Dr. Arto Vaun

With Vaun at Helm, Project SAVE Continues Documenting History One Family at a Time


By Taleen Postian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WATERTOWN — As Project SAVE Armenian Photographs Archives, Inc. is approaching its 50th anniversary, it will have a new person at the helm, Arto Vaun.

Project SAVE’s mission since its founding in 1975 by Ruth Thomasian has been to translate the box of family photos in the attic into history. Now, with the advent of technology, it seeks to become an interactive site within the Armenian community and communities beyond by creating eye-opening photo exhibits, working with academic and artistic professionals, and hosting workshops for every demographic to learn and connect with the past.

Group of diasporan Armenians posing in Worcester soon after the Genocide two flags, one the American flag, displaying their freedom to enjoy the beautiful day. Worcester, 1918 Courtesy of Carnig Alexanderian Credit: Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives

A native of Boston, Vaun spent the last seven years living in Armenia, during which time he was the founding director of the American University of Armenia (AUA) Center for Creative Writing and Chair of the English and Communications BA program. At AUA, he taught courses in poetry, literature, Modernism, and creative writing and founded Locomotive, the first non-Armenian literary journal that was based in Armenia and exported to bookstores worldwide. Vaun is also a poet and musician, having published and performed widely. Besides Armenia, he has also lived in Glasgow, Berlin, and Beirut.

Vaun, in an interview last week, said he believes the executive director position is a great fit, marrying his background in academia and the arts with an historic and creative mission. He said, “What I love about the photographs of Project SAVE is that they touch upon the intersection of culture, history, identity, and art.”

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Vaun is determined to carry forward Thomasian’s and former director Tsoleen Sarian’s mission to put Project SAVE more “on the map” and outward looking. “We’re going to be opening it a lot more to younger demographics, non-Armenians, researchers, historians,  artists, and filmmakers; it’s a treasure trove of so many incredible photographs. The 50th anniversary is the perfect time to take it to the next level.”

The celebration of culture in Project SAVE’s photographs connect with Vaun’s passion for “cultural work,” defined as, “whether it’s music or poetry, that’s what I’m concerned with; [it’s about] expressing or manifesting different ways and questions of what it means to be alive and be a human being.”

Young diasporan Armenian man poses with his bicycle. Fresno, 1901 Courtesy of John Babaian Credit: Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives

Vaun views cultural work as bigger than just preserving a nation’s history or focusing on ethnicity, “I believe the root cause of the difficult place the world is currently in has to do with the fact that we have often privileged consumerism and capital over culture and genuine connection,” he said.

The value of culture is, sadly, often revealed when it is lost, Vaun explains. “The fact that we even take this stuff for granted means that it’s very powerful. If you’re taking something for granted it means it’s so part of the fabric of everything that if it were to disappear tomorrow suddenly people would miss it.”

Project SAVE works to make sure that the past, with its memories, history, and stories, is preserved, and stays connected to the present in order to inform and inspire the future, he noted.

Vaun wants to bring Project SAVE’s collections to institutions and people interested in this visual exploration of the Armenian journey. A large portion of the collection centers around the diasporan experience — Armenians becoming American. As Vaun explains, “These immigrants who are in these photographs, they are before our eyes in a state of becoming American or Argentinian or Lebanese or German and so forth.” He goes on to note how this on-the-surface uniquely diasporan Armenian experience is in fact universal. “It’s a fascinating story for any American because that’s everyone’s story. We all came from somewhere.”

Diasporan Armenians gathering outdoors to eat in California, likely taking part in the long tradition of Armenian picnics. San Francisco, 1920s Courtesy of Leo Keoshian Credit: Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives

Project SAVE has tens of thousands of photographs for people to explore. Its archivists work to catalog and digitize their collection of around 55,000 original photographs and documents of Armenian life in the homeland and diaspora. While only a small percentage of the collection is digitized, their website is available for professionals and the public alike to view a wealth of captioned photos sorted into groups based on themes, including, “Dance,” “Liberty” and “Commemorate.” Their team of archivists is working diligently to digitize and catalogue more of the archive and with the goal of having even more available online for public engagement.

The website also houses digital photo exhibits, such as “Armenian Picnics,” celebrating the gatherings where cultural traditions are passed from one generation to the next and “Spirit of Survival: Armenians through the Camera’s Eye,” commemorating Armenian resilience throughout the 1915 Genocide.

When asked to describe Project SAVE in three words Arto Vaun chose “Preservation, Creation, and Community.” He explained that while Project SAVE is “about preservation, I think going forward it should also be about creation and community. I mention community…in the sense of human connectedness,” he continued. “I think the creation part is about what comes out of having that preservation … What do we do with all these memories and all these photos? We have to create and connect.”

Project SAVE wants to encourage that creation and connectedness through holding workshops that bring together the world of archiving and the communal world of cultural work. These workshops will feature professionals in different fields and will provide educational, artistic, and volunteering opportunities.

“We need to better appreciate cultural institutions, not just with words but with actual engagement, in whatever form that may take,” he noted.

Engagement doesn’t only need to come from those who already know or support Project SAVE.  Vaun’s aim is to have “different demographics engage with the photos, and ultimately to walk away with something, whether it’s research, an artwork, or other tangible form of connection and creation,” showing that while Armenian archival work may be the backbone of Project SAVE, it is what people from all backgrounds create after coming to visit that matters most.

He concluded, “With this kind of unique visual archive, when you combine the academic and educational with creativity, art, and different perspectives, you can engage with a lot more people. That’s good for Project SAVE and it’s also good for the community [at large].”

To see a collection of their photographs, visit https://www.projectsave.org/



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