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When the artist turns the camera around in personal photo essays

By turning the camera on themselves, photographers create personal archives of their families, bodies and environment

A diptych from Divya Cowasji’s ‘Remember Me’: (left) Cor's, i.e. traditional hand embroidered Gara sari borders, handed down over five generations, (right) Minnie Mama, Navroz day, 2017
A diptych from Divya Cowasji’s ‘Remember Me’: (left) Cor's, i.e. traditional hand embroidered Gara sari borders, handed down over five generations, (right) Minnie Mama, Navroz day, 2017

The yellowing white wall of a 200-year-old Parsi home in Mau, Madhya Pradesh, has become a photo archive of the dead. It’s lined with photographs of people who once lived there—women in white saris with Parsi gara borders and men in kurta-pyjama, and shirt and suit. The photographer, Divya Cowasji, also makes an appearance in an image, posing in a sari—making her the only living person in the photo series titled Remember Me.

Cowasji’s project was part of Chemould CoLab’s October 2022 group photo exhibition Hearts On Fire—Reflections On Parsi Photography: Past, Present And Future in Mumbai. Curated by Sarcia Robyn Balsari, the exhibition showcased the life of the Parsi community in India. It got the art world discussing the practice of turning the lens to one self, of the impact these works have on the viewers and the reasons behind its new-found popularity, especially after covid-19, amongst young photographers.

In Remember Me, Cowasji looks at her family history through the objects that her ancestors left behind. She contemplates existentialism, while also thinking of her death and the anxiety about the next inheritor of the family heirloom. Cowasji’s photo series started in 2018 when she lost many loved ones, and came to inherit their objects—saris, books, frames, and even her actor-grandmother’s hair rollers.

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By turning the camera on themselves, photographers like Cowasji create personal archives of their families, their community, their environment and their bodies. These projects are outcomes of personal crises, overwhelming emotions or the sociocultural and political environment around them. During the covid-19 lockdowns, when photographers went back home from the places they worked in or when they were trapped indoors, they were, in a way, compelled to look within.

“The home is the frontier now,” says Rahaab Allana, curator and publisher at the Alkazi Foundation of the Arts, a Delhi-based charitable trust dedicated to the preservation and study of the cultural history of India. “The home has become a place which you have to fight for. Personal is a space you have to fight for,” he says. When we are constantly informed by different dispensations that our beliefs and everything else can be contested at any point of time, how do we find strategies and alternatives to articulate who we are and where we are from, he asks. “People have started casting a wider net to explore the greater social, cultural and political meaning of their personal life,” explains Allana.

Photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran, raised in a Dalit family in Vadipatti village, Tamil Nadu, documents the lives of marginalised communities, while exploring the theme of gender discrimination, caste inequality and rural life through his family members’ lives and experiences of living in the village in an ongoing project titled I Feel Like A Fish.

Also born during the covid-19 lockdown was Delhi-based Vinati Sehgal’s project documenting her time living in a small basement apartment in London. The series, Waiting For The Sun, saw her composing pictures in the space alongside her own body. Unlike many people who felt lonely and trapped in their homes, Sehgal, 31, found peace in the loneliness and a safe cocoon where she could do what she wanted to and be truly free.

The theme of the body also finds resonance in the works of Bengaluru’s Ankit Banerjee, who was bullied as a child and teased for the way he walked. He uses his body in his photography to deal with anxiety and to express the vulnerability of a male body. Having started as a wedding photographer, Banerjee now takes pictures of his body in different hotel rooms and has compiled them in his ongoing project Hotel Rooms (2015-2022).

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Moving from the self to the family and community, Goa’s Niharika Chauhan, 26, traces her grandfather’s life as a patriarch of his upper caste community in Shahpur in Uttar Pradesh in an ongoing project titled To Lose A River. It also documents her grandfather’s deteriorating ancestral home alongside the dwindling number of sambar deer in the area as well as the changed course of the Yamuna, where it flows through Shahpur. These works were shown at the Angkor Photo Festival, from 24-28 January, in Cambodia.

'Graduate Girls, Wanted Beautiful Home Loving Girl‘ by Cheryl Mukherji
'Graduate Girls, Wanted Beautiful Home Loving Girl‘ by Cheryl Mukherji

Then there is Mumbai’s Parizad D, 31. Her project Khansya, a word from Parsi Gujarati that indicates an indescribable feeling of urgency, is a body of work based on the photographer’s lived experiences as a woman of Zoroastrian and Parsi heritage. “Through it, I create an insider’s archive to preserve the cultural nuances of a race on the brink of global extinction, while also building a visual autobiography of my own complicated interpersonal histories with the community,” she says.

Another deep dive into the family photo album is New York-based Cheryl Mukherji’s Wanted Beautiful Home Loving Girl. An ongoing project, this is an exploration of the histories, legacies and conventions of matrimonial portrait photography in Indian arranged marriages. Inspired by matrimonial photographs of her grandmothers, aunts and mother in family albums, she reimagines the tradition by staging self-portraits within her domestic space that also evoke Indian photo studios, expanding the boundaries of public and private.

“I explore the politics of desirability, femininity, and domesticity in the contemporary context, making feminist photographs as well as ‘thirst traps’ that constitute my matrimonial archive,” says the 28-year-old. The artist visualises her body in scenes that are complex, exaggerated and mundane restagings of found matrimonial photographs. “Focusing on refusal and resistance, the work acts as a counter-archive that emphasises quotidian forms of self-representation through humour, performance and play, allowing for reimagined and speculative feminist futures,” she adds.

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From photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran's ongoing project titled 'I Feel Like A Fish'
From photographer Jaisingh Nageswaran's ongoing project titled 'I Feel Like A Fish'

The project was born during the pandemic when Mukherji was working on another project for her thesis—of exploring her relationship with her family and the work it takes to stay a part of the family even when you are physically away from them. The lockdown gave Mukherji the time to revisit her family albums.

It was the same with Nageswaran. He travelled from city to city for 15 years before the pandemic, trying to escape the village he was born in, the discrimination and his caste identity. But he had to go back home during the covid-19 pandemic. That was when he had to confront his reality—that social distancing was not new to them, and that his community has always been isolated for the caste they are born in. “It was also the time when the downtrodden were the most vulnerable with the mass migration and other injustices inflicted on them,” says Nageswaran.

“That is when I turned the camera inwards, photographing my village, the four generations of my family and the discrimination we face. Making these photographs and having them become the visual consciousness of this country is my way of resisting the oppression that continues even today,” he says.

Mumbai-based photographer and teacher Ritesh Uttamchandani points out that everybody’s photography journey begins with looking inwards. When one gets a new camera, one photographs friends, family members and pets. “That’s when a photographer reacts to the camera,” he explains. It is also the phase when a photographer has not learnt to take pictures on the street. “That requires certain practice and where do you do that? At home, where no one will abuse you or slap you for taking a photograph.”

Later in one’s career though, looking inward could come from the realisation that the impetus given to objectivity, especially in photojournalism, can’t be completely achieved. “Your lived experience informs the person you are and that informs your photography as well,” explains Uttamchandani. That is when people turn the lens towards themselves. Commercial projects tend to take one away from one’s roots. Personal photo essays, then, become the tools that reconnect the photographer to the self and help them explore new dialogue and collaboration.

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In Akshay Mahajan’s decade-old project I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone, he becomes poet Joshua Muyiwa’s subject and Muyiwa his. The photographs of them and their friends in the background of the much talked about Section 377 and the beginning of the fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community, is an attempt to normalise queer life. “To tell people that we are just, a regular bunch of young people,” says Mahajan. The project also explores cohabitation, duality and how one artist responds to the other.

Archiving personal histories and narratives has its share of challenges. “I am always thinking about consent and whether or not my dead relatives would have approved of me showing their photographs in public or in a certain way,” says Cowasji. It’s a constant struggle to find these answers and there is never a right one. Then there is also the never-ending quest of finding something new and different and something that arouses your curiosity in the known, in the familiar, which is easily ignored or overlooked. There is also the question of whether that being projected is authentic or staged, especially when the creator inserts himself or herself in the creation.

But it is only through this complex process of internalisation, of navigating perplexing thoughts, of the struggles that come with taking certain liberties that we get to see photographs, which make us question our lives, our relationships and the country’s sociopolitical events.

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based art, culture and travel writer.

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