“Ancestors” has a dual objective, the first more utilitarian and the second, let’s say, more gratuitous. The project originates from twin desires: the first is to go into more remote or isolated (but not only) areas and villages in India where people don’t have easy access to photographers, and to make portraits of the elderly that I either bring back or send to them or to their families, so that they have an image of their elderly revered ones (that will ultimately be framed, hung on a wall and often decked with garlands after the ancestor’s death). It’s all about the preservation of memory and identity via a photographic likeness. In fact, without formalizing this desire as a “project,” I have been making portraits of “Ancestors” for many years, having spent so much time in villages in Tamil Nadu. Each time I return to a place, I always bring prints of those I photographed the time before. How often have I been asked to take this person’s or that person’s portrait…and how often have I seen that same portrait framed and garlanded after the person’s passing. It is moving to witness how such a small gesture can become a source of solace for the family.
The second part of this two-fold project is what you see here. It is inspired by a pair of paintings that I bought many years ago, done most probably in the twenties or thirties, of an old Chettiar (a wealthy merchant clan in Tamil Nadu) couple wearing traditional garb, religious markings and jewellery, and posing in the sober stateliness of a studio. Since hanging them on my wall, they (both the paintings and the people painted) have never ceased to intrigue and captivate me.
I have thus been inspired to recreate this type of image by making “studio” full-length portraits of these same village elders, with their collaboration and that of their families: choosing a location inside or outside their home and positioning an (inevitably plastic) chair where they will sit and pose, adding an accessory or two or none at all, selecting clothes and jewellery and religious markings or none at all…for the motivation behind these portraits is no longer memory per se but instead how they want to be remembered, how they want to be represented.
“Ancestors” is an ongoing project and something I look forward to pursuing in all corners of India for many, many years to come. Here is a small selection of Ancestors photographed in 2016 and 2017.