Obama, the Armenian Genocide & the Photographic Record

2486681731_23e7d7b401Photo of Armenian Genocide survivors, AGBU Archive

Tomorrow is April 24, the day Armenians around the world commemorate the Armenian Genocide of 1915 perpetrated by the Young Turk government in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire. This year, like every year, Armenian Americans will be waiting to hear the US President use the “G” word to describe the events of the period.

This may be the year and the expectations are high since President Barack Obama has been more adamant about his support for Armenian Genocide recognition than any president in history [here is a 24 page PDF (1.8MB) outlining Obama’s support through the years].

While news pundits and denialists try to make the Armenian Genocide issue about Turkey or Armenia or something to be left to historians, the reality is that most Armenian Americans simply want their government to recognize the historical events as fact, which will, hopefully, put a stop to the Genocide denial industry of hate funded by Turkey and propagated in the US through paid lobbyists.

Here’s to hoping that change has arrived this year.

And while we wait for Obama to surprise us, every year is a challenge for me as I try to determine how to commemorate this tragedy that impacted my family. Some years I attend the noon rally in Times Square which takes place on the Sunday closest to April 24 (this year Sun. April 26) and other years I stay home and read something which teaches me about an aspect of the topic I didn’t know about previously. This year, I have chosen to remember through photography, or at least browsing as many images as possible about the tragedy that befell 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians. Looking at images from a bygone era can be remarkable and enlightening–but if you’re reading this blog you probably already know that. Thankfully one of the best resources is online and I am proud to say that I helped put it there.

Last year, AGBU, an international Armenian non-profit I work for, launched a Flickr page which has developed into a living breathing resource of contemporary and archival photos, including, most significantly, the archive of the AGBU Nubarian Library in Paris.

2487496310_129befbf34A photo of an Armenian Genocide refugee, AGBU Archives

Established in 1928, the Nubarian Library is a repository of about 10,000 photographs (not to mention manuscripts, books, and other documents). While only a fraction of those are related to the Armenian Genocide, what makes the images particularly important is that few images from the catastrophe actually exist.

Unlike the Holocaust of World War II, the Armenian Genocide left a very small photographic footprint. The Ottoman Empire was a technologically underdeveloped region and photography was not as common as it was decades later. The few images that survive were often taken by Western missionaries, diplomats, humanitarians or travelers. AGBU’s collection is also unique in that many of the images were taken by Armenians themselves.

For those who may be interested, in addition to the AGBU archive there is a famous archive of images by Armin T. Wegner in Germany. Wegner, it should be noted, after witnessing the horror that befell Armenians went on to be the only writer in Nazi Germany ever to publicly protest the persecution of the Jews via an open letter to Adolf Hitler in 1933.

One of the collections in the AGBU archive that fascinates me the most is the YPGNY Gerard Archive which contains hundreds of images taken by an American nurse who served with the American Committee for Relief in the Near East and worked directly with Armenian Genocide refugees.

2422148328_fa553e25f9A page from Ellen Mary Gerard’s personal photo album depicting her work helping Armenian Genocide refugees in Lebanon & Syria

Her stash of photos were purchased at the beginning of our own century from a military antique shop in Glendale, California by the AGBU Young Professionals of Greater New York (I was a board member of the committee at the time).

Among the chilling images are snippets of stories that cast a light on this dark chapter in history. The one that continues to touch me deeply is the tale of the “desert boy” [pictured below], who we only learn about through notes scribbled on the back of two of the photographs:

This child was found in the desert – He had lived on roots + herbs + grass for nearly two years. Was like a little wild animal when found. He was treated by M[Mr?].E.R. + survived.

To understand the Armenian Genocide all you really need to do is to look at his eyes, they seem to say it all.

The “Desert Boy” from the YPGNY Ellen Mary Gerard Archive, AGBU Archives

To view the small set of the “Desert Boy” click here.

Btw, feel free to explore AGBU Flick archive yourself.