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Syrian Refugees and Women Photographers

Posted On September 22, 2020 | 09:30 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Isabella Beroutsos makes research in cultural heritage and art history widely accessible

Isabella Beroutsos, an exhibition consultant and development intern at Koszyn & Co., was a 2019–2020 humanities fellow. Her research presentation, “Mapping People and Places Through Photographs: The Frank Kidner Collection at Dumbarton Oaks and the New Woman Behind the Camera Exhibition at the National Gallery of Art,” offered a window into ongoing research and public engagement at these two institutions.


Q&A with Isabella Beroutsos 

What is the Frank Kidner Photographs Collection, and how does it help preserve world heritage?

In the late 1980s and 1990s, historian Frank Kidner photographed the architectural remains of Syria’s Dead Cities, which includes one of the world’s oldest preserved Byzantine churches. The Dead Cities are a collection of about 700 small rural Byzantine villages that dot northwestern Syria. Kidner’s documentation covers archaeological expeditions since the late 1800s, though at Kidner’s time, the site was emerging as a tourist destination. 

But the Dead Cities have become a battleground since the Syrian Civil War began, as the region sits by the Turkish border. In 2011, UNESCO tagged the locale as a World Heritage Site, perhaps to protect these structures, but that’s an intangible protection. Migrants and others displaced by the war have sought refuge in the Dead Cities, since their home lives are threatened. 

The Kidner Collection contextualizes violent military conflict. When exploring the collection, we gain a visual understanding of the landscapes Syrian refugees must cross, while also coming to terms with the fascinating histories of land that has now become a war zone.


How have you worked to increase access to these photographs? 

We make these images freely accessible on Wikimedia Commons and HOLLIS Images. Working with Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives Manager Bettina Smith and postdoctoral fellow Stephanie Caruso, I have learned that collections management is as much about the audience outside the institution as it is about the preservation of collections internally.

For example, when cataloguing photographs for HOLLIS, Harvard’s digital library system, I had to think about who might benefit from this information. It could be a Byzantine architecture scholar looking for specific evidence, or a freshman who’s perusing the library for class. 

Because we also upload our photos on Wikimedia Commons, our audience includes the global public. Someone could read an article about the Syrian Civil War, search the name of one of the Dead Cities affected, and find Dumbarton Oaks’ photographs of that village. With the Kidner Collection, we can make the photograph’s information and the depicted histories accessible to virtually anyone. Since we can’t determine who’s going to come across the images, we have to be prepared to share them with every possible user, which is a great thing!


What projects did you work on for the National Gallery of Art during your fellowship? 

I have been assisting Associate Curator Andrea Nelson with New Woman behind the Camera, an upcoming exhibition focused on global women photographers between 1920 and 1960. The interwar period saw large-scale growth among female professional photographers, thanks to new opportunities in education and the professional world. Many of the featured artists worked as fashion photographers, war photojournalists, government photographers, studio portraitists, or a combination. 

But research on this remarkable period usually focuses on western Europe and the US coasts. New Woman Behind the Camera introduces and prioritizes a global approach to learning about this moment in photo history, showcasing the networks among photographers worldwide. The artists exhibited together, apprenticed for each other, joined celebrated artistic groups and schools, and declared each other their creative inspirations. Both the thematic links and the diversity of photographs in the exhibition demonstrate the direct and indirect symbiosis of this community of women photographers. For example, Japanese photographer Tsuneko Sasamoto cites Margaret Bourke-White, Life magazine’s first female photojournalist, as a major motivation for her photographic pursuits. 

I researched for the catalogue and wall labels, working a lot with translations, as many photographers didn’t speak English. I’ve also developed an online mapping tool to visualize the networks between these women and how connected they were. 

New Woman behind the Camera differs from the Kidner Collection project, but they both add to our cultural map of unexplored narratives. The National Gallery exhibition goes beyond the ambitions of women in the interwar period to map networks of influence between these individuals around the world. Kidner’s photographs give a visual and cultural context for the Syrian Civil War, showing the history of a landscape that is now a site of refuge.


Julia Ostmann was 2018–2020 postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.