There is a small shop in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem, it’s called Elia Photo Service and you should definitely visit it if you pass by the Holy City. It belongs to the Armenian Kahvedjian family, and it is the best place to find historical pictures of Jerusalem and surroundings. I talked to the grandchild of the late Elia Kahvedjian, who had come to Palestine during the Armenian genocide and amongst other things started to take pictures, without knowing that he was providing the historical memory of a world that was to be brutally destroyed in a very short time. Here is what Elia, who’s named after his grandfather, told me.
My grandfather was born in Urfa, Turkey. When he was more or less five, he lost all of his family in the Armenian Genocide. With other orphans of the genocide he was taken to the Middle East, precisely in Nazareth. Here one of his teachers was a photographer and he used to take my grandfather around with him, not to teach him photography but to carry plates. This is how my grandfather got interested in photography. At the age of 16 he went to Jerusalem with another nine orphans. They were given a room in the Armenian quarter. He started working in photography as an employee at a photo shop outside the wall, and later on he opened his own place and set up a business, which went very well until 1948. Then the riots started and lots of shops were destroyed. Luckily he used to work for the British Army and Air Force, developing their negatives and printing pictures, so an army officer went to inform him two days before the big raid on Jerusalem. He advised to take everything away, so my grandfather took two army trucks and loaded them with material, negatives, pictures, that he hid in a basement in the Armenian quarter. Everything remained there until 1987, when my parents decided to clean up the place and found all these negatives, plates, etc. With the riots my grandfather had lost everything, so he had started from scratch in a new place. In 1949 he bought the shop where we still are today. He was a photographer, painter and musician.
The pictures that we sell today at Elia Photo Service are by my grandfather who started taking them in 1924, but also by other famous photographers, and some date back to 1860. We keep them as a form of continuation in history through pictures. Elia Photo Service has become a sort of historical archive because it shows how people used to live in this area seventy or eighty years ago, and how life dramatically changed. That’s also why my father Kevork made the book that is so well-known in Jerusalem today: Jerusalem through my father’s eye. It is a collection of pictures that show how people lived, worked and entertained themselves not only in Jerusalem but also in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, the Sea of Galilee and Akko, and some sceneries.
We have all sorts of customers at Elia Photo Service : Arabs, Jews, foreigners, diplomats, in short everyone who is interested in historical pictures. What also makes my grandfather’s pictures so special is that he concentrated on people. This was very new because at that time the sensitivity of the films was low, making it very hard to photograph people, since they were moving thus spoiling the picture. But he chose men, women and children as subjects, and through his very beautiful photographs it’s like people were talking to you.
We do not live in the Armenian quarter today. I lived there until I was a child, but now I am happy to be out of the wall. The Armenian quarter is very crowded and all the houses are interconnected, there is no privacy. There used to be 40.000 Armenians in Jerusalem, now you can hardly count 2.000. Many emigrated to the US, Canada and Australia. The situation here is hard for everyone, although I can tell you that Armenians are positively neutral people. We are a family of photographers, and that’s what interests us. I take pictures and my 4 year old son already has a camera. This is not just a profession, this is our life.
A note from the interviewer: you can find Elia Photo Service behind the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Take the stairs that bring you to the Mosque of Omar and when you reach the top and meet a street, take a right, and turn into the second street on your left. If you get lost, ask – everybody knows the shop !
If you are interested in buying the wonderful book Jerusalem through my father’s eyes, please do so in the shop itself (Kevork, Elias’ son and a very kind man, will sign it for you) : don’t buy it in other places in town that have reprinted it and sell it without permission !