John Elder, whose photographic collection documents conditions in Armenia, was a relief worker in Yerevan, Armenia from 1917 to 1919. A native of Pennsylvania, he was a divinity student at McCormick Theological Seminary when he chose to go to Russia to organize Young Men's Christian Association centers. The Russian Revolution disrupted this activity and Elder turned his energy to doing relief work for the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Elder joined the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (later known as the American Committee for Relief in the Near East and Near East Relief) team in Armenia. When Turkish forces invaded Armenia in 1918, Elder chose to stay despite instructions given to relief workers and other foreign personnel to evacuate the Caucasus. Along with his YMCA colleague, James Arroll, John Elder refused to leave fearing that tens of thousands more Armenians would die of starvation if the relief programs were discontinued. The two remained at their posts channeling relief funds to orphanages and soup kitchens.
During a time of extreme emergency John Elder and James Arroll displayed selfless dedication and were instrumental in providing care for 15,000 Armenian orphans and arranging for the training and employment of 11,000 adults. A local Armenian worker for ACRNE described Elder as "the good friend in the time of trouble and strife."
In a good-bye letter dated June 30, 1919 and signed by the "orphans" in the care of the American Committee for Relief in the Near East (ACRNE), they wrote: "We orphans have lost our parents and were fallen down wounded and with tearful eyes, but you came to us held our hands, wrapped our wounds and wiped the tears from our eyes, and took care to train our mind and spirit..."