By Dr. Rona Sela
JERUSALEM (Haaretz) — The painting “The Citrus Grower,” whose recent acquisition for display in the Knesset caused a storm, is based on a portrait of a Palestinian family from Jaffa in the 1930s. The original photograph was taken by Elia Kahvedjian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. He was born in Turkey in 1910, and experienced the death march with his family. He was saved by a Kurd whom they encountered along the way. His mother, who understood where they were headed — and who had already lost three other children since the start of the march — gave Elia, then a young child, to the Kurdish man to save him.
After an arduous journey, and the loss of most of his family, Kahvedjian finally arrived in Nazareth with the help of the American Aid Association for the Near East. He got his love of photography from Borosian, a teacher at his boarding school in Nazareth. When he turned 16, this love took Kahvedjian to Jerusalem, where he studied photography with the Armenian photographers Joseph Toumaian and Garabed Krikorian, and later started to work at the shop of the Hannania brothers, Christian- Arab photographers.
The Armenians were among the local photography pioneers in Palestine in the second half of the 19th century, and Kahvedjian continued this glorious legacy. In 1940, he bought the shop from the Hannania brothers, and thereafter became a very active and successful photographer, opening two more shops at the end of Jaffa Road, near the Fast Hotel. There were numerous such shops in this area, including those owned by photographers Chalil Raad, Garabed Krikorian and Militad Savvides. After the war in 1948, the area became a no-man’s land. Alerted in advance, before the war, by friends in the British army, Kahvedjian was able to save his negatives and the contents of the store in time, and he opened a photography studio in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The store has been located in the same place ever since and the work there has been carried on by Kahvedjian’s son Kevork and his grandson Elli.
Throughout his life Kahvedjian was involved in Arab society in Palestine and documented scenes of daily life in cities and villages — chess games, women at a well, the plowing season, a Friday market, the orange harvest and more — many of them near Jerusalem, but also elsewhere, such as the Jaffa port. Copies of these photographs, produced from the original negatives, may still be purchased at Kahvedjian’s studio. He did not document the Old Jewish community of Jerusalem and avoided photographing the new Jewish-Zionist settlement. At the same time, Kahvedjian sometimes documented the consequences of the Arab struggle against the Jews, such as Jewish vehicles that were damaged and left by the side of the road in Bab el-Wad (known by Israelis as Sha’ar Hagay, on the road to Jerusalem).