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The memory project


FRAME WORK: Photo albums are a way for displaced communities to stay in touch with their roots. (Clockwise from left) Photo animation of a Vietnamese matriarch with her family;images from the 'Indian From India' series;a part of Mathew's own family collection digitally reworked

Every single time it is the tattered old family album that has helped Annu Palakkunnathu Mathew break the ice. And it is what thawed the air at the Faridabad home of Neelam Nagpal, 63, last Saturday as well. 

Mathew's passion is documenting family histories as photo animation - the sepia toned grandmother in her regal silk with the '40s hairdo segueing into the mother of the '60s and finally the little girl in a frock. She uses archival and contemporary material to create these "movies" on cultural memory, showing up really how little things have changed and how much they have.

Nagpal is a subject of her sub-series on Partition in her project Memories Of India. Her parents had moved from Banwal in Pakistan to Delhi where they were given shelter at the Red Fort barracks. Nagpal was actually born inside the fort. All that remains of the family's connection with Banwal is the family album with its fading photos of the family matriarch Sumitradevi Narula.

"When societies are displaced the only thing they think of taking along are the family photos, " says Mathew, 48. She is hoping to document all her Partition visuals, including the one featuring the Nagpal family and many others spread across Delhi, Bangalore and even Saharanpur, by next summer.

Mathew, who is a professor of photography at the University of Rhode Island, has traversed the globe looking at old, rooted and rootless dynasties. Her project is simple : she looks for families that have long stories to tell of change and displacement, rifles through family photos, scans them and then, using imaging technology, segues the current into the past. 'Photo animation' is how Mathew chooses to describe her final work.

"Photographs are like a memorial for people who have left their roots and moved forward. Whether it is the survivors of the war in Vietnam or the Israeli diaspora, I sort of re-enact their family's history through photographs. These are photographs of people living between cultures, " says Mathew.

You could describe her as a photographer but Mathew's work goes beyond what, say, Dayanita Singh does. "Photographs are only the starting point of my work, " she says. The bulk of her work actually happens after the old photos are collated and new ones taken. Post-production digital work is where the photographic history of her subjects actually comes together the images are spliced, matched, blurred, sometimes coloured and variously manipulated to create the new ones. Her idea is to recreate sounds, smells, gestures and small details of our personal memory using these reworked images.

Mathew says her own sense of being the bearer of several identities is reflected in her work. She grew up in the UK, came to India at 10 and resumed her studies in Chennai, went to the US to study and was constantly fielding questions about her roots. "They would ask me, 'Who are you? A Native American?' And I would say, 'No, an Indian from India', " she recalls.

The question set her off on a series called Indian From India where she juxtaposes her own image alongside archival Native American photographs, occasionally dressing up as one herself.

"I play on my own 'otherness', using photographs of Native Americans from the 19th and early 20th century that perpetuated and reinforced stereotypes paired with self-portraits. I find how 19th and early 20th century photographers of
Native Americans looked at what they called the primitive natives similar to the colonial gaze of the 19th century British photographers working in India, " she says.

Interestingly, Mathew prefers to use a toy camera instead of a heavy duty professional one in her Memories of India project. "That way no one takes me seriously, " she jokes. 

Reader's opinion (1)

Sep 30th, 2012 at 17:24 PM

I would urge you to read another Indian Memory Project by Anusha Yadav - an amazing journey of photos and stories from past, brought to life in the digital world -

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