The history of modern humans is dotted with objects left behind by our ancestors in their attempts to give some sort of physical form to their experiences. Be they cave paintings, monuments, sculptures, books, or any other objects, the craving to give a solid shape to thoughts always persisted in us. A mixture of memory and desire permeated all art forms from the beginning, and despite all odds it has continued well into the age of mechanical art. Even Photography and cinema, the two youngest art forms, are unarguably founded on memory and desire.
Photography has conquered human imagination like any medium had never done before since its invention in 19th century. It broke class barriers by allowing the common people to store their memories in a material form and retell their family tales. The preferred practise till then among the aristocracy was commissioning of family portraits. The only option they had to save family tales was through transmitting them verbally from generation to generation. But the world was poised for a big change. As art critic and philosopher John Berger said, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.” Sure enough, over the span of the 19th and 20th centuries, photography emerged as the most popular form of storing memories. Along with its allied form videography, photography has enabled all humans to have a tangible proof for their existence even after their deaths. But getting photographed was still considered a big deal in the 20th century, as far as Africa and Asia were concerned; and sometimes, just a couple of black and white photographs were what constituted family albums.
The medium underwent revolutionary changes over the last century. While the size of cameras reduced drastically, the process of photography became more user friendly and less time consuming. Moreover, the equipment and film negatives/digital storage devices became more accessible to common people. One major stepping stone in this regard was the invention of handheld ‘point and shoot’ cameras which enabled people to carry them wherever they went. Alongside this growth of photography was a change in the way people travelled to places; with camera in their hands, a large section of people started travelling with the aim of taking photographs. Picnics and vacations got an additional purpose and family albums got thicker and thicker with each year passing.
The human quest to store memories in a physical form thus found its saviour in camera, and, in return, the camera also ignited a seeking of memories to preserve. We started ‘seeing’ the history of the world instead of ‘hearing’ about it. Yet, as time passes photographs start to fade, and so do the history attached with those photographs. Museums and libraries serve the purpose of conserving those images which depict major milestones of modern history. But what about the stories of millions of men and women who lived and left the stage? What of the histories that cannot be choreographed into a family photograph?
Across the world there are ongoing attempts to construct a ‘people’s history’ through photographs. Memory Projects, they are fondly called, focus mainly on the pre-digital era when photography was not as common as today.
Bengali photographer Anandarup Goswami’s photography series ‘A Home of No Return’, though not directly linked with any memory project, shows certain resemblances with the latter’s style, and yet carries its own soul. This photo series is a result of Anandarup’s attempt to retrace his roots through a bunch of old black & white photographs in a family album. Tracing the origin of those photographs and fascinated by hearing family tales from his grandparents, Anandarup, when he was just 23-years-old, set off in 2014 to a village in the present-day Bangladesh where his ancestors once lived . Anandarup writes, “While wounds start to heal, memories fail to fade.” Common experience tells us that memories fade with time. But, if the quest to retrace them is intense, memories may withstand the tests of time.