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Armenian Image Archive aims to illuminate Armenian experience via photography

A boy carries a loaf of bread in the Armenian city of Gyumri in a photo from “Aftermath: The Armenian Earthquake of 1988,” an exhibition presented by the Armenian Image Archive. (Courtesy of Asadour Guzelian)

By Lori Garavartanian

Dec. 2, 2021 6:07 p.m.

The Promise Armenian Institute at UCLA partnered with a film foundation to create an image archive to recognize and celebrate decades of Armenian photography.

The Promise Armenian Institute signed an official memorandum of understanding with the Armenian Film Foundation in April, said Hasmik Baghdasaryan, deputy director of the Promise Armenian Institute, in an emailed statement. This led to the creation of the Armenian Image Archive.

The reason for the development of the partnership can be traced back to the founder of the Armenian Film Foundation, J. Michael Hagopian, said Carla Garapedian, a filmmaker and board member for the Armenian Film Foundation.

Before becoming a filmmaker, Hagopian was a UCLA lecturer and helped establish the first chair of Armenian Studies at UCLA. Garapedian said he was one of the first filmmakers to make a documentary about the Armenian genocide, a campaign of deportation and mass killing of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. She added that Hagopian’s history was one of the reasons the Armenian Film Foundation hoped for a joint project with the Promise Armenian Institute.

The project is interested in Armenian photographic collections and photographers with photos of Armenian subjects and is not bound by a particular time period or geographical region, Baghdasaryan said.

“The Armenian Image Archive has three goals: preservation, research, and exhibition of Armenian photographers and photography related to Armenian subject-matter,” Baghdasaryan said in the statement.

It will present various collections from the 19th century as well as contemporary Armenian photographers, such as Asadour Guzelian, Baghdasaryan said in the statement. She added that there may be collections in personal archives that have not been published, which the archive hopes to introduce and showcase.

Baghdasaryan said the Promise Armenian Institute hopes the collaboration will bring awareness about Armenian photographers and their work to non-Armenian communities and encourage people to take up scholarly or artistic study of photography. The Promise Armenian Institute and Armenian Film Foundation are also collaborating with the UCLA Library system to provide public access to the archive.

Ann Karagozian, the inaugural director of the Promise Armenian Institute and a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, said in an emailed statement that the archiving capabilities of the UCLA Library would be important in the collaboration.

Karagozian said that she, alongside board members from the Armenian Film Foundation, discussed and planned the library’s engagement with the project even before the memorandum of understanding was signed.

UCLA has an open-access principle, which is something new for the archive world, Garapedian said. The open-access design allows for free access to photos while still establishing copyright ownership, she said.

“I think that’s an important step, becase especially for the Armenian collections, (for) which it’s taken so long to get the stuff, then you don’t necessarily want to give it away,” Garapedian said, “But in the case of educating people about what happened, it’s important to share the images.”

Open access often helps such archives collect more information, which allows for a clearer picture to be formed about the story of the Armenian people, she added.

More than a century has gone by since the Armenian genocide, Garapedian said, but due to different experiences in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, much of the history remains a puzzle of stories. Photography and the Armenian tradition of photojournalism can help piece together these experiences, she said.

Photography and photojournalism have led to awareness of this violent history on a greater scale, including in universities, Garapedian added. At Columbia University, there is a department that is gathering information and eyewitness accounts about what happened in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region of Armenia that was torn by war when Azerbaijan attempted to annex much of the area in late 2020.

“I don’t think that would have happened had those photos not been out there,” she said.

The Armenian Image Archive looks to further awareness efforts regarding Armenia and its people through various exhibits. However, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made estimating timelines difficult, Baghdasaryan said. Six virtual exhibits can currently be viewed on the Armenian Image Archive website, and more work is underway, she added.

The Armenian Image Archive held its inaugural event on Nov. 18. “Aftermath: the Armenian Earthquake of 1988” was a webinar presenting the work of photographer Asadour Guzelian, according to the Promise Armenian Institute website. His work showcased the state of Armenians after the catastrophic 1988 Spitak earthquake.

The Nov. 18 event was the inaugural activity between the institute and the film foundation, Karagozian said. Future plans include exhibits and collaborations in the curation and archiving of films and photographs with the UCLA Library and other UCLA units.

Garapedian said those working on the Armenian Image Archive are open to being approached by UCLA students and getting feedback from the UCLA student body.

“Hopefully we will be having some exhibitions on campus in the next year or the year after so that we can have an ongoing dialogue about this,” she said. “I think it can be a forum for contemporary discussion, as well as the past, and I’m really looking forward to that.”

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