Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives holds 45,000 photographs from as early as 1896. The photographs arrive at our office in frames, or still encased in the paperboard folios presented to them by the photography studio. Others are part of photo albums, or “carte postal” type loose photos in cardboard boxes.
The photographs are from all corners of the world where Armenians have lived, including the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North and South America with a few even from the Far East. As the photographs have seen long journeys over great distance and time, they may have some injuries which require care to mend and fix.
Earlier this spring, PBS Newshour featured a piece, “The artistry behind protecting and repairing photographs.” At the Art Institute of Chicago, staff rely on state-of-the-art technology and sophisticated conservation methods, including a massive cold-storage facility, to ensure that the collection of more than 24,000 photographs is preserved. A museum exhibit taught visitors how that conservation process works to protect and restore what can cannot be replaced. Check out the 5 minute piece-
“It’s delicate and time-consuming work, often overlooked and not fully understood. We may think of photographs as images, but, for conservators, they’re first and foremost individual objects.”- Sylvie Penichon, head of the Art Institute’s Photo Conservation Department.
Since 1975, Project SAVE has collected 45,000 images in our archive and just like the Art Institute we too have a great respect for the images and their stories. Although our photographs and documents are not stored in cold storage like the Art institute, they are kept in archival quality plastic sleeves within archival quality boxes. This piece shined a light to the care and professional work that goes behind a photograph archive.
Part of that care comes at the very beginning when we receive photographs for our archives. Ideally, we ask the photo donor details about each photograph, one by one. We want to record the facts they may know, like names, places, dates and stories. We ask questions like if the members of the family in the portrait were able to survive the Genocide, or about the circumstances of their journey to cities like Beirut, Marseilles, Worcester, Detroit, or Fresno,. Often, this information is lost or simply unknown.
The scenario we hear frequently is that photos are found in the attic or basement in boxes that were moved from house to house, perhaps it’s a shoe box of random photographs that didn’t quite make it into the album. The photos are inherited from in-laws, grandparents or other relatives a couple generations removed who never shared the names and details of the people in the photos, and the connection to the photo no longer exists.
Unfortunately, as elders pass away and relatives are given the task of clearing out the home, the box of unidentified photographs is too easily discarded into the garbage. Some families ask younger members if they are interested in going through the photographs, but without context, they remain disinterested. The loss or destruction of photographs, making them forever gone from our memory or awareness is the primary rival to the work of Project SAVE. Their loss is not just the photograph itself but the story and their witness to Armenian history and heritage. These photos are precious to us. We are eager to get them out the attic or the box in the bottom of a drawer and make them available as a resource for researchers, and the public. These photographs are part of the Armenian story. The time and care invested to collect, document and catalog photographs relating to Armenian people is both costly and labor intensive, yet tremendously valuable.
We are also actively sharing images on social media, and collaborating with organizations with large audiences, to raise awareness of our archive. Our hope is that when the time comes to “deal” with a box of unknown photographs, the family sends them to our care where they will be treated like the treasure they truly are.
A great example of this is last summer the Smithsonian Institute invited us to participate in a digital exhibit to promote the Folklife festival. Our exhibit was showcasing Armenian artisans, The work of their hands is the legacy we keep.
Someone in Detroit viewed the exhibit and shared it with a friend in Philadelphia who then contacted us about 3,000 photographs the family had just organized, identified and digitized. They no longer wanted the original photographs, and when they learned of our work, they realized the photos would be cared for within our archives. They also understood that the photos would be available beyond just their family.
It happens quite frequently that posting a photograph on Facebook helps generate a conversation where others recognize and identify the place, date and people in the photograph. Soon we have more information and are able to add to the story, and we build community about that image, helping others learn.
Just as in the Art Institute of Chicago, we too take great care and pride in the images. We act as stewards of Armenian heritage by collecting, documenting, and preserving photographs and the stories they tell. Our work honors Armenian identity and shares that legacy.