When Kegham Djeghalian stumbled upon three red boxes tucked away and forgotten in his father’s wardrobe in Cairo three years ago, he couldn’t believe his luck.
The boxes contained the negatives of more than 1,000 photographs taken between the 1940s and the 1970s by Djeghalian’s grandfather, also named Kegham, who founded Gaza’s first photography studio.
"I grew up with the knowledge that my grandfather was the first photographer of Gaza and one of the most important," Djeghalian, an artist and academic, tells The National. "It was a given. Something I grew up hearing. But I never saw his professional photos until I discovered the negatives."
They were not categorised in any discernible order. There were no accompanying materials dating them or listing the names of those photographed. But the clutter of film rolls was the closest Djeghalian had come to his grandfather’s work and adopted hometown, and were the most vital evidence of his legacy.
Djeghalian took them to Paris, where he lives, and began developing them. The photographs he chanced upon were shown to the public for the first time in March, as part of an exhibition curated by Djeghalian for Cairo Photo Week.
The images are as stirring as they are informative of Gaza. Some are portraits and show subjects of various ethnicities, smiling and looking dreamily off-frame. Others show military personnel and gatherings, such as picnics and even costume parties. Varied and uplifting, the images provide a precious historical insight into the scarcely documented daily life of Gaza in the mid-20th century, before the Israeli blockade and heavy bombardment of the Strip.
Some are even an indication of how the city would look if it weren’t suffering from shortages of food, water and medical aid.
The images were exhibited similarly to how they were found: without names or dates. “I embraced this ambiguity in order to articulate the affective and the nostalgic, but also to acknowledge the disrupted narratives and contexts of Kegham’s story and his photos,” Djeghalian writes in the exhibition statement.
Originally from Armenia, Djeghalian's grandfather, Kegham, travelled to Jerusalem as a toddler with other survivors of the 1915 Armenian massacre.
He grew up in Jerusalem and Jaffa, working in a photo studio where he learnt the foundations of the craft. Then, in the early 1940s, he moved to Gaza with his wife, establishing his studio Photo Kegham in 1944.
“He saw a business opportunity, I think,” Djeghalian says. “He was advised to go precisely because there were no photographers and no photo studio in Gaza. Unlike in Jaffa and Jerusalem, there were also hardly any Armenian families there.”
Business acumen may have inspired Kegham to move to Gaza and open a photo studio, but it was his sharp documentarian’s eye that drove him to photograph everything he saw and made him an influential figure in the community.
“He was not a photojournalist,” Djeghalian says. “He did not work for any publication. He just had this urge to document everything.”
Kegham photographed the social and political developments in Gaza for almost four decades.
During its turbulent transition periods, he was there, documenting daily life under the British mandate, which ended in 1948, as well as the Egyptian rule between 1949 and 1956, and again from 1957 to 1967.
He also photographed the refugee camps that sprouted around the suburbs of Gaza after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, and documented the Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1956 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.
Djeghalian says sometimes Kegham played a more active role with the Palestinian resistance than simply documenting the struggle under Israeli occupation.
“I found out that my grandfather was working with the Egyptian intelligence in 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza,” he says. “He would send them negatives not only from Gaza, but from a network of Armenian photographers working in the West Bank.”
How did Djeghalian come to know this? While researching for his Cairo exhibition, he conducted and recorded a series of interviews with people who had known Kegham. Some were played as part of an audio installation at the exhibition.
“Through word of mouth I met someone in London who is from Gaza and he happened to be the 12-year-old boy who was charged with actually transporting these negatives to Egypt. He told me my grandfather was extremely patriotic and a supporter of the Palestinian cause. He had even earned the nickname Al Musawer Al Fedai [The Guerrilla Photographer].”
While his family left Palestine for Egypt shortly before the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, Kegham refused to leave until his death in 1981. “He loved Palestine,” Djeghalian says. “He loved Gaza. It was his home.”
After his death, Kegham passed his photo studio on to his assistant, Maurice. When Maurice died, he left the studio and its archive to his brother, Marwan.
After finishing art school in 2007, Djeghalian developed an interest in recovering his grandfather’s archive.
A few years later, Djeghalian got his hands on a few postcards that showed pictures of the Gazan landscape. To his surprise, some of the postcards credited Photo Kegham. Djeghalian says he then came across Facebook posts showing photographs of Gaza that were also taken by his grandfather. So, in 2017, he decided to reach out to Marwan.
Even though Marwan did not grant access to the archives directly, he offered to show Djeghalian a few photographs through Zoom calls.
The pictures show some of the most important moments of Gaza’s political and cultural history. There are images of Ahmed Al Shukeiri, founder and first president of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, as well as of Che Guevara during his visit to Gaza in 1959.
While the negatives Djeghalian found in his father’s wardrobe are valuable in their own right, Djeghalian says they are merely a sliver of the trove that exists in Gaza, which he hopes to access in the future. For now, though, he says he is looking forward to compiling the photographs he found for a book and exhibiting them again around the world.
Djeghalian says he is most of all glad that he was finally able to get an understanding of his grandfather’s work and talk to people who knew him, something he says he would not have set out to do if he had easy access to the archives in Gaza.
“It didn’t feel like he was just a photographer,” Djeghalian says. “People had a personal connection with him. It explained why people had this sense of nostalgia when they met me and learnt I was Kegham’s grandson and that we shared a name. I got to know he was quite a figure.”