By Aram Arkun
LEXINGTON, Mass. — Project Save Armenian Photograph Archives celebrated its 40th anniversary with an evening program at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library on November 21. It was an enjoyable event, commencing with a cocktail reception at which guests, many of them distinguished leaders or activists in the Armenian community, socialized. The formal program was led by two masters of ceremonies, who are master photographers and on various boards of Project Save — Scout Tufankjian and Nubar Alexanian. Photojournalist Tom Vartabedian and Ararat-Eskijian Museum director Maggie Mangassarian-Goschin were given community commitment awards, while Project SAVE founder and director Ruth Thomasian addressed the audience.
Before the formal talks, a short documentary film depicting the work and history of Project SAVE prepared by Alexanian, who is a filmmaker as well as a photographer, was screened. The film gives a glimpse into Thomasian’s decades of selfless labor which led to the creation of an unparalleled collection of images and the stories which accompany the images. Some examples of photographs and the stories and information that they convey were presented. With much information about Armenian families and heritage destroyed or scattered around the globe thanks to the Armenian Genocide, her work of reassembling information is all the more important for both families and scholars who wish to study the past.
With quick and easy banter, the two masters of ceremonies first introduced one another and spoke about the value of Project Save. Tufankjian said, “The power of photography is not just that you can fold an image into your hand, the power of photography is that you can hold a family history in your hand.” Alexanian added that “in the collecting of these images, Project Save says no to the erasure [of our history caused by the Genocide] every day.”
Tufankjian showed some projections of her own photographs from her recent book documenting the global Armenian community, titled There Is Only the Earth: Images from the Armenian Diaspora Project, which took her to some 20 Armenian communities worldwide to commemorate the Armenian Genocide centennial. She revealed the commonalities between the various remote communities. She stressed that the Armenians are still one people, and still strong, with Project Save insuring the survival of their shared heritage in the US.
Alexanian, a documentary photographer since 1972, never went to (Western) Armenia until October 2011 with his daughter. They went to Kharpert (Harput, Turkey) and buried the wedding photograph of Alexanian’s paternal grandmother in the soil of the family’s ancestral property, perhaps inspired by Project Save. They created a movie called “Scars of Silence,” which will come out in 2016. Alexanian screened an excerpt from this documentary.
The masters of ceremonies extolled Ruth Thomasian’s patience and dedication to her work, and then invited her onto the stage. Thomasian talked about how Project SAVE (the initials stand for Salute Armenians’ Valiant Existence) was primarily about Armenian social history. She felt each generation has its own approach and understanding of the past. She said that the archived photographs represent the changes in all of our lives. A selection every year is made for the Project SAVE calendars to show a different theme to the public, and each picture tells “a little story.” There is enough variety concerning Armenian life across the decades to form an inexhaustible reservoir for future calendars.
She spoke about how moving Project SAVE from New York back to the Boston area years ago opened up greater opportunities of funding and connection with the public. She does programs in schools with children and events for senior citizens, but photographs are a way to easily make connections with people. Photographs from Project SAVE have been used in exhibits, plays, museums, books and other fora. While speaking, Thomasian showed some photographs from the archives to the audience, and made a plea for donation or sharing of original photographs.
Thomasian concluded by introducing Tsoleen Sarian, the new associate director of Project Save, as the next generation of leadership of Project SAVE. Sarian’s grandparents donated their photos to the archives. Sarian said she feels it is important to continue the work that they valued — the preservation and continuation of the stories, customs and values of the Armenian community through Project SAVE, which shares this collective memory with the world. Sarian explained that the digitalization of the entire archives, which allows the Armenian heritage to be more accessible, needs the support of the entire community.
Sarian then introduced Suzanne Adams, the archivist of Project Save. Adams said that having original photographs helps tell the most accurate stories. In their original form, photographs are artifacts created in a particular context, time and place, and their analysis can determine, for example, approximate dates when these are otherwise unavailable. She said 5,000 out of 45,000 photographs have been digitized. The next step would be to put the collection online, which would require a great commitment of resources, as Sarian pointed out.
Tufankjian and Alexanian invited Tom Vartabedian, a longtime supporter of Project SAVE as a journalist and photographer, a financial donor and a board member, to the stage to be honored with an award. He congratulated Thomasian for her 40-year commitment. He introduced his family members, including wife Nancy, daughter Sonya with husband Pat, and son Ara with his own daughter Maya. He declared, “I list five qualities that embellish my life: My family, God and my church, my health, my Armenian ethnicity, and, last but not least, my career as a journalist and photographer.”
Vartabedian called upon Nicole Babikian Hajjar, chair of the 40th anniversary committee, and Sarian, to join him in a presentation of a gift to Thomasian. The organizing committee presented her a photograph of Haghartsin Monastery on a cloudy, misty day. There was however a ray of sunshine, which, Vartabedian said, represents Ruth Thomasian.
Thomasian then introduced the next speaker and honoree, Mangassarian-Goschin, visiting from Los Angeles with her daughter, as “the queen of Armenian culture in LA.” She has helped many organizations and individuals involved in Armenian cultural endeavors, and is a connector of people, Thomasian said. Mangassarian-Goschin felt the Ararat-Eskijian Museum was a treasure-trove, and once stepping foot there she could not leave. She thanked Thomasian for her tireless efforts with the photography archives, “a visual reminder of who we were and are.” She related the story of how she found the miniature version of the Armenian orphan rug at the US White House in the home of Elibet Kunzler, daughter of Swiss missionary Jacob “Papa” Kunzler, in 2014, and placed it on display in the Ararat-Eskijian Museum.
On behalf of Dr. Hayk Demoyan and the Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Mangassarian-Goschin presented Thomasian with a gold Aurora Mardiganian medal. Mardiganian, who underwent many torments during the Armenian Genocide, became a film icon of Armenian suffering in the US, helping raise money for Near East Relief, but died in poverty and isolation.
Thomasian then recognized the volunteer work of Vartus Varadian, a designer and art director who served Project Save for many years and also was a member of its 40th anniversary event committee, with a gift.
Finally, the head of the event organizing committee, Hajjar, told a brief anecdote. She said that while with a group of close friends last year, one asked the question, what would you take with you if you had to leave your home quickly in an emergency. Most answered that it would be their family photographs. Hajjar encouraged audience members not to wait for such an emergency to ensure the safety of their photos, but instead to share them with the Project Save archives. There they would be carefully documented and preserved, and bear witness to Armenian identity, culture and heritage.
Hajjar thanked the members of her organizing committee, including Rita Bejakian, Ari Bekian, Nairi Havan, Nancy Kalajian, Lorky Libaridian, Lalig Musserian, Varadian, and Vartabedian (along with Thomasian and Sarian). She encouraged guests to participate in the wine pull contest—a type of raffle to raise funds, and to buy a signed copy of Tufankjian’s book, There Is Only the Earth. A portion of the book sale proceeds went to Project SAVE.
Finally, Thomasian thanked Hajjar for all her help, and the guests enjoyed a dessert reception.
Door prizes, photographs and books, including some by the two masters of ceremonies, were given away in a unique manner throughout the formal program. Photographs were taken of all guests entering, and periodically they were randomly scrolled through on screen until a winner was chosen and called upon to receive his prize.
For more information on how to contribute to Project SAVE’s work, see projectsave.org.