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"Portraits of Unbelonging" project needs your help

This past December, an important discovery was made in Project SAVE’s Archive.
Zeynep Devrim Gürsel, Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey found a significant image pertaining to her research on early Armenian emigration from the Ottoman Empire.

Project SAVE’s collections are a valuable resource for new research in Armenian Studies. We’re reaching out to our community because you might hold the key to the next step for Prof. Gürsel’s project, Portraits of Unbelonging explained below.

We are excited to support Prof. Gürsel’s work. Please look on the backs of any photographs you might have that you believe were taken in the Ottoman Empire between 1896-1909. Is there any Ottoman script (Arabic alphabet) on the back similar to the photos above? If so, contact with us at 617-923-4542 or

Stay tuned for announcements about her upcoming lectures on both the East and West coasts.
With thanks,
Tsoleen Sarian
Executive Director

Prof. Gürsel describes her project,
Portraits of Unbelonging,
and what she found at Project SAVE Archives

Portraits of Unbelonging investigates the history of Ottoman Armenian emigration from the Ottoman Empire east to the United States from the politically fraught and often violent 1890s to the end of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s reign in 1909.

In 2014, I came across a series of photographs of Armenian families in the Ottoman Archives in Istanbul. Between 1896 and 1908, Ottoman Armenian subjects were allowed to emigrate legally only if they renounced their Ottoman citizenship and promised to never return to the empire. Having their photograph taken was a key step in the process. These photos recorded their “renunciation-of-nationality” and became one of the first uses of photography to police borders anywhere in the world.

The goal of Portraits of Unbelonging is to link an Ottoman Armenian past to an American future and create a double-sided history of migration. I am following the stories of emigrant families over a century through official documents and family photo albums. This involves travelling all around the United States to meet with descendants of those photographed and hear what became of the families I first encountered in the Ottoman archives. There are many family for whom I am still searching. However, I have identified more than 4000 individuals who left the Ottoman Empire through this renunciation process and I hope to make the database I’m building with this information freely available when it is completed.

Many of the renunciation-of-nationality photographs were taken by professional Armenian photographers with studios in towns like Sepasdya, Bitlis, Kharpert, Erzerum, Marsovan, and Adana. I came to Project SAVE to compare these photographs to portraits commissioned from the same photographers by the families themselves.

Much to my surprise, I found a 1907 image among Project SAVE’s collection that appears to be a renunciation-of-nationality photograph. The image on the left shows seven members of the Tarzian family of Kharpert and looks very similar to several images, like the one on the right, that I’ve studied in the Ottoman Archives, also taken in Kharpert in the same period. The photograph on the right led me from the archive in Istanbul to the Shamshoian family in California. One of the highlights of my year in 2019 was hearing what became of Harry (Arut) Sham, the baby on his mother’s lap in the photograph below, from his children Zach Sham and Roberta Hooper in California.

Until I saw this photograph I had no reason to think that the subjects in renunciation-of-nationality photographs had ever seen the images themselves. After all, the photographs were sent to Istanbul with the necessary documents, whereas the families left for the ports to begin their long journeys. How did this photograph get to America?

Almost all renunciation-of-nationality images are identified as such even if they look like regular family portraits. On the back of the image (and occasionally also on the front as in these examples) they usually have the subjects’ names, hometowns and birth dates in Ottoman Arabic script. This is what the back of a typical renunciation-of-nationality photograph looks like:

Unfortunately, the generous donation from the Tarzian family to Project SAVE included only a photograph of the front of this image and not the original or a photograph of the reverse side of the image. Sarkes (Sarkis) Tarzian’s daughter Patricia very kindly spoke to me but no longer has the original of the image nor recalls what the back might have looked like.

This discovery is so exciting because if this was indeed a renunciation-of-nationality photograph, I wonder whether other renunciation-of-nationality photographs ended up traveling with the families as well. Might the photographers have sometimes given copies to the subjects? Or might families applying for permission to emigrate have been allowed to submit a family photograph they already had?

Here is where you might have critical answers. You may very well have valuable knowledge not available in any book or archive.

Did anyone in your family ever talk about having their photograph taken in order to be able to migrate? Perhaps you’ve seen this mentioned in a memoir or letter? Please look on the backs of any photographs you might have that you believe were taken in the Ottoman Empire between 1896-1909. Is there any Ottoman Arabic script on the back?

If so, please contact Project SAVE so that we can verify if it is indeed a renunciation-of-nationality photograph. No information is too small. Don’t worry if the back does not look like the examples above. Anything is important for this research. All these stories together will help us gain a richer understanding of the migration from the Ottoman Empire to the United States. I am working on a book that will share all this knowledge.

Thank you in advance for your help.

Zeynep Devrim Gürsel
Associate Professor
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Department of Anthropology