Broken Worlds in a Photographic Gallery

By Rachel Melikian

Photographs preserve history and teach us about the past without any language involved, but as the saying goes a picture is worth a thousand words. Now most of us are amateur photographers using smartphones to capture selfies and personal photographs, gather images when we travel, and chronicle our personal histories. Professionally skilled or not, we capture photos and upload them to share with the world instantly due to modern advanced digital technology.

Without the photographs, we remember things, but we don’t clearly see the beauty of the past. We remember the cherished memory, and the mind is not able to actually see and cherish the beautiful dream that once we enjoyed. We are able to reminisce but when we look at a photograph we see immediately with our eyes what we once had and how it is now fleetingly gone before our eyes. A different time. Life is changed. The youthful beauty. Shattered dreams. Broken dreams. Altered civilization. Collapsed civilization. Sadly, any historical landmark or artifact to be lost for future generations, you lose that insight to their daily life, routines, culture history, archeological and spiritual sites.

But nothing disappears entirely. Memory keeps thoughts about things alive. History cannot disappear, but without old photographs, we often cannot know the visual past. With our current technology such as Google satellite maps, we will be able to reconstruct the past much better than the previous times. Technology can help us to preserve these historical sites.

There are many examples to show how photos help us to recreate the past. Photographs can provide important information about world events, such as 9/11, the disaster of the Dorian hurricane, the destruction of Palmyra, the Amazon Rainforest fire, the 1988 Spitak earthquake, Armin T. Wegner’s photos of the Armenian Genocide, the Paris Notre Dame fire, and the Great Fire of Smyrna in 1922. Photos of these events helped convey truths about world politics and kept the world informed about catastrophes. Otherwise, the world might not have known, or seen, or understood the magnitude of the disasters.

The 9/11 attacks and photojournalism:

Images of the collapse of the World Trade Center and the crash at the Pentagon will help teach the future generations about the horror of what happened. One could refer to these resources in order to show New York before and after 9/11 when the Twin Towers fell.

We utilize different means of photographic images at our disposal to capture and convey stories instantly. Technology speeds things up and satellite images can give us a 3-D, bird’s eye view of the world that even professionals would not be able to capture. The haunting photographs of the recent Amazon Rainforest fire show the significance of the satellite imaging.

We have photos archived by such institutions as National Geographic and the Getty Museum that are devoted to the purpose of preservation, which can help us recreate and see the past. Instagram, on the other hand, gives us access to events such as the Notre Dame fire instantly.

Hurricane Dorian and NASA’s images:

The view from space can give us the perspective of the enormity of the Hurricane Dorian. Through NASA imaging we can see the shape of the hurricane, how big the storm can be and how fast it can travel, and create a natural disaster that man could be powerless to fight alone.

Palmyra & Google satellite images:

Photographic images from Google satellite technology also tell us when we lose an important piece of history. Through this technology, we were able to witness the disappearance and destruction of the historic landmark in Palmyra, Syria. Palmyra was an ancient city and home to a theatre from the Roman Empire time and a trade route for caravans. It was located near a natural fertile oasis dating to the third millennium BC.

Organizations like Getty Images can use the internet to pull together hundreds of images and put them in one place for people to be able to easily see what is now lost in history.

Amazon Rainforest fire & NASA’s images:

Through satellite technology, NASA captured images of the Amazon Rainforest wildfire. Once again photographs in the form of satellite imagery give a different view and give us an impression of the scale of the disaster. Space-age NASA is not only able to capture images but also gives us the view of how carbon monoxide (CO) is being spread over South America.

Armin T. Wegner’s photos of the Armenian Genocide:

The famous photos of the German medic Armin T. Wegner from the era of World War I (1915-1916) captured the horror of the Armenian Genocide and the Armenians’ deportation to the blazing hot Syrian Desert. He took them secretly to preserve truth and justice by putting his life at risk. Here no satellite technology existed. Wegner worked on his own and was able to expose the atrocities of this moment in history to the world through his photos. Wegner’s photographs left us with a strong visual historical account of the Armenian Genocide. The enormity of the horror cannot be captured in a snapshot, but they are valuable evidence.

The impact of photos of the 1988 Spitak Earthquake:

The most devastating earthquake during the Soviet Union era was the 1988 Spitak earthquake, which flattened the entire city of Spitak, Armenia. The 6.9 Richter scale earthquake was the largest in the past 1,000 years in the Armenian Highland. The world would not have known about it if weren’t for the 24-year-old Jon Dee, who saw the satellite photos and footage and shared them with the western media and the rest of the world. This was during the last days of President Ronald Reagan’s administration, and before the inauguration of President George Bush.

Damage in the Armenian city of Gyumri caused by the devastating 1988 Spitak earthquake.
“ArmeniaGyumri012” by tjabeljan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

At the time of Spitak earthquake a photo was taken of Reagan, Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in New York. Within three days, Reagan sent rescue efforts to Armenia. Shortly thereafter, rock & roll artists such as Queen, Pink Floyd, Rush, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple, formed their earthquake relief campaign called Rock Aid Armenia. None of this would have been possible without Jon Dee’s effort to distribute the satellite photos.

(Read more about “The Earthquake That Rocked the World.”)

The Notre Dame fire & multitude of images including Getty’s:

The Notre Dame fire in Paris was discovered by a simple smoke detector alarm. In this case, sophisticated technology such as satellite imaging was not needed. The historical moment of the fire was captured by multitudes of photos, including the selfies of the bystanders, the news media photographers, and those who took the famous Getty fire images.

Even though the detection was done by simple technology, the firefighting efforts used elaborate technology like drones, robots, and thermal imaging, which allowed them to see where the hot spots were. Possibly without this technology, we could have lost the whole cathedral. Also without the Seine River, the firefighters would not have had the water supplied by the pump-boats, and all the hard work, effort, and technology would have been in vain.

Technology and water alone wouldn’t have saved the artifacts of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. You needed hundreds of people to be there, by helping to move the artifacts by forming human chains and risking their lives for a building. Of course, this was not any building, but a historical monument and a UNESCO World Heritage site, which had taken 200 years to complete. Notre Dame is one of France’s most important cultural icons.

Besides technology and manpower, the spirit of the French people played a role in saving the cathedral, when they gathered around the Seine River to hold a vigil, pray and sing throughout the night and day just to save Notre Dame from destruction.

Notre Dame would be renovated with money given by the government of France and fundraising events. Although there are detailed plans of the cathedral, it was also very important that there exist millions of photographs, many of which will be used to help rebuild the cathedral to its former glory.

Although we have all those at our disposal, it won’t be ready in five years for the next Olympics in France as France’s President Emmanuel Macron promised. Most experts say the renovation will take 20 to 40 years. Reconstructing a historical site takes decades to complete despite having all the technology, photos, money, and manpower at our disposal.

The power of photos of the burning of Smyrna in 1922:

The catastrophe of Smyrna is known as one of the great fires of the world and yet most people don’t know or talk about it. Smyrna, the old city of the Byzantine Empire and a major port, was burned in its entirety, except the quarter of the perpetrators, around the time of 9/11 only 79 years earlier in 1922.

How can you rebuild a cosmopolitan city, or how long would it have taken to rebuild it? How much would it have cost, and would its persecuted population be able to return? But return from where? Return from death? Should those who fled return to their demolished city to be burned, persecuted, and massacred again? This was the experience of Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians, Christians, and other ethnic groups who were eradicated from their hometown, purportedly by the Turkish army of the Young Turks and the perpetrators of the Armenian Genocide. There have never been any consequences for the perpetrators.

The photographs are evidence of the fire. History was there to witness what was Smyrna before 1922 and after the fire. This includes eyewitness accounts of Turkish soldiers’ actions, such as entering homes with cans of petroleum literally to burn them down. What more evidence do we need to confirm this tragedy happened? The burning of Smyrna happened nearly 100 years ago and there has never been an acceptance by Turkey of what happened or why. Surely we need answers given. The fire of Smyrna was around the same time that the genocides against Armenians and Greeks were happening. The perpetrators just eradicated the Greek hometown and they called it their own town, and renamed it as well, now known as Izmir.

Are there lessons to be learned from this? Sometimes we don’t learn from history. We just stare before a shattered history and don’t see the past. Let’s go back to the gallery of photographic archives. There, photographs can tell us a thousand words that capture history in real-time and help us to remember the past and how things have disappeared before our own eyes.  That helps us keep what’s broken alive in our mind

Rachel Melikian is former GCC Woman of the Year.

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