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In search of the lost home2018-11-27T11:36:39+00:00

Project Description

The sudden opening up of the field of information in the digital age to the people has resulted in wideranging efforts and interventions in various disciplines by the most unlikely people around the world. There has been at least a temporary respite in the hegemonic handling of information and ideas, and certainly a new found freedom for the people to reach an audience with their own narratives without overly relying on establishments. In the cross-section of photography and history, the construction of histories of common families through the limited number of preserved photographs from the previous generations can be put down to this new found freedom; until now, we had only had academicians forming sweeping histories in which individuals and families – unless from the royal or patron classes – played only a minimal role. Today, every family’s story is approaching closer and closer to the lengths of epics.

Memory Projects are not unique to photography per se, but they have probably influenced photography as a medium more than any other. As the name suggests, Memory Projects are usually concerned with recording and archiving memories – and histories – of individuals belonging to certain categories, which could be based on nation, occupation, race etc. In India, the Indian Memory Project publishes photographs from personal archives with accompanying narratives. In general, a surge of interest in family histories is being seen; one which can perhaps be put down to the larger and larger diaspora being created due to the opportunities created by globalization. The home that no longer is for this population is instead revived through photographs and oral memories.

IN SEARCH OF THE LOST HOME; walking down the memory line with Anandarup Goswami’s photographs

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.

Cover Image and Top row: Photographs in Anandarup Goswami’s family album | Bottom row: A home of no return © Anandarup Goswami

“A Home of No Return” visually narrates the past and the present through a mixture of faded and fresh photographs. Except for a short introduction, none of the photographs in this series carry any explanations or titles, leaving the viewer with a freedom to build his/her/their own perspectives. Anandarup sandwiches the old family photographs and images from his Bangladesh journey tightly as if to remind us that the new images are just a natural extension of the past towards the present. Many among the colour photographs give a feel about the photographer’s journey to his lost homeland. Sometimes his eyes seem to be looking at places like a curious traveller in a strange world, while in some other instances, he is gazing outwards as if he returned home after a very long time.

Some grainy black & white images in this series are about the travels undertaken by Anandarup’s relatives. Since a long time has passed after they were taken, these images are among the most faded in the series. Yet they provide an insight into the photographer’s insatiable desire to retrace his roots, as it is against these old photographs that he places his own photographs. The attempt, it seems, is to traverse the same paths of his ancestors and reclaim their memories.

‘Steel City’, another series by Anandarup, has certain similarities with ‘A Home of No Return’, in a sense that it too is tied to the photographer’s memories about home. Here, the photographer presents a landscape where he grew up and which he is familiar with. He has witnessed the ups and downs of the city of Durgapur. Known for its steel industries, Durgapur suffered an economic slump at the end of 20th century. Anandarup’s work focuses on a small area in the city where the authorities had planned to construct a township, but abandoned it due to financial crisis. The photographs in this series, taken during 2014-2016, show a suburb where the lives of factory workers and their families revolve. The visuals also speaks of how human activities took a heavy toll on the environment of the city. The ingredients of modern civilisation—steel and concrete—are visible all along the series. The presence of, and a conscious focus on, electric poles and cables are another common feature of many photographs in both the works; and Anandarup looks at them as if searching for directions in an unknown land.

Anandarup’s portrayal of societies in ‘A Home of No Return’ is also worth examining. The post-partition state of his family in India, as seen in the album photographs, seems to suggest an upper middle-class urban life. On the contrary, Anandarup focuses his camera towards the poverty he witnessed while travelling in Bangladesh. Even though corruption, poor infrastructure, illiteracy and widening economic inequality are real problems in Bangladesh, it cannot be forgotten that the country has made considerable achievements on several fronts in recent years. However, Indians often carry stereotypical images about Bangladesh, especially about its economic stature, despite the fact that India is also facing similar issues on a large scale. Controversies surrounding Bangladeshi citizens, seeking better livelihood options, crossing over to the Indian side of the border have always been a thorn in the relations between the two countries. Anandarup’s work acts like a re-assertion that the partition of Indian Subcontinent in 1947 didn’t just divide people based on religion, but also on economic lines. His ancestors, in all probability, were in a financial position to start a new life after arriving in India. The black & white photographs in Anandarup’s family album bear testimony to the middle-class life the family could afford in India; most of the album photographs in this series seems to have been taken in the comfort of their home (or in their travel), at their leisure, with their own camera. When Anandarup’s camera gazes at the other side of the border, however, it sees poverty, underdeveloped villages, and poor transportation facilities.

Steel City ©  Anandarup Goswami

In the case of ‘Steel City’, the photographer is looking at the evolution of society as an unbalanced struggle between the capital and the nature. On a personal front, the photographer himself seems to have gone through a struggle to choose a path for himself. Even though a commerce graduate, Anandarup decided not to opt for a career in that field, and instead went on to explore the world of visuals. He looks at abandoned objects and spaces – old cars and other vehicles, abandoned buildings, halted construction works, etc – in both the works, as if pausing to wonder how civilisations pace forward across the world. Anandarup looks with curiosity at man-made objects, which are seen as an odd presence in the middle of an otherwise undisturbed nature; an abandoned autorickshaw in the middle of a thick growth of tall grass, a man sleeping under a concrete mushroom surrounded by trees, etc. It is as if these ‘unnatural’ objects are removed, those spaces will be restored to their ‘natural past’. We desire to stay modern by becoming the consumers of use-and-throw things, which in turn floods the natural space.

Another striking and common feature in both the works is the minimal depiction of human faces. In the case of ‘A Home of No Return’, the old photographs show close-up images of family members, while the new photographs show no identifiable human faces at all. This aspect is perhaps explained by the transformation in the nature of family life itself, and by the alienation Anandarup felt on either sides of the border as he grew up. ‘Steel City’, on the other hand, shows Anandarup’s concerns about the development paradigms chosen by the present-day governments. Instead of showing human faces, here he focuses on inert, half-constructed and abandoned objects to draw a contrast to his nostalgia (Is it his unconscious belonging in a green and misty homeland on the other side of the border?) about a greener alternative.

If our ancestors did not leave behind any proof for their existences, how could we have imagined our history? Most of us feel nostalgic about only an immediate past. It rarely extends beyond one’s own lifetime. This could be also because of the lack of enough objects to solidify the memories of our ancestors. Unlike the periods recreated through the memory projects, where only one or two grainy photographs, falling within a limited range of templates, are left to tell the entire history of a family, current technology allows production and storage of infinite number of photographs from multiple sources, creating a multi-dimensional history of a single person. These photographs don’t just belong to any family albums or a person’s collection, instead they survive as digital files in social media, online clouds or solid state devices. Nowadays, children can see the past of their parents more vividly as compared to previous generations, enabling them to feel nostalgic (more colourfully and vividly, but with less application of the imagination) about a past well beyond their generation.

One limitation of photography is that it cannot reify a moment in the past beyond an image. Memory projects are, in one sense, a rebellion against this limitation. However, they overcome this limitation to fall victim to another – the limitation of history. The history of India, as far as its people are concerned, is divided into two blocks with the date August 15, 1947 dissecting them. Before this date, nothing much is clear apart from the ambiguous, and often quite contradicting, ideas related to kingdoms, rulers, wars, freedom struggles, independence movement and its leaders. The history of the common people of India begins with Independence Day, or so it seems. It is here Anandarup touches upon something uncharted. More than the subjects of his photographs, it is the manner in which they have been photographed that stands out. His visuals are quite graphic with an emphasis on lines, structures and spaces. It is easy to write this aspect off as a matter of technique he mastered during his studies, but this is precisely the mistake we should not make. What he adds to this technique is a sense of history and an effort to reconcile it with the looks of his ancestors; he contrasts the primitive kind of graphic qualities he finds in his family albums with his own strongly graphic images. It is this evolution that might provide him an opening to escape the burden of the National History and come into touch with a larger history of the humanity, by framing a manner of looking that is not chained by nationalistic pride.

But one should nevertheless consider Anandarup’s images as organic extensions of a family album. It is a collection of looks that he puts together; the looks of his family through their camera(s), and his own looks through his camera. It is this quality of looking that defines periods in art history, and each period in history is characterised by an overarching logic of looking. Anandarup’s gaze has broken free from the narcissism in one’s own culture, the pride of being part of ‘The Family’, that characterises family photographs. His works show a transition from the nationalistic pride to the awareness about the capitalist reality that structures society. One could well imagine a third, fourth, fifth generation depositing their looks in this Album of Looking, and contributing to this recorded history of looking. In their images, we might see what reality they were aware of, and how they drew from Anandarup’s images to inform their own. Indeed, one might as well imagine Anandarup taking this much forward in the rest of his career, building an aesthetic of photography that is not merely an imitation of the snapshot culture, but yet retaining its roots in the gaze of the common man.

Published on 22nd November2018.

Anandarup Goswami is a photographer based out of Calcutta. He is a B.Com graduate and is also an alumnus of Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka. He worked as an accountant for a while and eventually became a full-time photographer. His works deal with personal stories, experiences and space.

Joyel K Pious is a journalist currently working with the New Indian Express in Chennai. Belonging to Thrissur district of Kerala, he is interested in the interwoven relationship of humans among themselves and with the nature. He also extends his services as Associate Editor, PhotoMail.