Looking through the Lens of History at Life of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey



By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

WATERTOWN — The long shadow the Armenian Genocide has cast on the lives of those in the Armenian Diaspora is brought to light in the exhibition “Reimagining a Lost Homeland: Ottoman Era Photographs from the Dildilian Studio.”

The exhibit, put together from the personal collection of Prof. Armen T. Marsoobian, opened at the Armenian Museum of America on January 8 and will go on through April 2. It is co-sponsored by Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives.

Marsoobian, a professor of philosophy as well as the Philosophy Department Chair at Southern Connecticut State University, is a grandchild of Tsolag Dildilian, who along with his brother, Aram, owned and operated the Dildilian Brothers Studio in Anatolia. He has been the de facto keeper of family photographic archives.

The exhibit is an offshoot of the book Marsoobian wrote about his maternal ancestors, titled Reimagining a Lost Homeland: The Dildilian Brothers Photography Collection.

In essence, Marsoobian said, the family has taken photos for 100 years, capturing much of Armenian life in the Ottoman Empire.

Unlike many families where the stories of the Armenian Genocide and survival were repressed, in his family, “the stories were told again and again. My parents told us about what happened and I started to see many of the photos during family reunions. Most of it was with my uncle in Hartford. As he declined in health, he started to give me the material and hoped I would preserve it and do something with it.”

That was in the early 1980s but a family and career delayed work on the photos. However, 10 years ago he started cataloguing them in earnest and going through the archives of the images. He said his college friend, author and poet Peter Balakian, “kept encouraging me to do something more with it,” he said.

The exhibit easily ties in to his main interest, philosophy, he said, as it is his “ethical obligation to share this material” with the world. “It is a philosophical approach to the problem. I see it as important for the present or the future.”

“We have a moral obligation based on our history. It is an obligation that gets passed down from generation to generation,” he said.

“They should see a culture they don’t know very well and see the culture intentionally destroyed and erased,” Marsoobian said.

“There are whole series of photos of members of the family that did not survive,” he said. “Only the immediate family survived.”

There are photos of refugees fleeing the horrors, as well as German soldiers holding skulls.

The photographs, he said, make abstract history real. “Even if they [viewers] know in abstraction what happened, putting human faces on the historic facts takes the issue to a new level. “That is part of my goal. I would like to be in venues that express it to those not familiar.”

Marsoobian said, in August 1915, “my grandfather, who was a founder of the photo business, because of close relations and the work in Marzovan with the commander of the gendarmes, and the fact that he was in the Ottoman army as a photographer,” when the deportations were going on, they were spared. They were the last family to leave Marzovan. They were given a choice to be able to stay in Marzovan if they converted to Islam and assumed Turkish identities. They did.

They stayed form 1915 to 1918 and they continued to live in Marzovan. When the war ended, Marsoobian said, they reclaimed their Armenian identities and resumed the photography business.

They had no intention to leave the country as “they thought Turkey was going to go in a positive way.”

Sadly, however, things went from bad to worse, and Marsoobian’s grandfather’s life was threatened and they moved to Samsun from Marzovan.

In the Ottoman days the family started their business in Marzovan before being forced to relocate to Samsun.

“They left quite a bit behind,” Marsoobian said, about when the family was forced to leave Turkey. However, he said, “it is amazing they preserved as much as they did” considering how little time they were given to leave.

Not only did they manage to save so many photos, but Marsoobian’s great-uncle ran an orphanage in Samsun and the family had to clear out the orphanage. He had founded the orphanage in 1919 and ran it with support from the Near East Relief.

The Dildilian brothers saved about 1,000 photos prior to the family leaving the country in November 1922. They moved to Greece, where the family started a photography business again, until the early 1950s, when they moved to the US. In Connecticut, the family again continued the photography business until the early 1980s.

One of the factors that made the Dildilians’ studio unique then and subsequently provided a treasure trove for historians, was the variety of types of photographs. “There was a lot of work in portraits. They also did a lot of landscape photography. Much of it was quite technically advanced for that age,” Marsoobian said.

The Dildilians worked in Sivas, Marzovan, Tokat and Samsun. In Marzovan, he recalled, they took a 360-degree panoramic photo from the highest point of the town, the roof of the hospital. Twelve images were edited into the one photo, he said, which not only captured a unique image, but was “incredibly high resolution.”

They also took many photos of life in the countryside. Tsolag Dildilian was the official photographer of Anatolia College in Marzovan, Marsoobian said, and thus he had a lot of output related to the college.

“Some of them we own and some are used from the archives of the college in Thessaloniki, Greece,” he said. “Many of those landscape photographs were made into postcards.”

The photo exhibit, under the name “Bearing Witness to the Lost History of an Armenian Family Through the Lens of the Dildilian Brothers (1872-1923),” was first shown in Istanbul in 2013.

“The reaction was quite positive,” Marsoobian said, adding that the location of the exhibit, Depo, was dedicated to social justice.

The exhibit came at the tail end of the openness in Turkish society. Such an exhibit now would not be possible. “Gezi Park had not happened yet,” he said. “Things have progressively gotten more difficult.”

In addition to the exhibit in Istanbul, Marsoobian’s exhibit was shown in Marzovan, Diyarbekir and Ankara.

“I really want to give them back visually what many Armenians don’t have, which is their heritage, history,” Marsoobian said. “Many in the US are from Western Armenia. Not any one family had the kind of output we have,” he said. “I wanted it to be shared.”

The Dildilians’ images, Marsoobian said, surprised many Istanbul Armenians who knew little about the extent of Armenian cultural life and development in coastal Anatolia.

“Part of it is because of the kind of education they tend to receive,” he said. “They don’t hear what Armenian life was like.”

Marsoobian’s parents lived in West Village in New York. His mother was a Dildilian, born in Marzovan and left Greece after World War II. His father fled the Palu region during the Genocide and lived in Aleppo for a number of years before emigrating to the US in the late 1920s with his mother. He himself was born in the city and grew up involved in the Armenian community and church. He received his doctorate in philosophy and always had an interest in history and philosophy.

Marsoobian noted that a new book of photography is coming out in London at the end of the month, which will have 200 photographs from the 1920s to 1940s.

He lectures frequently on the moral and ethical questions tied to the Armenian Genocide and its recognition and reparations, reconciliation and memorialization. He has lectured on these topics in Armenia, Europe, South America and the United States. In 2011 he was the Nikit and Eleanora Ordjanian Visiting Professor in Armenian Studies, Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies, Columbia University and taught a graduate seminar entitled, “Memories of the Armenian Genocide: An Exploration through Memoir, Literature and the Arts.”

Plans are underway to show it to the larger community, at Columbia University in New York City, as well as at the Glendale Public Library in Glendale, Calif.

For further information about this ALMA and Project SAVE exhibit, visit www.armenianmuseum.org