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.
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.