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Miklos Tamási, founder of Fortepan, launched the free online photo archive after finding a collection of pictures in a pile of garbage on a Hungarian curbside. He named the site after the Forte film factories in Hungary, and debuted it in 2010 with 5,000 images. Since then, Fortepan has quickly expanded. Today it contains over 114,000 photographs taken by Hungarians between the years 1900 and 1990, and its first-ever exhibit opened in April at the Hungarian National Gallery.
Fortepan’s manager András Török shared the archive’s story last week while lecturing at Manhattan’s American-Hungarian Library. The timing of the lecture was impeccable. The European Parliament election results had just come in, and the far right had made gains across the continent. In Hungary, the right-wing Fidesz Party won an additional seat and 52% of the vote. Its leader is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Since his election in 2010, he has rewritten Hungary’s constitution, taken control of newspapers, and propagated anti-immigration conspiracy theories. In such a political climate, it’s no wonder that Fortepan, which is devoted to visual fact and testimony, has become a national phenomenon.
“There’s very little free press,” Török told me in a conversation after his lecture. “Our political life isn’t really free.” Hungary’s historical narrative has become inconsistent. One recent controversy involved the unveiling of a monument in Budapest commemorating Hungary’s role in World War II, which suggests the country entered the war involuntarily, as the result of German invasion. In truth, Hungary collaborated with the Nazis as an Axis Power until 1944, when Hitler installed the Arrow Cross puppet government. This revisionism illustrates Orbán’s nationalist agenda. A resource like Fortepan, which includes images from WWII, helps maintain Hungary’s true history.
During his lecture, Török highlighted several rare Holocaust-related photos that took extensive effort to acquire. One shows a somber man sitting upright behind his desk. It’s Carl Lutz, the Swiss diplomat responsible for saving thousands of Hungarian Jews inside the basement of his glass factory in Budapest. Images of Lutz’s Glass House from the war-torn 1940s are practically nonexistent, but after six months of correspondence with Lutz’s daughter and the Zurich Institute of Technology, Török was able to obtain two. Now anyone with an internet connection can view and download these pictures.
The editors of Fortepan are aware that their archive reflects shifting power dynamics over the 20th century. One reason so few photos from World War II exist is that Jews were not allowed to own cameras. Before that, in the early days of home photography, only the wealthy could afford the equipment. Accordingly, Fortepan contains many scenes of idyllic upper-class life: children sledding, friends in knit sweaters holding each other’s waists.
To correct the overly rosy situation this suggests, Fortepan encourages donations from all Hungarians, including those who emigrated or were forced to flee. The site’s policies are also written with an egalitarian point of view. It’s free to access, and users can submit their own tags to index entries, which invites the public to help democratically shape the archive. And by encouraging high levels of transparency and open dialogue between its editorial board and the public, Fortepan promotes the free speech that some fear is disappearing. In turn, Hungarians have embraced Fortepan as a public service. “Because we don’t make any money from the site,” Török explained, “we have established public trust.” Civilians often choose to donate to Fortepan instead of national libraries or museums.
Amidst political dissatisfaction, there’s still room for national pride. Fortepan makes a point of celebrating Hungary’s successes. For its 100,000th entry, they approached prizewinning author Péter Nádas for a contribution. He donated what Török calls an “early selfie”: an analog self-portrait from 1958, when Nádas was a teenager experimenting with his camera in a mirror. As Török continues his work on Fortepan, he remains cautiously optimistic. After all, engaging with a century’s worth of photographs puts today’s political environment in perspective. Hungary has survived far worse than Orbán, and Török believes that eventually, the country’s youth will shift the government back toward democracy. “That’s why I go to the gym three times a week,” he said, laughing. “I want to be alive to see it happen.”