As It Happens

Mysterious old photos of Alaska a 'beautiful gift,' says one of people pictured

Jennifer Skupin had nearly forgotten about the trove of 60-year-old photographs that she found at a Dutch flea market a decade ago until she cleaned out her cupboard. Now, she's tracked down the people pictured.

The 60-year-old photos show life untouched by the outside world, says Walkie Charles

Walkie Charles is an associate professor of the Yup'ik language at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and one of the people pictured in the photos. (JR Ancheta/University of Alaska Fairbanks)

Jennifer Skupin had nearly forgotten about the trove of 60-year-old photographs that she found at a flea market a decade ago, until she recently cleaned out a cupboard. But as soon as she saw them again she was reminded of her initial reaction. 

"I was really amazed," Skupin, a creative director from Germany, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "So many nice portraits of people, bright colours and families."  

As she looked at the vivid, colour photos of what she believed to be remote Alaska, she decided to try once again to track down the people pictured. 

Skupin's efforts led CNN to publish the photos, and slowly but surely, people started coming forward. People like Walkie Charles, who spotted a picture of himself — and one of his brother who died as a young man. 

"We've never had any child photos of him. And to see him in such a state, where every photo of him he's happy, brought back that ... emotion of how happy not just he, but every child, was back then," Charles, an associate professor of Yup'ik language at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, told Off.

Walkie Charlies, pictured alongside his sister. (Submitted by Jennifer Skupin)

Skupin first purchased the slides in the Netherlands in 2008. She digitized them at the time, and was blown away by the details. There were photos of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, so she figured the photographer had some connection to the Netherlands. 

But it was the portraits of people in Alaska that really caught her eye. 

At the time, she tried to reconnect the photos with the people in them by reaching out to a few cultural institutes in the state, but it was a dead end. 

"I realized that I should give it a try again because the world is more connected [now]," she said.

'That's my grandma'

Skupin reached out to Francesca Street at CNN Travel, who published a story asking for help solving the mystery.

Almost immediately, there was a hit.  

"It was quite amazing because I did upload them on the Google Drive, and I could see immediately that people were commenting on those pictures," she said. 

"At first people would be identified like, 'That's my grandma', 'I might know this person.'" 

Soon there were dozens of comments. 

One person commented on a photo of a landscape, writing: "This almost makes my heart hurt. The Earth here is so familiar." 

Charles first heard about the photos on Facebook. His friend, Abby Augustine, posted about how she found herself pictured when she was just a baby in the early 1960s. 

In the photo, she is being held by her mother and is surrounded by her three sisters, CNN reports

Abby Augustine recognized herself as the smiling baby in this photograph, held by her mother and surrounded by her sisters, according to CNN. (Submitted by Jennifer Skupin)

Augustine was born in Kwiguk, a community which was later relocated and became Emmonak. It's also where Charles grew up. 

"So I thought, 'Oh, OK, let me let me see if there's anything.' And lo and behold, there was about a dozen or more photos from my community," Charles said. 

Charles found a photo of himself and his sister, something he says is incredibly rare in their community because no one had a camera. 

But he was even more shocked to find the photo of his brother, who died in his early 20s, standing next to a sled with a bucket of snow. Charles said his brother's daily chore was to haul in snow to melt, because they had no running water. 

"To see these photos of not only my brother, but others who have passed, brought me back to that happy place," Charles said. 

Charles found a photo of his brother, who passed away as a young man. (Submitted by Jennifer Skupin)

Alaska became a part of the U.S. in 1959, and Charles says the photos show a time when his community was still largely untouched by the outside world. 

He said American education and religion had just come into the community, but at the time the photos were taken, people were happy being who they were "without any outside interference." 

"All we had was each other," Charles said. 

Photographer still a mystery

The identity of the photographer remains unknown. Skupin figures they are no longer alive, but that they might have been a flight attendant on the KLM Royal Dutch Airlines because there is a KLM bag in one photograph. 

But she said she's not too worried about solving that mystery now that she's connected with people like Charles and shared in their joy. 

As for Charles, he wants to thank Skupin on behalf of all his people for the "beautiful gift that we did not anticipate."

"[We] are so grateful for Jennifer finding these because it really, truly — especially during this pandemic — has connected us back to who we were." 

Written by Sarah Jackson. Interview with Jennifer Skupin and Walkie Charles produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

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