Miklós Tamási attended high school in the 1980s, and like many of his peers, he had a hard time fitting into the world of the Kádár era. He was not interested in his studies, as he was an autonomous, tough, but not rebellious teenager. With considerable difficulty and after having changed schools several times, he completed his high school diploma. Nevertheless, the Margit Kaffka High School was an important backdrop for him: the small photo laboratory in the attic of the school was his favourite spot. Here, he and his friend Ákos Szepessy printed out photos they had found at clear-out sales. Tamási shared the following recollections in a 2016 interview with HVG: “I was trying to escape the greyness of the Kádár era and flee to memories of lost times. Even the piano at my grandmother’s house made a huge difference. My father was studying at the Budapest University of Technology in 1956 [at the time of the Hungarian revolution], and he often talked about those times. I was very interested in it, and I must have thought of him as a hero, since I was wearing his leather jacket, which barely fit me, and I also wore a pin with a Kossuth crest [the symbol worn by the rebels] that I bought at Ecseri flea market.”
At the time of the change of regimes, Tamási became more interested in politics. In the spring of 1988, he joined Fidesz, but as he did not find the party radical enough, he chose the Magyar Október Párt (Hungarian October Party), led by György Krassó, instead. He participated in protests organized by the Duna Kör (Duna Circle) against the construction of the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Dams, and he smuggled medicine to Romania (the shipment was provided by a Swiss charity organization).
Searching for pictures about the 1956 revolution became his passion, and this passion only intensified after the transition. In 1992–1993, he joined the “University of Technology 1956” Foundation, and he held interviews with former students at the university who were involved in the revolution. He met Tibor Beke through these interviews, who was sentenced to six years after 1956 for collecting photographs. As Tamási recalls, Beke “had a connection to József Teucher, who was the production manager at the Hunnia Studio at the time of the revolution, coordinating the cameramen. József Taucher was of course scapegoated as a servant of imperialism, who encouraged the production of the documentary ‘against the people.’ Beke, who was 23 years old at the time, collected photo materials about the revolution with Taucher. Their goal was to smuggle this material to the West, so the whole world could see that the revolution had been a democratic one.” Tamási was shocked by Beke’s story, and it encouraged him to salvage this photographic heritage. He looked up Beke’s photo collection in the documents stored at the Budapest City Archives and managed to find it.
Tamási also visited András B. Hegedüs, the founder and director of the 1956 Institute, and proposed that they start collecting photos about the revolution. Hegedűs supported the idea, so Tamási, in addition to writing letters to participants in the revolution asking for photographs, also started to look through press materials from 1957 searching for cityscapes with traces of the events. He found a photo with these kinds of traces, and according to the newspaper, the source was the UVATERV road construction company. In the storage facility of the newly privatized company, he found boxes containing the photo collection which came to some 150,000 pictures, all of excellent quality, many of which had been taken in 1957 or 1958. He bought a scanner and digitized a portion of the material. He tried to negotiate with Városháza Kiadó (City hall Publishing) about publishing the pictures, but he failed to prevail on the institution to allow their publication. He was called up for two years of compulsory military service, and this put an end to these attempts.
After the transition, Tamási lived off money earned doing odd jobs. He worked, for instance, as a motorcycle postman, a picture framer, and a furniture carrier. He spent half a year in Krakow in 1992 on a scholarship learning Polish. Later, he enrolled in the Polish program of the Kossuth Lajos University in Debrecen. However, after having spent another six months in Warsaw, he left the university and did not graduate. Nevertheless, his knowledge of Polish did come in handy later on: when the Open Society Archives (OSA) received the materials which had belonged to Radio Free Europe, they needed help organizing the material, so Tamási was commissioned to take charge of the Polish material in 1999. He then got a job at the Central Gallery as an exhibition organizer. In the meantime, he graduated from the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in 2006 as a typographer.
While working at OSA, he spent most of his time looking after Fortepan. Thus, OSA was providing him a form of informal support. However, Tamási did not want to burden the institution: he quit in 2015 and started to focus solely on Fortepan. His small office is provided by the local government of the I District of Budapest for a rental price of 40,000 HUF. The enthusiastic volunteers and supporters play a major role in reducing maintenance costs.
In addition to the work he does for Fortepan, Tamási also contributes to programs and initiatives which help young people in Budapest get to know their neighbourhoods and their history better. Thus, from 2011, he and others annually organize the program series Budapest100, which offers guided tours of otherwise closed buildings or less well-known districts of Budapest. In 2014, as part of the Yellow-Star Houses project, buildings became memorials commemorating the forced relocation of Jewish people in Budapest and thus familiarizing the next generation with this burdensome legacy of the city’s and country’s past.
In 2017, Tamási made it on the “New Europe 100” list compiled by Res Publica, Google, the International Visegrad Fund, and the Financial Times. The list features “individuals from Central and Eastern Europe who are changing the world and improving people’s lives with ideas that scale up in the digital world.”
- Budapest, Hungary
- Horváth, Sándor
- Scheibner, Tamás
Tamási, Miklós, interview by Scheibner, Tamás, Horváth, Sándor , June 28, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection