In Photos

In search of the anonymous American photographer who recorded the Indian countryside in 1945

Fascinated by old photographs found in a shoebox, a US couple travelled halfway around the world to trace its mysterious origins.

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.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Behind the garb of wealth and success, white collar criminals are hiding in plain sight

Understanding the forces that motivate leaders to become fraudsters.

Most con artists are very easy to like; the ones that belong to the corporate society, even more so. The Jordan Belforts of the world are confident, sharp and can smooth-talk their way into convincing people to bend at their will. For years, Harshad Mehta, a practiced con-artist, employed all-of-the-above to earn the sobriquet “big bull” on Dalaal Street. In 1992, the stockbroker used the pump and dump technique, explained later, to falsely inflate the Sensex from 1,194 points to 4,467. It was only after the scam that journalist Sucheta Dalal, acting on a tip-off, broke the story exposing how he fraudulently dipped into the banking system to finance a boom that manipulated the stock market.

Play

In her book ‘The confidence game’, Maria Konnikova observes that con artists are expert storytellers - “When a story is plausible, we often assume it’s true.” Harshad Mehta’s story was an endearing rags-to-riches tale in which an insurance agent turned stockbroker flourished based on his skill and knowledge of the market. For years, he gave hope to marketmen that they too could one day live in a 15,000 sq.ft. posh apartment with a swimming pool in upmarket Worli.

One such marketman was Ketan Parekh who took over Dalaal Street after the arrest of Harshad Mehta. Ketan Parekh kept a low profile and broke character only to celebrate milestones such as reaching Rs. 100 crore in net worth, for which he threw a lavish bash with a star-studded guest-list to show off his wealth and connections. Ketan Parekh, a trainee in Harshad Mehta’s company, used the same infamous pump-and-dump scheme to make his riches. In that, he first used false bank documents to buy high stakes in shares that would inflate the stock prices of certain companies. The rise in stock prices lured in other institutional investors, further increasing the price of the stock. Once the price was high, Ketan dumped these stocks making huge profits and causing the stock market to take a tumble since it was propped up on misleading share prices. Ketan Parekh was later implicated in the 2001 securities scam and is serving a 14-years SEBI ban. The tactics employed by Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh were similar, in that they found a loophole in the system and took advantage of it to accumulate an obscene amount of wealth.

Play

Call it greed, addiction or smarts, the 1992 and 2001 Securities Scams, for the first time, revealed the magnitude of white collar crimes in India. To fill the gaps exposed through these scams, the Securities Laws Act 1995 widened SEBI’s jurisdiction and allowed it to regulate depositories, FIIs, venture capital funds and credit-rating agencies. SEBI further received greater autonomy to penalise capital market violations with a fine of Rs 10 lakhs.

Despite an empowered regulatory body, the next white-collar crime struck India’s capital market with a massive blow. In a confession letter, Ramalinga Raju, ex-chairman of Satyam Computers convicted of criminal conspiracy and financial fraud, disclosed that Satyam’s balance sheets were cooked up to show an excess of revenues amounting to Rs. 7,000 crore. This accounting fraud allowed the chairman to keep the share prices of the company high. The deception, once revealed to unsuspecting board members and shareholders, made the company’s stock prices crash, with the investors losing as much as Rs. 14,000 crores. The crash of India’s fourth largest software services company is often likened to the bankruptcy of Enron - both companies achieved dizzying heights but collapsed to the ground taking their shareholders with them. Ramalinga Raju wrote in his letter “it was like riding a tiger, not knowing how to get off without being eaten”, implying that even after the realisation of consequences of the crime, it was impossible for him to rectify it.

It is theorised that white-collar crimes like these are highly rationalised. The motivation for the crime can be linked to the strain theory developed by Robert K Merton who stated that society puts pressure on individuals to achieve socially accepted goals (the importance of money, social status etc.). Not having the means to achieve those goals leads individuals to commit crimes.

Take the case of the executive who spent nine years in McKinsey as managing director and thereafter on the corporate and non-profit boards of Goldman Sachs, Procter & Gamble, American Airlines, and Harvard Business School. Rajat Gupta was a figure of success. Furthermore, his commitment to philanthropy added an additional layer of credibility to his image. He created the American India Foundation which brought in millions of dollars in philanthropic contributions from NRIs to development programs across the country. Rajat Gupta’s descent started during the investigation on Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri-Lankan hedge fund manager accused of insider trading. Convicted for leaking confidential information about Warren Buffet’s sizeable investment plans for Goldman Sachs to Raj Rajaratnam, Rajat Gupta was found guilty of conspiracy and three counts of securities fraud. Safe to say, Mr. Gupta’s philanthropic work did not sway the jury.

Play

The people discussed above have one thing in common - each one of them was well respected and celebrated for their industry prowess and social standing, but got sucked down a path of non-violent crime. The question remains - Why are individuals at successful positions willing to risk it all? The book Why They Do It: Inside the mind of the White-Collar Criminal based on a research by Eugene Soltes reveals a startling insight. Soltes spoke to fifty white collar criminals to understand their motivations behind the crimes. Like most of us, Soltes expected the workings of a calculated and greedy mind behind the crimes, something that could separate them from regular people. However, the results were surprisingly unnerving. According to the research, most of the executives who committed crimes made decisions the way we all do–on the basis of their intuitions and gut feelings. They often didn’t realise the consequences of their action and got caught in the flow of making more money.

Play

The arena of white collar crimes is full of commanding players with large and complex personalities. Billions, starring Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti, captures the undercurrents of Wall Street and delivers a high-octane ‘ruthless attorney vs wealthy kingpin’ drama. The show looks at the fine line between success and fraud in the stock market. Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund kingpin, skilfully walks on this fine line like a tightrope walker, making it difficult for Chuck Rhoades, a US attorney, to build a case against him.

If financial drama is your thing, then block your weekend for Billions. You can catch it on Hotstar Premium, a platform that offers a wide collection of popular and Emmy-winning shows such as Game of Thrones, Modern Family and This Is Us, in addition to live sports coverage, and movies. To subscribe, click here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.