Like the nuns of all religions, nurses too are mysterious beings. Slightly detached from the mundane world, especially when they are in their uniforms and in the hospital settings, they look like certain ethereal beings taken birth on earth to serve the ailing. Not really because mostly they wear white work robes, they are seen as angels who sing like the nightingales but this image may be accentuated by the hagiography of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), the founder of modern nursing. Out of the 20 lakh registered nurses in India, 18 lakh are from Kerala, the South Indian state, says a report appeared in the Hindustan Times in July, 2014(*). Kerala tops in the human resources export in the nursing front and the trend had started in 1960s when the first batch of nurses trained in Kerala went to Germany both for further training and for serving in missionary hospitals.
The international migration of highly trained nurses from Kerala today has established a new diaspora and tracing their migratory routes would provide us with the ‘to and fro’ flow of economy, labor, life styles, languages, personal narratives, and above all a new hybrid culture where language, tradition and at times races get mixed up. Anup Mathew Thomas, the Kerala born, Bangalore settled and internationally exhibited photography artist has done a photographic tracing of the journeys of the nurses from Kerala. Commissioned by the Abraaj Group Art Prize 2014, in this photographic project titled ‘Nurses’, Anup Mathew Thomas at once captures the ‘present’ and the ‘absent’ in the lives of these young women who have crossed continents to become ‘successful’ career nurses and specialists.
Anup Mathew Thomas is a photography artist who looks at the sociological ramifications of Kerala life including the economic, cultural, religious and political facets of it with a sense of black humor and understatement. The irony that he uses subtly to compare the intra-frame images of his own works, however does not play a pivotal role in the ‘Nurses’ series. The deliberate obliteration of irony and the replacing of it with a sense of unarticulated pathos make this series culturally and anthropologically engaging. Anup Mathew Thomas is not strictly an anthropological photographer/documenter. Apart from a couple of signifiers, namely the uniforms worn by the nurses in different countries and the choice of the location near their work place, against which their personalities are portrayed centrally and in a semi-iconic fashion, these photographs do not betray any personal details of the subjects (nurses) who are photographed here.
The clean, serene, scenic, beautiful and even sublime landscapes against which these nurses are portrayed in a way erase the actual locational specificity of these ‘moving’ subjects. The simple tag lines that go with each photograph inform the viewer of the name of the subject, their current location, the countries or states that they had served before landing their dream job or rather present job before another taking off to a new destination and the medium and quality of the paper used for printing. At some point, these forty eight photographs, which means, forty eight Malayali nurses living and working in different parts of the world, look like taken in a sophisticated but make-shift photo studio set up by the artist. With technology, one could create the backdrops; but Anup Mathew Thomas’ project is not just about photographing the nurses but the travelling the places where they have already travelled. Hence these photographs rather than becoming an end in itself, turn out to be the outcome of a travel that the artist has undertaken.