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.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Following a mountaineer as he reaches the summit of Mount Everest

Accounts from Vikas Dimri’s second attempt reveal the immense fortitude and strength needed to summit the Everest.

Vikas Dimri made a huge attempt last year to climb the Mount Everest. Fate had other plans. Thwarted by unfavourable weather at the last minute, he came so close and yet not close enough to say he was at the top. But that did not deter him. Vikas is back on the Everest trail now, and this time he’s sharing his experiences at every leg of the journey.

The Everest journey began from the Lukla airport, known for its dicey landing conditions. It reminded him of the failed expedition, but he still moved on to Namche Bazaar - the staging point for Everest expeditions - with a positive mind. Vikas let the wisdom of the mountains guide him as he battled doubt and memories of the previous expedition. In his words, the Everest taught him that, “To conquer our personal Everest, we need to drop all our unnecessary baggage, be it physical or mental or even emotional”.

Vikas used a ‘descent for ascent’ approach to acclimatise. In this approach, mountaineers gain altitude during the day, but descend to catch some sleep. Acclimatising to such high altitudes is crucial as the lack of adequate oxygen can cause dizziness, nausea, headache and even muscle death. As Vikas prepared to scale the riskiest part of the climb - the unstable and continuously melting Khumbhu ice fall - he pondered over his journey so far.

His brother’s diagnosis of a heart condition in his youth was a wakeup call for the rather sedentary Vikas, and that is when he started focusing on his health more. For the first time in his life, he began to appreciate the power of nutrition and experimented with different diets and supplements for their health benefits. His quest for better health also motivated him to take up hiking, marathon running, squash and, eventually, a summit of the Everest.

Back in the Himalayas, after a string of sleepless nights, Vikas and his team ascended to Camp 2 (6,500m) as planned, and then descended to Base Camp for the basic luxuries - hot shower, hot lunch and essential supplements. Back up at Camp 2, the weather played spoiler again as a jet stream - a fast-flowing, narrow air current - moved right over the mountain. Wisdom from the mountains helped Vikas maintain perspective as they were required to descend 15km to Pheriche Valley. He accepted that “strength lies not merely in chasing the big dream, but also in...accepting that things could go wrong.”

At Camp 4 (8,000m), famously known as the death zone, Vikas caught a clear glimpse of the summit – his dream standing rather tall in front of him.

It was the 18th of May 2018 and Vikas finally reached the top. The top of his Everest…the top of Mount Everest!

Watch the video below to see actual moments from Vikas’ climb.

Play

Vikas credits his strength to dedication, exercise and a healthy diet. He credits dietary supplements for helping him sustain himself in the inhuman conditions on Mount Everest. On heights like these where the oxygen supply drops to 1/3rd the levels on the ground, the body requires 3 times the regular blood volume to pump the requisite amount of oxygen. He, thus, doesn’t embark on an expedition without double checking his supplements and uses Livogen as an aid to maintain adequate amounts of iron in his blood.

Livogen is proud to have supported Vikas Dimri on his ambitious quest and salutes his spirit. To read more about the benefits of iron, see here. To read Vikas Dimri’s account of his expedition, click here.

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