Wednesday, August 11, 2021


By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

Aerial View of Hart Island in 1946.

Throughout a history starting in 1868 (when it was bought by the New York Department of Charities and Corrections),

A truck with some pine wooden coffins containing the bodies of poor New Yorkers has just arrived at Hart Island. Their families hadn´t got the wherewithal of their own to lay their beloved ones to rest in a normal grave, so they have been sent here to be buried at this highly isolated place. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

Hart Island has always been a cemetery for New Yorkers who were too poor to afford a private burial or whose bodies were unidentified or unclaimed at the time of death.

And it was part of New York City even before Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx or Staten Island.

An inmate takes from an interment teammate a small pine wooden box holding the body of a very little child to put it with many other ones for its burial at a big trench of Potter´s Field. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

Therefore, during the one hundred and fifty-two years elapsed between 1868 and 2020, a total figure of roughly one million poor people were buried in Hart Island.

The access to the whole area was exceedingly restricted, and very few photographers had been allowed to go there during XIX and XX Centuries:

- An unknown photographer working for T.H.McAllister ( a leading optical company during the second half of XIX Century, manufacturing microscopes, stereopticons, dissolving lanterns, magic lanterns, spectacles — used by President Abraham Lincoln and so forth ), who during 1870s made  fifty pictures of Hart Island landscapes and burials with a photographic device exposing glass slides for use in lantern shows.

Two of those very valuable glass slides were recently found by Bob Ballantine, a great expert on Hart Island history, who donated them to the New York City Historical Society.

- Jacob Riis, who used an 8 x 10 large format camera (contact of 20 x 25 cm) to get black and white pictures of the graves at Hart Island in 1890, masterfully depicting the place and coffins being lowered into trenches in his milestone book How the Other Half Lives, published that year and including a selected choice of his images made in New York Potter´s Field.

- Arthur Schatz, who made an excellent reportage in Hart Island in 1963 with a 24 x 36 mm format Leica M3 rangefinder camera with Leicavit Rapidwinder, SBLOO 35 mm bright-line external viewfinder and coupled to a Summaron-M 35 mm f/3.5 wideangle lens, sent by Life magazine, with black and white images particularly focusing on prisoners burying unclaimed remains.

- Frank Leonardo, who made some black and white photographs of inmates burying unknown persons in Hart Island in 1979 for the New York Post.


During September of 1989, Claire Yaffa decided that she had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to get pictures of both the existing graves and specially the people being buried in Hart Island, something really complicated, because no photographer had been authorized to go there for eleven years, and the longstanding policy was not permitting photography of any active burial sites in Hart Island.

A prisoner looking at the pine wooden boxes with the bodies of poor New Yorkers (most of them very little children) that he has just unloaded from a truck in Hart Island and will be buried within a few minutes. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

It was a kind of taboo place that most people didn´t want to visit, and authorities at the time opted for drawing a thick veil over it, because of the gruesome context brought about by the constant interments of dead poor persons who could not afford a burial and arriving at the New York Potter´s Field in pine wooden boxes, many of them featuring small sizes and containing the bodies of children.

In addition, any attempt of getting pictures there could be risky, since the task of burying those wooden coffins with bodies inside them was carried out by prisoners from the nearby Rikers Island, something that had kept on since 1869, when prison labour began to be used to bury unclaimed and unidentified New Yorkers in mass graves containing either 150 adults or 1,000 children.

Any misunderstanding while trying to get pictures of these men doing the eerie work that nobody wanted to do could spawn undesirable stressful instants.

But Claire Yaffa did know that there was a further disgusting fact: The graves had been inaccessible to families since 1869, something particularly unfair and above all tremendously sad, because five generations of relatives of the New Yorkers buried in Hart Island hadn´t been allowed to visit the resting places of their beloved ones.

That´s why she started phoning Mr.Tom Anttenon, Director of the Department of Corrections in Hart Island, asking for permission to do a photographic project there.

But she wasn´t authorized once and again, until after a whole year insisting on it and through perseverence, she was allowed to visit New York Potter´s Field on September 15th, 1990, a permit for only one day.

Anyway, it was a once in a lifetime chance to do a landmark reportage and above all to help restore the dignity and memory of the poor New Yorkers buried in this island.


After having been granted access to get pictures in Hart Island, it dawned on Claire Yaffa that this would be a very challenging and toilsome reportage putting her through her paces because of a number of reasons:

- The available time was very short : only one day, so she had to do things very quickly and the best she could.

- A few days before arriving at New York Potter´s Field, Tom Anttenon told her on the phone that discretion on getting the pictures was something of paramount importance. She would have to do her utmost to go unnoticed.

A prisoner of the nearby Riker Island holds the very humble pine wooden box containing the body of a little child, seconds before his burial in a mass grave of Hart Island. Image made with a Leica M6 coupled to an Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 lens from a very close range. Though sun light was very powerful, generating harsh high key areas (particularly visible in the wooden box and the left arm of the nearest inmate to the camera), it accurately conveyed the very dramatic atmosphere of instants in which death, sadness, grief and isolation pervaded everything in New York Potter´s Field. © Claire Yaffa. 1990

- If possible, the prisoners´ faces shouldn´t appear in the photographs, specially in images made from very near distances in which their facial traits could be easily discernible.

- She couldn´t speak to them, because these inmates were doing a very important work that nobody else wished to fulfill, so they shouldn´t be disturbed any way.

- It was necessary to get the pictures in an unobtrusive way, without making any noise.

Vertical picture of one of the mass graves of Hart Island full of pine wooden coffins containing the bodies of poor New Yorkers. After having laid the boxes together, the inmates are spreading sand on them with rakes to put and end to the burial. The extensive depth of field attained by the photographer shooting at f/8 with her Leica M6 coupled to a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV in synergy with the exceedingly harsh lights and shadows (specially the diagonal one of an out of image prisoner — also collaborating in these duties — on the lower right area of the picture, rendered by the scorching sun, and whose head and right shoulder are inciding on one of the coffins) and the man standing on one of the coffins and taking a rake in his right hand, vividly depict what has been happening in the New York Potter´s Field for five generations. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1991  
- It wouldn´t be easy to endure the frequent heart-wrenching scenes taking place during the burial of the wooden pine coffins holding bodies of poor people inside them, particularly the smallest ones with very little dead children.

One of the inmates fulfilling the task of burying corpses at Hart Island grabs three small wooden boxes with bodies of very little children to unload them from a truck and take them to the nearby mass grave. He is wearing a short sleeve vest and a large handkerchief on his head to protect himself from the sun beams, since heat is suffocating.
© Claire Yaffa. 1990 
- The temperature of 24º C during most of sun hours that September 15th, 1990 would mean in practice a thermal sensation of around 35º C because of the prevailing high levels of humidity stemming from the great proximity of sea shore off the Bronx coast, so she would sweat profusely on having to work very fast in a highly stressful and sad environment.

- From a photographic viewpoint, the available light would be far from being the best one, with a stifling sun, along with very harsh shadows and high key areas. 


Claire Yaffa wanted to approach as much as possible to the core of the action during her one day getting pictures she had been allowed in Hart Island.

And to properly tackle this reportage in which top speed and discretion were key factors, she chose a photographic gear looking the part : two Leica M6 rangefinder cameras along with an Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 Version III, a  Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV (1979-1996) and a Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version IV (1979-1994).

Leica M6 0.72x with black anodized hand grip, model of camera used by Claire Yaffa attached to a non aspherical Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 Version 3 and a non aspherical Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV during her photographic work in Hart Island on September 15th, 1990.  

Leica M6 0.85x used by Claire Yaffa coupled to a Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 during her one day picture essay in New York Potter´s Field on September 15th, 1990.

The Leica M6, launched into market in 1984 and manufactured until 2003, was a highly successful 24 x 36 mm format rangefinder camera designed by Peter Loseries (mechanical components and a new TTL exposure metering system) and Heinrich Janke (contours and stylish aspects).

To all intents and purposes, this camera meant the consolidation of the Leica M rangefinder photographic tool concept, that had been saved by Walter Kluck in 1977 when he convinced Leica top brass to transfer the production of the Leica M4-2 to the Leitz factory in Midland, Ontario, Canada.

As a matter of fact, during sixties and seventies, Japanese manufacturers (specially Nikon) had took the helm of photographic industry, with full-fledged reflex cameras featuring unbeatable price/performance like the Nikon F, Nikon F2, Canon F1, Olympus OM-1 and OM-2 and others, to such an extent that at the end of seventies and beginning of eighties, Leica was fighting to survive after the M rangefinder camera line was about to disappear in mid seventies.

The Leica M6 was the only 24 x 36 mm format rangefindeer camera in the world for fourteen years, until the amazing beginning of the Renaissance of Rangefinder Cameras from 1998 onwards, with models like the Konica Hexar RF, the Voigtländer Bessa R2, R2A, R2M, R3A, R3M, R4M, R4A, Zeiss Ikon ZM and others.

Therefore, in early  September 1990, when Claire Yaffa was authorized to visit Hart Island, she realized that two Leica M6 rangefinder cameras with 28 mm, 35 mm and 50 mm primes were the best option to do the kind of photographic reportage she wished, with an unswerving commitment, getting the pictures from a very near distance, striving upon getting unnoticed, approaching as much as possible to subjects from different angles to capture defining instants and above all, without making any noise, with all respect and not disturbing the inmates implementing the task of burying the bodies of poor New Yorkers. 
And albeit being much less versatile than Japanese dslr cameras of the time, to achieve this unmatched level of unobtrusiveness, lack of noise on shooting and discretion from very near distances, the Leica M6 was by far the best photographic camera in the world during eighties and nineties for picture essays made within the infighting distance, something greatly enhanced by the tiny size and light weight of body and lenses in symbiosis with the best Leica mechanical shutter ever made, created by Peter Loseries (then the most knowledgeable expert on earth along with his friend Norman Goldberg regarding miniaturized mechanical devices for photographic cameras ) and whose noise on pressing its releasing button was whispering, virtually imperceptible.

In addition, the incredibly short 12 milliseconds shutter lag of the Leica M6 (far superior in this regard to the superb best analogue reflex cameras and the current cream of the crop professional digital dslr and mirrorless ones from different respected brands in XXI Century) is a further highly significant advantage, because there isn´t virtually any delay between the instant when the photographer presses the shutter release button and the exposure.

Front view of Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 III (1979-1993), featuring 8 elements in 6 groups and designed by Walter Mandler in Midland, Ontario (Canada).

Diagonal right back view of Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8. The gorgeous mechanical construction (mostly implemented by Hans Karl Wiese in synergy with the grinding and polishing of lens elements handcraftedly made by Ernst Haseneier and the coating of surfaces of lens elements by Ernst Pausch) and brass focusing helicoid of the Leica pre aspherical lenses, making possible a flawless working for many decades, is very apparent in this image.

Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV (1979-1999), featuring 7 elements in 5 groups, designed by Walter Mandler in Midland, Ontario (Canada).

It boasts a tiny size, with length x diameter of 26 x 52 mm and a very light weight of 160 g.

The exceedingly small dimensions of this wideangle lens were fundamental to preserve discretion during the photographic act in the pictures made with it by Claire Yaffa in Hart Island in 1990.

Front view of Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV showing the letters Leitz Lens Made in Canada. This wideangle lens became one of the best in the world in the photojournalistic scope throughout its twenty years of production.

Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Fourth Version (1979-1994), designed by Walter Mandler in Midland, Ontario (Canada) and featuring 6 elements in 4 groups.

It was the best standard 50 mm f/2 lens during 34 years, until the introduction of the Apo-Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 ASPH in 2013.

Dr. Walter Mandler had the tremendous knowledge and ingenuity to increase the image quality of the new Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version 4 (whose optical formula is identical to the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version 5 1994-2013) while simultaneously reducing the manufacturing cost, applying common radii through the use of only four new sets of grinding and polishing tools (instead of the previous twelve sets), as well as significantly reducing the glass material expenditures.

In addition, Mandler managed to get an exceptional contrast, even at the widest f/2 aperture.

Front view of Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Fourth Version (1979-1994) showing the Leitz Lens Made In Canada letters referring to the Leica factory in Midland, Ontario (Canada) where it was made.

Aside from the use of the Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 third version and Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV wideangle lenses, Claire Yaffa got in Hart Island some pictures with this standard 50 mm lens, to keep a security distance in contexts particularly needing top discretion, yielding a natural perspective or leveraging the true short tele lens nature of this objective.

After unloading three pine wooden boxes from a truck arrived at Hart Island by ferry and containing the bodies of very little New York children, an inmate starts taking them to the deep trench where they will be buried. None of the three coffins bear the name of the human beings inside them, something relatively frequent during the history of Hart Island. © Claire Yaffa. 1990

And from a kind of image viewpoint, these images are very interesting, since they were made with non aspherical prime lenses designed by the optical wizard Walter Mandler, showing an unusual balance between resolving power and contrast giving a nice 3D roundness to eyes, fingers, face planes, etc, as well as rendering very crisp edges and keeping wide tonal range, with a philosophy of top sharpness in the image center and visibly softer on corners at larger apertures.

These classic lenses don´t deliver such stratospheric values of resolving power and contrast as modern aspherical lenses, but have a very special signature of their own, a unique image aesthetics that defined a golden era of photojournalism during sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, specially in symbiosis with the Kodak Tri-X 400, the par excellence all around performing and most widespread black and white film in this professional field at the time.


First picture made by Claire Yaffa on September 15th, 1990, on arriving at Hart Island on board of a ferry boat from New York City. To reduce the size and weight to the minimum feasible, she didn´t put any shade on her wideangle Leica M lenses, and here the harsh light conditions and manifold reflections on the water while approaching to the little dock of New York Potter´s Field have generated visible flare in the Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV, an excellent lens but prone to it, particularly without the Leica 12524 lens hood attached. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

During his first visit to Hart Island (she would make some more in subsequent years) Claire Yaffa grasped that for obvious reasons (she had only been given the nod for a day getting pictures) she would´t be able to develop a long term project progressively building up a rapport with the people appearing in the images.

An inmate standing inside a very deep trench is delivered by a teammate the large pine wooden box containing the body of an adult poor New Yorker to be buried. The slanted position of the coffin being raised by the prisoner whose right leg can be seen on the left of the box, in symbiosis with the strong lights and shadows of the scene, spawn unutterable drama to the image, which is enhanced by the head and left hand of the inmate visible on the lower left corner of the frame, who is looking at the wooden box and supervising things. With her images made in Hart Island, Claire Yaffa always strove after also dignifying the memory of those inmates from Rikers Island prison, whose praiseworthy labor, who nobody else wanted to do, was a key factor for the preservation of the memory and dignity of the New Yorkers buried in this lonely place. 
© Claire Yaffa

Therefore, the only thing she could do was to do the photographs with utmost respect and carefulness, trying not to annoy the inmates burying the poor New Yorkers and to go unseen at every moment.

A huge and very deep trench dug to be used as a mass grave is beginning to be filled with pine wood boxes holding the bodies of poor New Yorkers by abundant inmates. Some of them are inside the trench next to coffins they have just placed on the mass grave floor, other ones are looking at their teammates and a further group is visible on the right while unloading more wooden coffins from a truck full of them. On the left, a man handling a caterpillar and collaborating in the burying tasks, is also visible. The great depth of field attained by the Elmarit-M 28 mm f/2.8 used at f/11 by the photographer has yielded a very extensive sharpness area from foreground to background, in which everything inside the image is perfectly discernible, something strengthened by the remarkable acutance of the Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film used. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990  
Besides, it was a unique opportunity to visually tell through images what had been going on in New York Potter´s Field since 1869 and above all to do her bit to preserve the memory of those New Yorkers buried in Hart Island and avoid them falling into oblivion.

A much more dramatic picture than could seem at first blush : A lot of pine wood boxes with the bodies of very little New Yorkers inside them are being unloaded from a truck to be taken to the mass grave where they will be buried. The inmate on far left of the image and holding three wooden boxes with his hands, has already realized that one of the coffins doesn´t bear the name of the dead human being inside it ( something relatively frequent in New York Potter´s Field), an eerie context clearly depicted in his engrossed in his thoughts countenance. If it were not enough, boxes often contained fetuses of babies and amputated body parts. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

It was fundamentally a matter of returning them their dignity and very significant human, historical and social dimension, in the same way as has been done hitherto by other photographers like Joel Sternfeld (author of the best colour photographs ever made in Hart Island, masterfully using a large format 8 x 10 camera during nineties and providing the pictures for the milestone 119 pages book Hart Island, published by Scalo Verlag in 1998 and written by Melinda Hunt, top authority on Hart Island History and founder of the Hart Island Project), Aaron Asis, Augustin Pasquet, Ben Helmer, Andrew Theodorakis, George Steinmetz, John Minchillo and others.

This way, Claire Yaffa got to work on September 15th, 1990 with a headstrong true to form photojournalistic frame of mind : she would fight tooth and nail to get the best possible pictures

An inmate whose mission is to put earth on the coffins placed inside the deep trench to bury them is photographed from behind while doing his toil. The strong diagonal to the right described by the man´s body with the camera slant in that direction and the harsh shadows of rake and legs in the lower area of the picture spawn a dramatic image, whose strength is reinforced by the left foot raised in motion over the large wooden box of an adult dead poor New Yorker, the massive quantity of earth visible in the background, the left arm and hand of another prisoner who is touching a further coffin and the plants visible on left upper corner of the picture and growing from a location of death, suggesting that life always finds its path. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

from every angle, with two Leica M6 cameras and three lenses,

Two trucks full of coffins are being unloaded, when a veteran and burly inmate about to get one pine wooden box from the nearby vehicle, detects the presence of the photographer and stops without knowing what to do. In spite of using the Summicron-M 50 mm f/2 Version IV from a distance of many meters, inevitably some stress (which was quickly solved) arises, depicted by the right foot of the prisoner (who has turned his head and is looking at the photojournalist), raised in the air and with its heel strongly lying on the ground, while in the background many other inmates are waiting to be delivered their coffins to take them to the mass graves and bury them. Once more, the lens has been stopped down to get great depth of field. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

in the midst of highly stressful conditions, full-blast,

A picture made during the burial of a lot of pine wood boxes containing the bodies of poor New Yorkers in one of the massive deep trenches in Hart Island, under a searing sun. Three men are spreading earth on the coffins, while the right hand of a further inmate giving instructions is visible on top right of the image, whose drama is boosted by the strong diagonal shadows of two prisoners out of image, on the right, the exceedingly powerful sun beams inciding on the wooden boxes and the shovel lying on the ground in the background of the picture, besides the man standing on one coffin, depicted in full body. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

The selective reframing of the upper left area of the picture reveals that this man is staring at the hand of his teammate giving orders.

And the movement of his rake putting earth (which appears tremulous, conveying a feeling of motion) on the coffin has been masterfully captured by the photographer selecting a slow shutter speed.

sweating buckets under a blistering sun,

Inmates from Rikers Island prison take the coffin of a poor New Yorker to be buried in a mass grave of Hart Island. This picture, made from a very near distance with a Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 Version IV wideangle lens and shooting very fast doing a very close framing, embodies the kind of context the photographer had to face during her reportage in New York Potter´s Field on September 15th, 1990. 
© Claire Yaffa. 1990

surrounded by inmates burying the bodies of poor New Yorkers in Hart Island and making highly instintive shots to get defining instants.

That´s to say, a body and soul commitment to get the pictures, a make no bones about rationale exceedingly difficult to implement, since weariness would appear soon and she would have to work very hard and quickly from dusk till dawn.

Because irrespective of technical aspects, cameras, lenses and black and white film used, etc, these pictures were made with the heart, within the realm of social realism.


An inmate taking a pinee wood coffin containing the body of a child awaits to deliver it to another prisoner for him to accurately put it in its place besides the many stacked one on top of another one coffins of other New York infants for their subsequent interment . 
© Claire Yaffa

Thirty years after her first photographic coverage of Hart Island New York Potter´s Field, Claire Yaffa´s pictures speak by themselves and are probably the images ever made more faithfully and vividly depicting what had been happening there since 1869 and how the inmates continued laying coffins into mass graves, so her images of Hart Island made in 1990 (also featuring some coffins including the bodies of abandoned children with HIV/AIDS buried in the island) are held at the New York Historical Society building in 170 Central Park West, New York.

Two inmates unloading small boxes containing the bodies of little children from New York to take them to the deep trenches of Hart Island for their burial. The slow shutter speed chosen by the photographer has yielded blurred the left hands of both the man on the right of the image (whose arms appear slightly out of focus) and the one on the left, conveying motion and dynamism to the scene, bluntly showing what has unabatedly been happening in Hart Island for approximately 150 years. © Claire Yaffa. 1990  
Right off the bat, Claire Yaffa realized that her first visit to New York Potter´s Field in 1990

Not all the families of the buried people in New York Potter´s Field will be able to visit them in Hart Island. Here we can see some empty coffins inside one of the many mass graves of this lonely place. Now and then inmates discovered that some of the pine wood boxes didn´t contain any bodies, since they had previously been lost because of a raft of different reasons. The great depth and width of the trench, very apparent in the image, gives an idea of the size of burial grounds in Hart Island and the huge quantity of poor New Yorkers buried in them. 
© Claire Yaffa

would be something much more significant than a picture story, and could result in generating social and political awareness about the need of granting access to relatives of these poor New Yorkers buried in Hart Island throughout roughly 150 years.

An aim which was attained in 2014, a commendable achievement whose fulfilment was chiefly merit of two persons : Melinda Hunt, who has spent almost three decades since 1993 investigating Hart Island through photographs, film and public records, and the great photographer Joel Sternfeld.

By dint of strenuous effort and perseverance, both of them made an arduous labor of around 25 years struggling passionately to keep alive the memory and dignity of the hundreds of thousands of people who vanished in Hart Island during XIX, XX and XXI centuries, giving birth to the Hart Island Project and obtaining the right of access to graves for their kinspersons one weekend per month, in addition to creating a database of burials and the Travelling Cloud Museum storytelling platform, in an attempt to preserve the histories of those who are buried in New York Potter´s Field for present and future generations.

And on December 4, 2019, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signed legislation to turn Hart Island into a public park in July of 2021.

Furthermore, they provide personal support to families of the buried in Hart Island.

All of it has been epitomized hitherto by people like Vicki Pavia (who in 1994 accompanied Melinda Hunt and Joel Sternfeld during their fourth trip to Hart Island to produce their illustrated book, and visited the gravesite of her baby Denise), Annette Gallo (who is now 96 years old and spent much of her life searching for the grave of her father Luigi Roma, buried in Hart Island), Elaine Joseph (whose daughter Tomika was born premature in 1978 in a Manhattan hospital, dying a few days later, and couldn´t be found by her mother until 2014 in Hart Island), Sharone Palmer (whose stillborn granddaughter Chloe Mckayla Bellevue Palmer is believed to be buried in Hart Island), Jeanne Frey (who was stillborn and is also believed to be buried in the New York Potter´s Field), Laurie Grant (who has been trying to find her stillborn baby daughter, buried in Hart Island, since 1997) and many others who after so many years waiting, have been able to visit the graves of their beloved ones in Hart Island thanks to the Hart Island Project.

Efforts to provide the public with easier access to the island have been facilitated by the Hart Island Project, which collaborated with British landscape architects Ann Sharrock and Ian Fisher, and hopes to transform the burial grounds into a public park.

Claire Yaffa´s photographs have been published in The New York Times, The Daily News, Vanity Fair and Vogue, as well as having served as photography editor of Westchester Magazine, Photography Coordinator of the United Nations Women´s Arts Festival and as a Member of the Board of Directors of ICP New York´s Archival and Acquisition Committee.

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