[imagesource: Jennifer Skupin]
German creative director Jennifer Skupin was browsing a flea market in Amsterdam back in 2008 when she stumbled across two boxes of slides.
There was a photo of Amsterdam Schiphol Airport at the advent of the Jet Age, followed by a series of shots of people, parades, and scenes seemingly taken in Alaska.
Many of the people in the slides were Alaskan Natives.
The seller didn’t know where they came from, and the only identifying information was years and locations written on the back of a few of the slides, which indicated that they were taken in the 1950s and 60s.
Earlier this year, Skupin unearthed the box of slides again.
In an article published on January 28, 2021, she told CNN “to me, they were precious. So finding these photos came with astonishment that somebody could let go of such a treasure.”
She hoped that by sharing the photos with CNN, someone would recognise themselves or the photographer.
You can watch a slideshow of a few of the 200 images here:
The images were published along with the article, and that’s when Susanna Stevens-Johnson, a Yup’ik Alaskan who grew up in and around Mountain Village, stumbled across them.
When she first clicked on the article, she didn’t pick up on anything, but taking a closer look later in the day, she recognised landscapes, old classmates, family, neighbours, and friends.
She told CNN that when she recognised her sister Marcia, she knew that she had to be in one of the photos.
She continued clicking through. Sure enough, two photos later, there she was – pictured alongside Marcia, two other childhood friends, Irene Moses and Augusta Alstrom-Lang, and an older family friend called Agnes Eirvak-Devlin.
“I practically jumped off the couch and I exclaimed to [her husband] Peter, ‘This is me!’ And I showed him the photo and he said, ‘Yeah, that is you.’ So, I was really excited.”
Clicking back to the previous image, she realised that she was in that one, too, but hadn’t recognised herself because her head was bent.
“I’m probably playing with the tip of my scarf because I was very shy then and I didn’t like being photographed.”
She was 10 when the pictures were taken – she’ll turn 71 this year.
Meanwhile, Skupin’s Google Drive, which she had made public so that people could look through the photos, was flooded with messages within hours of the CNN article going live.
Walkie Charles, an associate professor of Yup’ik, the language of the Yup’ik people, at the University of Alaska Fairbanks recognised himself pictured at age three.
He also recognised his brother, who died in 1973.
“We don’t have any photos of my brother when he was little, or even when he was older,” says Charles. “And so that captured our hearts so, so dearly.”
“Jennifer, it was meant to be that you found this,” says Charles.
“Little did you know that that story that was contained in these slides would be so emotionally charged, they would shake a part of the world that you have never even heard of.”
Charles also pointed out that these photos hold an important connection to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which took a deadly toll on Alaska’s rural villages.
“My generation are the children of the survivors,” says Charles. His own grandparents, on both sides, died during the outbreak.
“These photos present the resilience of the survivors and the hope for the new generation to move forward with a new vision, new sense of life, and a lust for challenge,” says Charles.
In Yup’ik culture, when someone in the community dies, their soul is passed on to a recently born baby.
The photos, therefore, provide new generations with the opportunity to see older photos of older people and say, “I’m named after this person, I have never had a photo, I’ve never seen a photo of this person.’ It’s finally connecting,” says Charles.
You can read more about the photos and the effect they had on those who recognised them here.
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