Annu Palakunnathu Matthew was studying mathematics at the Women’s Christian College in Chennai, when she decided to take an optional class in photography. Little did she know that the whim would send her on a path of calculating shutter speeds and apertures, instead of dissecting theorems.
Born in Stourport, England, Matthew grew up in Bangalore, and now lives in Providence in the United States.
Her latest photo-based project builds on photography’s visceral connection to memory, as she explores the parallel histories of India and Pakistan. Titled Open Wound: Stories of Partition, the project brings to life untold stories of the split between the two countries – there are 12 stories each, from Pakistan and India on Matthew’s website.
During the Partition, an estimated 14 million people were displaced within three months, and over a million lost their lives. Despite this tragedy, there is no date or time that commemorates Partition in either country.
“The children who survived those traumatic events are ageing and dying and will take their stories with them,” Matthew said. “I realised then that I wanted to tell their stories to a larger audience.”
With this in mind, Matthew applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in India in 2012-2013, and thus created the portfolio Open Wound, with an aim to honour and collectively remember the people affected by the Partition, on both sides of the border.
Open Wound relies on the way old photographs reignite memory. The photo-animations combine old black and white portraits with recent images of survivors of the Partition. The final images weave in and out of space and time, allowing the viewer to simultaneously ponder India’s history, and the impact of the Partition on contemporary India.
In Ruchika’s story, the viewer is introduced to a newly married Sikh couple peeping from inside a car. Sitting beside the bride is an older woman. The monochrome image morphs to include a young girl as the married couple age. Text flows onto the screen, “There were so many people trying to get on the train to India. My grandmother pushed through the window to get in.”
A tall commanding figure stands with his right hand placed on top of a chair in S Malik’s story from Pakistan – his grandfather. The last line of the painful retelling reads, “I left with my parents before Indian Punjab became a slaughterhouse for Muslims.”
While photographs usually only show a single moment, Stories of Partition is able to span time, space, national boundaries, and borders, to visualise the migration in a way that no single image can. Matthew’s project includes a number of heart-wrenching stories that give the viewer insight and generate empathy, while steering clear of voyeurism.
“I left out the really violent details,” she said. “We know there was violence. Over a million people died. We know that women were attacked.”
The trust of the families Mathew interviewed left a deep impact on her. “Photographing and interviewing families from Pakistan, considered India’s arch-enemy, was enlightening, heart-wrenching, and a deeply satisfying experience; it feels right to tell both sides of the story,” said Matthew. “These families opened their homes and trusted me to listen and share their stories with the world.”
Her previous art explored her experiences of growing up in England and India – where she referred to herself as both an insider and an outsider. The project also spoke volumes about her life as an immigrant in the United States.
Matthew explained that her work enables her to share the process that she goes through as she relooks at accepted histories.
“Being both an insider and an outsider in multiple cultures offers me unique perspectives prompting me to view history and contemporary life through a different lens,” she wrote to Scroll.in .
Referring to the sensitive politics between India and Pakistan, Mathew said, “I hope we can put politics aside and see the commonality of our experience of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent through personal stories.”