On March 7, 2021 the Open Central Asian Photo Archives/Открытый Центральноазиатский Фотоархив (https://ca-photoarchives.net/) opened. An exciting project is open to all potential collectors who would like to share photos of Central Asia of the nineteenth to the late twentieth century.
Svetlana Gorshenina, a historian, Research Professor at the National Center for Scientific Research of France (CNRS), and co-founder of the International Observatory Alerte Héritage, describes this project in detail.
Your new project, the Open Central Asian Photo Archives/Открытый Центральноазиатский Фотоархив, presents photographs of Central Asia from the middle of the XIXth to the end of the XXth century. Tell us more about this project and the history of its creation.
Several factors prompted me to create the Open Central Asian Photo Archives.
Studying the history of the cultural heritage of the Turkestan Governor-Generalship and Uzbekistan in the first decades of Soviet rule , I realized the importance of the visual component of this history and how difficult it is to find photographs for publication, which are scattered across numerous museums, archives and library collections in Russia, the Central Asian republics, Europe and the United States .
Unfortunately, working in some archives in Central Asia is a matter of luck, personal connections, patronage, and the political weight of the ambassadors of Western powers, who guarantee admission to Central Asian archives for foreign researchers. National museum catalogs, such as those of the Russian Federation  or Uzbekistan , and well-designed websites of individual institutions, including the Kunstkamera or the Institute of History of Material Culture, have made some collections available. However, these virtual catalogs represent at best 10% -12% of existing photo collections, and obtaining permission to publish certain documents is complex and expensive.
Moreover, the procurement policy of state institutions does not provide for the systematic purchase of family photo archives. Private archives are often discarded, sold for pennies at flea markets, concentrated in the hands of specialized antique dealers, or deposited in private, inaccessible collections. Without these kinds of photographs, the reconstruction of daily life of several generations in Tsarist Turkestan and Soviet Central Asia becomes a difficult task, and the analysis of the past loses an important visual component. This desire – to save this very fragile and vulnerable part of the cultural heritage of Central Asia – was one of the main drivers to create this project.
Additionally, in the last ten years, interest in photography of the Turkestan Governor-Generalship and the Soviet republics of Central Asia has grown. Specialized groups from various social networks gather thousands of people from Central Asia, Russia, Europe, America, the Middle East, and Japan, to discuss, analyze, and identify photos (including family photos), creating a “people’s” reconstruction of the past, a visual alternative to official stories. However, the photos are stored in a constantly-changing news feed, and it is nearly impossible to locate photographs without the exact name or date of publication.
Finally, I realized that this field of knowledge, the history of Central Asian photography, occupies a marginal position in various hierarchies of knowledge. Today, there are no more than 20 specialists, and this number is unlikely to increase without a reliable, public archive.
Hoping to reverse this trend, I organized a series of events dedicated to the history of photography in Central Asia. Together with Sergey Abashin, a professor at the European University in St Petersburg, we held the international conference “Another Turkestan: Unknown Photos of the Asian Outskirts of the Russian Empire” in St Petersburg in 2018, uniting experts from Uzbekistan, Russia, France, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium . The materials of this conference contributed to the collection Photographing Central Asia. From the Periphery of the Russian Empire to Global Presence, which will be published in 2022 by the prestigious German publishing house De Gruyter, edited by Sergey Abashin, Bruno De Cordier (Professor at Ghent University), Tatyana Saburova (Lecturer at Indiana University), and Svetlana Gorshenina. In September 2021, the following exhibition of Turkestan postcards from the collections of Nizami Ibraimov and Sergey Pryakhin will open in Ghent: Catching the end, convergence or the beginning of (a) world(s)? The visualization of early-twentieth century Central Asia through postcards of Tashkent and its surroundings. This exhibition was prepared in collaboration with Bruno De Cordier and Anatoly Otlivanchik, an expert on the history of photography in the region. In 2022, my book, dedicated to the analysis of the reception of photos of tsarist Turkestan in social networks, is scheduled to be published. An article devoted to the socio-political aspect of the existence of photography in the Turkestan Governor-Generalship – Photography and the Tsarist Colonial Administration of Turkestan: Constructing History and a Place Between the Past and the Future – will be published in a few months in the journal of the International Institute of Central Asian Studies (IICAS). The inauguration of the site of the Open Central Asian Photo Archives is another stage of this huge programming.
The implementation of this project took several years. We are very grateful to the institutions that supported us in the second phase of our project (2019-2021), namely the Eur’Orbem research group (UMR 8224) of the National Center for Scientific Research of France and the Sorbonne University, the House of History of the University of Geneva and the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences of the University of Ghent.
The project is very ambitious, and it covers a broad time frame. It is geographically focused on the whole of Central Asia and offers photos from private family archives, postcards, and pictures from professional photographers. However, there is a relatively large number of postcards from Uzbekistan or districts and cities related to modern Uzbekistan. Why is this?
The idea of the Open Central Asian Photo Archives is simple. Together with my colleagues, art historian and curator Boris Chukhovich, and the wonderful programmer Alexey Bartashevich, we created a platform that is open to any contributions to the project, whether from famous collections or from family archives. The database is built on a segmental principle: each participant can develop their own collection within their segment. The individual segments are linked together by a powerful search engine that allows you to search for photos according to various parameters – shooting location, year, author, identified characters, keywords, publishers of postcards.
The resource accepts high-resolution photos and provides the necessary tools for their description and systematization. We are happy to provide assistance with the introduction of photos and their descriptions into the system.
At the time of the opening of the Archives, we already display the collections of Irina Bogoslovskaya, Francois Guichard, Nizami Ibraimov, Yulia Pelipay, Sergei Pryakhin (with the permission of his daughter Vera Chernova), Claude Rapin, Mikhail Veryugin, and my own small collection. We are eternally grateful to these first project participants who supported our initiative.
Currently, the Archives is dominated by postcards – not only because they represent the most popular and accessible material, but also because we were able, thanks to Anatoly Otlivanchik, to collaborate with one of the largest Russian collectors-philocartists, Nizami Ibraimov.
Regarding the geographical dominance of Uzbekistan, most of the collected documents relate to the Turkestan Governor-Generalship , and only 400 of the 1353 images represent the Soviet era. The bulk of the Turkestan Governor-Generalship and its main well-known cities (Samarkand, Bukhara, Kokand) were located on the territory of modern Uzbekistan, and these areas were frequently the subjects of photographers and publishers of postcards of the XIXth-early XXth century. There are also photos that correspond to the territories of modern Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.
Opening the Archives to the general public is the first step in creating a database that, over time, hopefully, could be compared – relatively speaking – to the Getty or Europeana databases. Our resource is one of the largest systematized representations of Central Asian photography in the online space, containing 1353 visual documents.
The next question follows from the previous one. To what extent do you think it is feasible to expand your collection to represent other Central Asian countries and to include photos from family archives or professional photographers? How do you plan to expand the collection? Will you make an open call inviting anyone to join the Archives with their photos? Or in another way?
The development of the project depends on the desire of people to share their collections and family archives. We are encouraged by the precedents to our project, such as the “Big Russian Album.” We don’t plan to hold an open call because the Archives was conceived as a long-term program, and we invite everyone to participate without restriction. We are grateful to anyone who advertises information about our project. We will contact interesting collectors, photographers, and public organizations directly, inviting them to participate in the project. We will also negotiate with state institutions (museums, libraries, archives).
As a rule, each photo is accompanied by information, but in some special cases, it is limited. For example, in the section “Archive of Svetlana Gorshenina. Collection ‘Photos of the XIXth century from the archive of the SG’,” there are the studio pictures “Portrait of a man with a girl” and “Portrait of a man.” Is it possible to find out where these photos were taken? In general, will there be scientific processing of photos?
It depends on what you mean by “scientific processing” of a photo. The Open Photo Archives is not a complete scientific study, nor is it a thematic exhibition project that involves special scientific comments from curators. Our Archives is a database, which provides detailed descriptions of photos and postcards. These descriptions include the original name, the year of creation, the author of the photo or the publisher of the postcard, the identified characters, the price and circulation of the postcards, and if possible, the size of the photos. Each image is accompanied by several keywords, enabling users to conduct a thematic search. This is a classic systemization of scientific descriptions of images. The database also provides a text field for each pictorial document, allowing the collector to add any information that is important from his or her point of view, such as additional information about the people depicted in the photos (biographies, memoirs, genealogical reconstructions, documents), photographers/photo studios/postcard publishers, social or urban contexts, or monumental and architectural monuments. The Thesaurus category of the site contains a large list of publications on the history of Central Asian photography, valuable for both amateurs and specialists, information about the publishers of postcards, and in the future, there should also be a directory of photographers.
Perhaps it is the “collective intelligence” of the Open Archives and the availability of a large amount of material that will lead to the identification of individual people. Unfortunately, an automatic facial recognition system was not included in the database for a number of technical reasons.
However, the Open Archives already had an amazing discovery just upon opening. The photograph, formally identified as “Man with a girl” in the process of completing the archives, turned out to be a photograph of … Emperor Alexander II and his daughter Catherine (https://ca-photoarchives.net/photos/23400/). A small oval card, covered with some sort of plastic and most likely framed, ended up in Valent Tresvyatsky’s album in Samarkand. It most likely belonged to this surveying officer. But why did he bring it to Turkestan? Or did he get it in Central Asia? In any case, this identification was possible thanks to the Open Archives and diligent observation of Vasily Artyomov.
The Open Archives is listed as open, but photos can not be taken from it without the permission of the photo owners. Any users must contact the creators of the site for this permission. Is there a contradiction?
There is no contradiction here. The Open Archives is open, because 1) any person or institution can participate in it for free by sharing their collections on the platform; 2) any internet user has free access to the Open Archives. However, the collections are the property of their owners, who have the right to use these images at their own discretion in accordance with existing copyright laws. Our resource serves as a platform for their storage, description, systematization, and presentation. We can facilitate contact between the owner of the collection and individuals potentially interested in publishing photographs or presenting them as part of exhibition and museum projects. To do this, just write a request to the contact email address specified on the Archives‘s website.
Our Open Archives acts as a unique museum project. Our collectors-participants benefit not only because their collection is published, visible and discoverable to other exhibitions or publications, but also because we guarantee the storage of its electronic copy on the site for … the next 30 years.
 This topic was the subject of my professorial dissertation Pour l’histoire culturelle de l’Asie centrale : « Faiseurs de patrimoine », 2016.
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Translation by Leanna Kramer