Orphaned Photos Find a Home with Project SAVE

Hekimian family of Dikranagert representing writer’s family

BY TOM VARTABEDIAN

WATERTOWN, Mass.—You don’t have to comb the Caribbean to find buried treasure. Nor the end of a rainbow.

Sometimes, it’s right there under your nose, in places you wouldn’t think to look like an attic or basement.

While it may not be gold bullion coins or a cache of diamond-studded jewels, it could be something else holding its value — a box full of old family photographs laying idle in unsuspecting places bearing a lifetime of fond memories.

Such was the case when I moved from an old home I occupied for 40 years to a condo. Suddenly, I stumbled across pictures that have outgrown the annals of time.

Or so I thought.

In their original boxes they stood, dating back a generation or two, handed down from heirs I never met and those who had little regard for old photos. Many were falling from the albums to which they were attached. Others were strewn about carelessly and with little regard.

They showed my mother and grandmother as young girls, their wedding photos, and their children at various stages of growth.

Pictures of my parents in their coffee shop back during the 1940s with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland on the theater marquee next door.   An Army photo of myself struck a nostalgic chord, not to mention my late brother shown in uniform.

A while back, I polled a class of students on the Armenian Genocide and asked this question, “If you were living in Historic Armenia during 1915 and knew the Turks were about to invade your village, what prized possession would you take while fleeing?”

While others pointed to a cross, a bible, a sentimental object, even a pet, one 16-year-old gave an unsuspecting answer.

“I would take the photographs I have of my family,” she answered. “That way, if they are killed, I would have pictures to remember them by.”

It was such an eloquent response that I couldn’t help but share in the teenager’s wisdom. Pictures that tell stories and preserve a slice of history forever. What could be more intrinsic than that?

It didn’t solve my dilemma, however. Boxes of remnant photographs depicting a family’s history that were left abandoned. I needed some direction.

The answer became obvious. Why not Project SAVE? Let Ruth Thomasian share the bounty. She’s been a veritable Geiger Counter when it comes to seeking out lost and neglected art treasurers. This tireless executive director never met an old photograph she didn’t like.

Sitting across the table from her at 65 Main St., where her office is located in the ALMA building, there she was poring over the photos I had brought, looking to preserve a cross section of family images. Posterity is one facet of her diamond. Historical consequence and research are another. No telling where my pictures would ever wind up or whom they might benefit, long after I’m gone. Genealogy is an active science I’ve come to respect.

You can talk about the 36 years of activity or the 25 calendars Project SAVE has introduced. You might appreciate the collection it has harbored over that time with 35,000 photographs dating from 1860. Unique in its mission, the archives preserves the fragmented heritage of dispersed Armenians through photographs and memories of life in Historic Armenia.

Every image is painstakingly documented and catalogued by Thomasian and a staff of dedicated workers, many of them volunteers with a passion toward preservation.

My family pictures were in good hands. Maybe I was one of the fortunate ones to see some results. Other people were being caught in a dilemma as to their family’s images. In some cases, the photographs would never be revealed and gone into the heap pile with no tangible results.

With a pad of paper and pencil in hand, she set to work recording information on each and every image before her. The routine never slid into tedium, always fresh and reverberating.

Thomasian was a scion for detail to the point of passion. Proper names? Villages? Family history? In one case, she researched a movie on the marquee just to ascertain an approximate date and give it added credence.

“ If these pictures could talk, they would speak volumes,” she told me.

I was quickly informed that aside from preservation, the pictures would be used to develop a curriculum for teaching history through the study of photographs. I found out something else, too. There were 1,500 other donors like myself who approached Project SAVE in an attempt to keep their photographs and memories alive.   

As we approach the 96th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, Project SAVE will be working in overdrive. You’ll see photo displays at the State House in Boston and other places where commemorations take place. My family’s images from Dikranagert and Guerin, not to exclude places like Somerville, MA, may get some exposure.

Then there are the summer camps, theatrical productions and cultural exchanges where they have been exposed.

Just as a seed in fertile ground germinates and bears fruit, the same could be said for photographs, I suppose. At the time when they were taken by amateurs, little did anyone know 50 or 60 years ago they would serve as a basis for historical content.

“Our purpose is to make our resources available and increase our outreach to the academic communities, general public and greater Armenian community,” Thomasian pointed out. “Most of my knowledge of Armenian heritage comes directly from the hundreds of photo donors I’ve visited over all these years. They have shared incredible stories that not only document their history but often go beyond what the eye can see.”

For further information on Project SAVE, call (617) 923-4542 or e-mail: archives@projectsave.com.

It took about three hours before all was said and done.  I walked away whistling a happy tune, knowing my pictures had found a better home.

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One Comment;

  1. manooshag said:

    Tom, Enjoyed your article and I know the feelings you had upon sharing your photos with the most valuable Ruth Thomasian’s Project SAVE. I had this same feelings when I was able to give but one, the one and only family photo we had, which we had duplicated to share within our family members. Ruth had explained that only originals could be included in Project SAVE… which we submitted. It was a photo of my grandfather, his wife, and my father and his siblings as children… from Dikranagerd where my grandfather was the artisan who was able to create goods from leather, such as shoes, saddles, luggages and more… We studied this photo as it told us that his family had dressed for the photo occasion – we learned of their clothing, for we were needing to read as much as we could from this one photo. Too, we were reminded that Armenians then and into today, were/are creative and advanced in arts. We read the faces of those lost to us – from our one, precious, photo.

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