In 1988, a couple in the windy city of Chicago visited an estate sale of a deceased friend and stumbled upon a shoebox of old photographs tucked under a couch. It contained more than a hundred envelopes filled with negatives and contact sheets for photographs depicting India in 1945. The identity of the photographer: unknown.

How did this set of sepia-toned images end up at a sale in Chicago four decades after they were taken? Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral, who ended up buying that box full of pictures for $20, have been trying to solve the mystery ever since. "We are curious people, we always want to see what's in boxes," said Zbiral. "We found these pictures and were immediately drawn to them." The curiosity of the two artists took them halfway around the world to identify this anonymous photographer.

The collection includes photographs of temples and scenes from rural India: of villagers washing clothes, fishermen going about their work, children laughing while enjoying a piece of chewing gum (probably gifted by the photographer), women engrossed in their daily job of threshing rice, or sometimes posing and looking directly into the camera. The only details provided by the photographer are quick scribbles at the bottom of every picture indicating the year they were taken and a short description: “(10th PTU) (3 May 45) (902) (Indian woman and child)” or “(10th PTU) (3 May 45) (895) (Indian boy on cart)”.

Teller and Zbiral have put together an artistic exhibition inspired by these pictures. Titled Following The Box, the exhibition is on at Delhi's Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts till January 31.

Coming into focus

After several years of research, the duo discovered that the photographer was an American soldier who was based in what is now West Bengal during the Second World War.

While the pictures have been in their possession for 28 years, it was only about a decade ago that they began actively exploring Bengal in search of the story behind them. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the show, Zbiral said: “There is something so magical about the fact that a person held these photographs, prints in their hands 70 years ago. It had the power to bring us halfway across the world to find out who this person was.”

Here is what else they managed to unearth: The “(10th PTU)” scrawled at the bottom of the photographs stood for “10th Photographic Technical Unit”. The soldier was associated with the 10th Photographic Technical Unit of the Bomber Command which operated in the China-Burma-India theatre during the Second World World, and was stationed at the Salua Airfield, an American base near Kharagpur. It is assumed that the man behind these images was one of the unit’s reconnaissance photographers. With the end of the war, the unit was dissolved. The year 1945 was a transitional period for the soldiers, who were waiting to be reassigned.

"The technical quality of the photographs is great," said Teller. "The photographs are sharp, crisp and beautifully done. Today, most people have automatic cameras that will give them a sharp, technically sound picture. They might not necessarily have a vision but they can get a clear picture. The computer inside their camera phones does all the work for them, but in the old day none of it was automatic. You had to adjust and decide, and these photographs, more than anything else, had a vision."

As they continued their journey on the box trail, a clearer picture of the photographer started taking shape in their minds. “We don’t know his name or who he was," said Teller. "We strongly sense that he was a white man. There were African-American soldiers in the unit at the time but there was segregation and there were no black officers. Our photographer was probably not a high-ranking officer, but enough to be able to hop on to a jeep and travel the countryside."

Teller and Zbiral agree that the most striking aspect of the photographs is the sensitive portrayal of the villagers. "The feeling of mutual respect between the photographer and his subject is evident," said Teller. "He is not an outsider exoticising the locals. There is no colonial gaze. There is a cultural awareness, which was unusual then."

Zbiral agreed: "Even in the pictures of various temples in his collection, it is clear that he was sensitive to what he was portraying. These photographs have been done with real curiosity and humanity."

Different interpretations

Several contemporary artists have used the photographs as inspiration to create artworks of their own. On display at the exhibition, these installations explore several art forms, from abstract to a graphic novel to the Patua art of scroll painting narrating the unknown photographer’s story. Alongside the Patua work done by Swarna Chitrakar is a small screen, which plays a video of her singing a narrative song about how "finding the pictures in a box is a surprising story".

Some of the other Indian artists whose works have been exhibited at IGNCA as part of the exhibition include Aditya Basak, Sunandini Banerjee, Sanjeet Chowdhury and Alaknanda Nag.

Untitled, by artist Sunandini Banerjee. A digital collage printed on archival paper.
Untitled, by artist Sunandini Banerjee. A digital collage printed on archival paper.

"Initially we were not interested to find out who he [the photographer] was since it would have taken the element of mystery out of it," said Zbiral. "The fact that we still don't know very much about the person has enabled each artist to run with their imagination. It might have been much more limiting if we knew who he was."

Zbiral and Teller say that the project was not just research, but more about finding out how artists in different countries interpret these pictures. "[It's a] cross-cultural exploration and celebration of the universal power of photography," they said.

Jerri Zbiral (left) and Alan Teller.
Jerri Zbiral (left) and Alan Teller.