won first place. The prize was a camera from her majesty. Queen Noor years later made the flower Jordan’s icon. I took a care from the Royal Court just to photograph that flower. It was located beside the old train railway.You can still find it in Dibeen with three colors: black, red and purple. After two days I got a call and invite from the Royal Court to join the king and queen in Al Nadwa Royal Palace. They were both sitting on a low sofa and princess Haya was crawling. I fell in a curtsey and he told that I will become his personal photographer. I cried.

What’s your favorite memory of the late king?

His laugh. He had the best sense of humor.

One of life’s coincidence is that the day you climbed Kilimanjaro was the date of his death, have you noticed?

Yes! After all my Kilimanjaro book is for his beautiful soul. Princess Muna wants to write a dedication. His Majesty suffered from cancer and the cancer center is after his name.


What is your favorite photo that you took of him?

The one behind you. Even King Abduallah loves it, he has it in his private office. The difference is mine is colored, King Abduallah’s photograph is black & white. You know, before I worked for His Majesty, I used to work for his brother Prince Hassan, they all used to gather there and I took really good photos from afar. You see in that time, there was around 10 photographers in Jordan, and all of them used Yashica or Rolleiflex, I was the first to use Telephoto lens. I’m a sniper.

That was the first photo you took of him?

Yes, he copied around 500 photos from it. You know, I’m writing my memoirs now. I will add many great photos there.

How many studios did occupy?

Three. The first was in Whibdh, called “Photo Lizzett“, than Zohrab in Rainbow Street around 1983 there I established my name and this one in Abdoun, here it’s mostly comfortable.

Were you present in His Majesty’s death? Do you have photos from that stage of grieve?

I was there, I had many images, but I never shared them, they are so sad. That was the saddest day in Jordan. But they will be shared in my memoirs. It’s almost done. I remember Prince Faisal announcing his death in the hospital and to the people who were waiting outside. The sky was crying too. That day Jordan lost it’s father.

Do you still consider yourself a photographer for the Royal family?

I think my era ended when his majesty passed away. I no longer feel that to serve my country I need to serve the king, I’m serving my country in different ways now. My role has changed.

Last thing you would like to add?

Take care of our first family, this country is nothing without the Hashemite family. Our power lays in them. I’m against the movements that’s happening all around Jordan, they are misled. Jordanians should understand that we are all a big family. This all happened before and it didn’t end well. I will die for this country.

Last but not Least, what’s next? And how would you like people to remember you? As one of the last real photographers in Jordan, especially the younger generation who all own cameras?

My next dream and final one I think is creating an image bank. Then to Arab Islamic History Channel. To show the real image of who we are not the cliche or the rubbish on TV. I want to reflect another image of Arabs. I’m already looking for sponsors. I think I’m a bundle of love and passion and a big kid heart. Photography without stylish and passion is nothing, I want to be remembered as a photographer with style who is full of passion and a deep yearning to learn. The day I stop living my passion is the day I will die. Live your passion!



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