Photographer Kevork Kahvedjian, 63, owes his life’s work to his wife Hasmig’s decision one day in 1989 to clean out the attic of their house in the Old City’s Armenian Quarter. There to their amazement they discovered box after box stuffed with thousands of historic but long-forgotten silver nitrate and glass plate negatives of Jerusalem, Mandate Palestine, Transjordan and Syria shot by his father Elia in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
A dutiful son and skilled portrait photographer in his own right, Kahvedjian Jr. began cataloging the negatives, and the following year mounted an exhibit at the American Colony Hotel. Indeed Elia Kahvedjian’s evocative B&W photos won critical acclaim, and in 1998 his son published Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes.
A year later Kahvedjian Sr. passed away and the book became his epitaph. But the impact of his documentary photographs continued to grow; by 2003 his son ceased working as a professional portrait photographer to concentrate on marketing his father’s life oeuvre.
When I first met Elia Kahvedjian and his family twenty years ago, we were all a lot younger.
Twenty years ago, Jerusalem's Old City was a simpler place to live and the upper end of the Via Dolorosa was one of its quietest spots. There, behind the landmark orange storefront with Photo Elia in bold black letters above the door, you could almost always find Elia Kahvedjian, Photo Elia's founder and longtime proprietor.
Twenty years ago, Elia was one of the first Jerusalem Armenians I met after arriving here as a new teacher. Courtly courtesy, a keenly benevolent eye and a never failing kindness towards even young foreign visitors—Elia's good qualities were many and obvious. They had long since earned him a respected place in the Armenian community, and among his broader circle of clients and customers.
But behind the obvious qualities there was a darker depth, too. I often thought that his must be an interesting story. In those days, I had no idea how interesting. Years later, I began to hear bits of Elia's story from his family. Then, a book appeared based on his childhood memories, memories of the 1915 massacre of Armenians in Ourfa seen through the eyes of a five year old child, and told with a child's directness. He recounts how he was bereft of all the large family who had loved and doted on him, sold as a slave, pursued and slashed by starvation crazed men turned cannibal, reduced to begging on the streets in other towns. Hair raising things to hear; how must they have been for a child to live?
Elia tells the story of his life with the complete candor of a child, without an adult's critical judgment, bitterness, or philosophical rationalization. He recounts simple reality, simply. The impression his story makes is immense, because it is so immediate.
That same quality of recounting simple reality simply, is what makes Elia's photographs such a joy to look at. Seen over and over again, they lose none of their appeal. One can live them; they are simple reality.
Elia began taking them in 1924. By then, he was a young man of nearly twenty. Picked up with other orphans by the American Near East Relief Association, he had been taken to Lebanon, then to Nazareth. In the A.N.E.R.F. orphanage, his artistic talent attracted attention. Assigned by a teacher to draw the human skeleton, he managed to find a cement bag and something to sketch on it with. Impressed by his improvisational skills, the teacher invited Elia to study photography with Krikor Boghosian
When he finally came to live in Jerusalem, Elia brought with him an eye already trained to see. It was an outsider's eye, an eye with no agenda beyond the pure delight of seeing what is there. When he put that eye behind a camera, it captured Jerusalem's reality just as it appeared to a young man from Ourfa, captured the essence of the ordinary, the depth in what was simply everyday Jerusalem. A truly invisible photogra¬pher, he let his pictures speak for themselves. They were an avocation, a personal col¬lection.
The other areas of Elia' s life prospered. One of his sisters was discovered living in Syria, the only other survivor from their extended family. Through her, he mar¬ried an Armenian girl from Ourfa, Azniv Devijian He opened three shops. With the photographs he had taken as a hobby, he planned to issue a series of postcards depict¬ing Jerusalem life.
But the 1947 war intervened. Elia and his wife Azniv, warned that trouble was coming, hurriedly carried things from their three shops in what is now the area of the Dan Pearl Hotel. The negatives were packed into boxes and put in storage. There they remained until 1987 when their son Kevork discovered them. Realizing that he had found a historical treasure trove, Kevork printed and catalogued the collection of fourteen hundred photos. Then at the insistence of his wife Hasmik, the photos were exhib¬ited together for the first time in 1993 at the American Colony Hotel. The appeal of the photographs was immediate. People who feel the same connection to Jerusalem's life that Elia did have carried his photographs to every continent, framed memories of the essential Holy City.
From one perspective, Elia Kahvedjian is part of a long tradition. The fascination of Armenian photographers for Jerusalem goes back to the earliest years of pho¬tography itself. From the nineteenth century Armenian Patriarch Yesai, who produced historic photos in his rooftop monastic laboratory overlooking the Old City, to the youngest generation of Armenian apprentices today, the Armenians have faithfully recorded the events of their Jerusalem world on film.
In another way, though, Elia is unique. He inspired his sons and grandsons to carry on his work; three generations of Kahvedjians behind the lens have now captured seventy-five years of life in an ever more rapidly changing city.
Today, Elia is nearing ninety. He lives quietly with his wife Azniv, surrounded by three generations of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Other branch¬es of the family are in America, Canada and Syria, but this branch has no intention of leaving Jerusalem. Now that young Elie and Rupen are carrying on the photographic tradition, who knows how many years of Jerusalem life still wait to be captured and recorded through their camera's eye and their family's special vision of this city.
Lecturer in Armenian Studies
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem