Nonprofit has collected 45,000 photographs of Armenian culture.
With no homeland, a genocide, and a lack of information, how can a culture be remembered?
Ruth Thomasian was asking those questions of her Armenian heritage in the 1970s, wondering about that part of her identity and the people that came before her.
She found out the village where her family was from the village of Anchertee which is Armenian for “without water” in the state of Arabkir. Living in “Water town” now the history comes full circle, Thomasian says.
Based on what she learned about her family and based on her love of history she decided to take on the preservation of Armenian culture herself and created a place where that history could not only be preserved but valued.
She created Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives in 1975.
Thomasian is founder and president of the nonprofit.
“I started it back in 1975 when I, as a young person, was looking for my identity living in New York City,” she said. “I was working in the theater as a costume designer and I got a play to costume and there was no research to show me what people looked like from the homeland.”
More than four decades later, the nonprofit has collected 45,000 photographs and has digitized 8,500 of them since 2009.
“Our mission is to collect these photographs document them and also make them available,” said Tsoleen Sarian, executive director of Project SAVE Armenian Photographs Archives. “We are always growing and looking to help people connect with the photographs and see things they have in common whether its by place or time and the more we collect the richer the tapestry becomes.”
Photos from Project SAVe were part of a Netflix documentary “They Shall Not Perish: The Story of Near East Relief” by George Billard. The documentary featured nine photographs from Project SAVE’s collection that detailed life before and after the genocide of the early twentieth century where approximately a million Armenians were killed.
“It’s intrigued me putting the pieces of the diaspora back together through the photographs,” said Suzanne Adams, archivist, for Project SAVE. Adams has been at the nonprofit for the past 11 years and has helped to digitize the collection to allow the photos to be shared across all mediums.
Collecting is a constant process. Many photos have been found in garage sales and through a variety of donors. There have been 1,550 donors of photos to date.
There is a use for old photos and they matter, Sarian says.
“If they don’t know what to do with photographs if they don’t know the people in the photographs anymore those photographs are very valuable to us,” she said. “We want to collect them the more information someone has the better obviously we want people to know that we collect photographs and we are then able to use them and share them and tell their stories.
“They were important people and even after the genocide even all around the world those people have stories and we want to share them and we can share them if they’re with us,” she added.
Project SAVE can help families connect the dots with their past. Often one photo can help others remember.
“Before it used to be your family’s recollections or stories but now a lot more is available and that’s why I’m interested to is to create this dialogue with people each of us may have a little shred of information but together collectively the whole story comes together,” Sarian said. “And so that’s why it’s important for me to have people talk about this and bring people together about this.”
What started as a personal mission has now taken on a larger meaning, one that Thomasian hope brings a sense of pride and awareness to Armenians seeking more clarity about their history.
“We Armenians have a need–we did not know anything,” she said. “This was one way of finding information that would be otherwise lost we didn’t have a country. If you’re French or Italian you have a country to go to and learn who you are and what your culture is–we didn’t have that. What does it mean to be Armenian? I learned by talking to my surrogate grandparents. All of these photo donors were my elders.
“We had a real deep need emotional need for it so I was willing to spend my time doing it,” she added.