Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

2 posts from September 2014

23 September 2014

Faces and Places in Iran: Iranian photography at the turn of the 20th century

This month's blog is written by Robert Miles who is part of the EAP team and is currently cataloguing our very early projects. Obviously EAP001 caught his interest and it is easy to see why.


The very first EAP project, and one that has recently been made available to view online, consists of a fascinating collection of images taken in late 19th-early 20th century Iran. This pilot project identified important photographic material collections in 13 urban centres in Iran and investigated the feasibility of digitising these collections in the future whilst producing samples of the images. These images chart the development of photography in Iran, from early glass plate negatives to modern-style studio portrait photography, as well as providing visual evidence of the rapid social and cultural changes and modernisation of the country.

Official portrait. The sitter is in military uniform displaying many medalsEAP001/1/2 - Photo of Mass'oud Mirza Zell al-Sultan [1890s]

Photography was introduced into Iran in the mid-19th century Qajar era shortly after the birth of popular practical photography with the daguerreotype in Europe. During the reign of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar, King of Persia 1848-1896, photography was accepted and encouraged as a vital means for the court to document important events and ceremonies and to capture portraits of themselves and their families. Naser al-Din Shah Qajar’s eldest son, Mass'oud Mirza Zell al-Sultan (1848-1917), a powerful prince of the Qajar dynasty and ruler of Isfahan, followed his father’s interest in photography and employed photographers within his court. His portrait can be seen in the image above.

Throughout much of history, portraiture was used as a status symbol and the introduction of portrait photography continued this. From the late 19th century through to the late 1940s portrait photography remained available in Iran only to those who were relatively wealthy and/or with positions of power. Many of the photographs in this collection clearly show the elevated social class of the subjects, or perhaps just an image of an idealised representation they wanted to portray. The displays of wealth, evident in the type of clothes the subjects wore or the possessions and objects they chose to be photographed with helped to display this wealth and social standing, as well as the individual’s skills or profession.

Portrait, the sitter has a rifle in one hand and the neck of a hookah pipe in the other. He is smoking the pipe.
EAP001/6/1 – Constitutional Revolution Hero, Sattar Khan.

  Group photograph of clerics.
EAP001/1/2 - Group portrait of clerics at the house of Mirza Malek al-Tojar, Esfahan. c.1900-1920

The collection includes photographs from many key figures in the history of Iranian photography including Ernst Hoeltzer, who states his reasons for documenting the rapid social and cultural changes and modernisation of the country,

“the culture of Persia and Isfahan is about to change drastically and already in the last few years many foreign and European styles and luxuries have been introduced. The old buildings and customs (even the clothing) are gradually disappearing with the result that all those things that have been described by Chardin and Tavernier will simply no longer exist. In fact people will begin to doubt and reject what they have described. Furthermore, I have had time and opportunity to photograph several of the most interesting landscapes, buildings and squares during the last years of my stay – which pleased me all the more since many of the buildings which I had photographed were destroyed shortly after.”[1]

  Large group of men looking at the camera. Buildings are visible in the distance.
EAP001/7/2 - Mass demonstration by workers in Esfahan [1940s-1950s]

Many of these changes can be observed in the photographs within this collection.  They are most obvious in the portrait photographs taken after the transition from the Qajar dynasty to the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi. The Pahlavi dynasty came into power in 1925 with ambitious plans to modernise the country, including embarking on major infrastructure projects, developing new industries, and establishing a national education system. The modernisation plans also included a ban on the wearing of traditional Islamic clothing. Men were forced to abandon their traditional clothing and wear modern European style suits, and women were forbidden to wear Islamic coverings and veils when leaving their homes. Portraits from this period are clearly distinguishable due to these changes in clothing.

Studio portrait of three women (two seated and one standing).They are wearing coats, one wears a hat and another has her hat on her lap.
EAP001/1/2 - Group portrait photograph of three women, taken after the first Pahlavi dynasty placed a ban on Islamic coverings and veils. c.1925

  Portrait of a generation. Mother, daughter and grandson
EAP001/7/1 - Polish refugees in Iran c.1942-1944

The project also digitised a small selection of Abolghasem Jala’s portraits of Polish refugees in Iran. After the invasion of Poland during the Second World War by both the Germans and the Russians in 1939, many Poles were sent to prison camps within the Soviet Union where they remained until after Operation Barbarossa in 1941. The surprise German attack on the Soviet Union and the need for new Soviet allies, led to a reversal in the treatment of Soviet held Polish prisoners of war. The Soviets freed tens of thousands of Poles, granting many of them ‘amnesty’ to form a Polish army which would help fight the Nazis. This ‘army’ (known as the Anders’ Army) were then sent along with many thousands of Polish refugees to Iran, Iraq, and Palestine.  It is thought that between 114,000 and 300,000 Poles were sent to Iran during this period.

These portraits taken by Abolghasem Jala, between 1942-1944, show some of the Polish refugees that migrated to Iran. During this period Abolghasem took thousands of photographs of these refugees at his Sharq photographic studio in Isfahan.

Portrait of children. Three older girls stand and wear identical coats. A younger child stands holding their soft doll and two boys sit on the ground (they also wear identical clothing and caps).EAP001/7/1 – Polish refugees in Iran c.1942-1944

If you can find a copy it is well worth checking out Parisa Damandan’s book, Portrait Photographs from Isfahan: Faces in Transition, 1920-1950. Parisa was a co-applicant for EAP001, and her book features a number of photographs from this collection as well as many more fantastic portraits and also includes an essay documenting the history of photography in Iran and the Isfahan region. Parisa also has another book worth finding which focuses on Polish refugee children in Isfahan, The Children of Esfahan: Polish Refugees in Iran: Portrait Photographs of Abolqasem Jala, 1942-1945.

Finally, I’ve selected a few photos below that have caught my eye and thought were worth sharing. EAP001 is full of great images however so please click on the link below and have a look for yourself

  Two views of Imam Reza Shrine. On the left, a black and white photograph with many people standing outside. On the right, a colour photograph showing how it looks today.
EAP001/16/2 - Commemorating the Day of Ashura at the Imam Reza Shrine, Mashhad [1901], alongside a 2005 image of the Shrine.

Image 2: IA Source at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], from Wikimedia Commons

  Portrait of a young girl sitting on a stool. She has her back to the camera and her head is turned towards to right so she is in three quarter profile. Her long hair reaches past the seat of the stool.
EAP001/1/1 - Portrait photograph of a young girl. 1953

  A young boy dressed in military uniform.
EAP001/6/1 – no details

  Three men stand looking at the camera. The central man, possibly a wrestler is barechested.
EAP001/7/2 - Traditional sportsman and companions [1940s]

For further information about EAP001/7/2 please look at the following article on Encyclopaedia Iranica


Damandan, Parisa, Portrait Photographs from Isfahan: Faces in Transition, 1920-1950, London: Saqi Books (2004)

Scarce, Jennifer, Isfahan in Camera. 19th Century Persia through the Photographs of Ernst Hoeltzer, London: Aarp (1976)



[1] Scarce, Jennifer, Isfahan in Camera. 19th Century Persia through the Photographs of Ernst Hoeltzer, London: Aarp (1976)

07 September 2014

New online collections – September 2014 – three million images online!

Last month eight collections went up online EAP010, EAP040, EAP105, EAP219, EAP254, EAP341, EAP443 and EAP644.

It was only two months ago that we reached two million images online and this month we are happy to report that we have now broken the three million barrier! This is largely thanks to EAP341 a project which contains around 750,000 images.

EAP341 is a project that preserved printed books and periodicals held in public institutions in Eastern India. Many of the public libraries in that area are now suffering from a financial crisis that makes most of the documents vulnerable to loss or degradation. The project digitised materials from eight public libraries in the districts of Howrah, Hooghly, 24 Parganas North and 24 Parganas South, all located in semi-urban and rural areas within the proximity of Calcutta. This project helped to preserve these materials digitally and make them available to researchers.

00000005EAP341/5/587 Image 5

EAP644 digitised part of the Fouad Debbas collection. This consists of over 3000 photographs which were produced by the Maison Bonfils from 1867-1910.

Established in 1867, the Bonfils house set out the first photographic studio in Beirut. Mr Bonfils and his wife Lydie, apparently the first woman photographer of the area, along with their children succeeded in capturing some fascinating images. These include pictures of a region of immense physical beauty, landscape photos of Beirut and Baalbeck and portraits of different ethnic groups. They also provide a record of rapid socio-economic change during a crucial moment of the region’s history. The Bonfils Debbas collection is an invaluable document registering the history of a region at a crucial crossroads in the wake of great historical upheaval. For more information about the collection have a look at our previous blog ‘The Good Woman named Bonfils’.

TFDC_163_010_0217_01EAP644/1/27 Image 11

EAP040 digitised medieval and early modern archival material of the Brasov/Kronstadt and Burzenland region in central Romania.

The material from 14th to 17th centuries from this archive is one of the main sources for Transylvanian history in today’s central Romania. Documents that were digitised included
; ecclesiastical material with focus on the 16th to 17th centuries, the collection of Joseph Trausch (manuscript copies covering the whole period), documents on educational matters focusing on the 16th to 17th centuries, cultural matters (music, liturgy, buildings, local traditions and legends) and correspondence (warfare, defence, political relations).

1EAP040/1/110 Image 2

EAP254 digitised the library of the church Romanat Qeddus Mikael Dabre Mehret, Enderta in Ethiopia. The library possesses around 70 codices and includes several valuable manuscripts of high quality, some of them with illuminations and valuable marginalia. The library of Romanat Qeddus Mikael was built up over more than 300 years. The collection builds an indigenous and integral local record in a region important for the history of Ethiopia. The library remains practically unknown and is endangered due to the poor preservation conditions.

EAP254_RQM_050_006EAP254/1/50 – Image 5

EAP010 preserved rare periodical publications from Mongolia. Mongolia underwent significant political and economic change during the collapse of Communism. The euphoria of revolution led to neglect or even intentional eradicating of documents, publications and other materials from socialist times. Political and economic dependence upon the Soviet Union for seven decades and the resulting sudden release from political ties meant that everything related to the Soviet Union and the period of its dominance was subject to denial. In addition, the deep economic crisis in the 1990s meant that cultural issues including the maintenance and development of libraries, publication of books and actions to safeguard the documentary heritage of Mongolia were not the priority for the government or public for a while.

The periodicals digitised cover the transition period of 1990-1995. They document the political changes in Mongolia after the fall of Communism. The project resulted in scanning 39,029 pages from 6,189 issues.

Ab950121_01EAP010/1/1/21 Image 1

EAP219 is a project that catalogued and digitally preserved the endangered Nôm archive at the Institute of Social Science Information (ISSI) in Hanoi, Vietnam. Nôm was the national script used in Vietnam for over 1,000 years since the country's independence from China in 939.

The project completed a thorough inventory of the archive and digitised the volumes from the most vulnerable section of the archive. These include village and district records of families, land ownership, real estate and property exchanges, contacts with the royal courts, decrees by various emperors as well as some maps. Since Nôm was the national script used in Vietnam for over 1,000 years, the archives have an inestimable historical value providing, together with Han-Viet records, the main written record of the history and culture of Vietnam for 10 centuries.

Issi_HN_0533_001_001vEAP219/1/14/5 Image 2

EAP105 digitised the manuscript collections of Drametse Monastery and Ogyen Choling in Bhutan.

Drametse Monastery, founded in 1511 by Ani Choten Zangmo, the grand-daughter of the famous Bhutanese saint Padma Lingpa (1450-1521), is one of the major monasteries in eastern Bhutan.
Drametse's manuscript collection includes the 46-volume rNying ma rGyud 'bum, sixteen volumes of Prajnaparamitasutras and about a hundred and fifty volumes of miscellaneous titles including religious hagiographies, histories, liturgies, meditation manuals and philosophical treatises. Many of the books are written in dbu med script, indicating that the books were most likely brought from Tibet in the distant past.

Ogyen Choling, located in central Bhutan, is a seat of two famous Nyingmapa saints, Longchenpa (1308-1363) and Dorje Lingpa (1346-1405). Although historically a religious establishment, it is now a manor house of the family which claims direct descent from Dorje Lingpa. Its library, housed in three of the five temple rooms in the manor complex, contains several hundred titles of manuscripts ranging from pilgrimage guides to philosophical treatises, including a beautifully executed 21-volume set of Dorje Lingpa's writings. Professor Samten Karmay has recently catalogued the collection highlighting some of the rare works of Zhang Lama Drowai Gonpo (1123-93), Lhodrak Drubchen Namkha Gyaltshan (1326-1401), Wensa Lobzang Dondrub (1504-1566) and Jangchub Tsondru (1817-57). In addition to the manuscripts, Ogyen Choling also owns a large body of books printed from xylographic blocks.

D.032 002EAP105/2/7/4/15 – Image 2

EAP443 carries on the work of pilot project EAP284, which surveyed records related to the slave trade held at the Sierra Leone Public Archives.

The materials being targeted here include valuable documents of immense importance for research on the transatlantic slave trade and its repercussions. The original Registers of Liberated Africans who were taken off slave ships by the Royal Navy from 1808 to the 1840s document more than 85,000 individuals. In addition, there are Letter books which provide information on the treatment and ‘disposal’ of tens of thousands of “receptive” Africans, court records, treaties with local chiefs, and other documents that are essential materials for any research on Sierra Leone. Moreover, there is important genealogical information for many people in Sierra Leone, including birth and death registers from the 1850s. Additional materials include registers of “foreign” children resident in Freetown, dating from the 1860s onwards, and registers of slaves who had escaped from the interior to Freetown, as well as letter books in Arabic that relate to political and commercial relations with the interior of West Africa in the second half of the 19th century.

More than 170 volumes held in the Public Archives of Sierra Leone were digitised, with over 32,000 images. Collectively, these volumes provide information on the identities, origins and experiences of enslaved Africans forcibly relocated to the British Crown Colony in the nineteenth century. Other volumes relate to the inward migration of people from the colony’s hinterland, including registers of slaves who had escaped from the interior to Freetown. The volumes include series of registers of births and deaths, which are in a particularly fragile and endangered condition.

Eap284_liberated_african_register_25423_30708_1827_1829_011EAP443/1/17/12 – Image 11

Check back next month to see what else has been added!

You can also keep up to date with any new collections by joining our Facebook group.