Documenting A Way of Life As It was Unraveling


Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, courtesy of Margaret Kedonian Melickian, Chelsea, Mass.Armenian-American sponsored refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria, c. 1920s, Photograph by Vartan Derounian. The original image was a postcard used to raise funds for the camp. Assisted by missionaries, these refugees, mostly women and children from the vicinity of Kharpert, Historic Armenia, made needlework to sell, the proceeds from which helped to support them and purchase passage to the United States.

By Anna Yukhananov
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WATERTOWN, Mass. — When Ruth Thomasian was a young costume designer in New York City with Broadway aspirations, she started working on a play that had Armenian characters from the turn of the last century.

“I needed visual research to make their costumes,” she said. “What did the Armenians look like? What made them different? I immediately thought of old photographs.”

Thomasian put out an advertisement in a local newspaper and received one photograph in return. Yet, that one photo was enough.

Intrigued by the initial photographs she found, Thomasian decided to leave her work as a costume designer to focus full-time on collecting photographs of Armenian communities.

“If I stayed in theater and wanted to make it to Broadway, I couldn’t be distracted by side projects,” she said. “And I knew that if I waited 15 or 20 years, the people in the photographs would be gone.”

“Gamatz, gamatz” (little by little),” Thomasian said, she knocked on doors, exhibited photographs, wrote articles —— and eventually created the Project SAVE (Salute Armenians’ Valiant Existence)

Armenian Photograph Archives, which since 1975 has amassed more than 35,000 photos depicting all aspects of Armenian life and culture.

Every year, Project SAVE receives 500 to 1,000 photos from donors — mostly individuals or families. Sometimes people donate complete collections; sometimes, just a couple of snapshots from their grandfather’s attic. Thomasian, the executive director of Project SAVE, conducts interviews with all donors to gather information about the photo and the people in it.

She collects not only photographs from “the old country,” but also from Armenians in the diaspora, in order to preserve a complete picture of Armenian culture.

“This is more than just costume history,” Thomasian said. “No one’s going to follow behind me and collect what I choose to exclude. We want to see everything: where Armenians went after the homeland, and where they’re living today.”

Every photo is archived with a scrupulously detailed record: the dates, names, places, photographers, props, structures, and clothing of the photograph. Project SAVE’s small office on the third floor of the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown is crammed from floor to ceiling with file cabinets and shelves of photographs, records, and accompanying materials, including needlework and lacework.

“I’ve always approached this as a historian, not a photographer,” Thomasian said. Every recorded interview and every photograph tells its own story about Armenian people, places and customs.

From a mystery photo of an Armenian couple — their names are unknown — Thomasian learned about Armenian bridal customs: the woman in the photograph is dressed in fine clothing and wears her dowry, a string of gold coins, around her neck. Yet she is not dressed in white. White gowns became commonplace only later, under the influence of Western Europe.

Recording Continuity of Life

While most of Project SAVE’s photos focus on Armenian families, many filmmakers and researchers are looking for photos about the Genocide, said Suzanne Adams, Project SAVE’s archival assistant. The problem, she said, is that most documentary photographs of the Genocide were taken by journalists and non-Armenians, not by individual Armenians as they were in no position to document their plight as it was taking place.

“And even some of those photos were staged or re-enacted after the fact,” she added. Unlike the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide was not extensively documented in photography or film.

“A lot of the survivors didn’t want to remember; they wanted to forget that it happened to them,” Adams said.

“When you’re constantly fighting for your life, you’re not dealing with keeping records,” Thomasian added.

Because other collections, such as the US Holocaust Museum or the Rockefeller Foundation archives in New York, already have photographs of the Genocide, Thomasian said she chose to focus on individuals and families for Project SAVE’s archives.

“Why compete? Our need is to preserve what hasn’t been preserved,” she explained.

Thomasian picks up a turn-of-the-century photo of a man and his large family in front of his copper factory. She points out the details of their dress, the children arrayed around their father.

“I’m not just looking for Genocide survivors,” she says. “I’m looking for the continuity of life — before, during, and after the Genocide. With these photos, you can’t deny the proof that people lived in Eastern Turkey.

“And, judging by the photos, they must have had quite an incredible life.”