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Frames of catharsis: Photos are precious sites of memory

Photographer Annu Matthew talks to Nidhi Gupta about her new project, which uses family albums and technology to unite generations & help them come to terms with ruptures from the past.

NIDHI GUPTA  30th Sep 2012

A series from Re-Generations

. What can you tell us about Re-generations?

A. My project starts with old family photographs — which remind us of our past and where we have come from — and the silent stories that these photographs insinuate. When flipping through a family album, we become more cognizant of the histories and memories of our own and other families.

My work builds on the experience prompted by looking at family photographs and the presumed veracity of photographs in general. The work spurs a critical reflection on the power of photography and its effect on the perception of memory, family and the warping of cultures over time.

The final ephemeral animations are built from archival images and recent photographs of three or more generations of women. The digital technology and animation makes the old and new images appear as if they're magically flowing into one another. This malleable object prompts the viewer to wonder where the past and present begin and end.

Q. What inspired you to pick this project?

A. When I visit old family friends, they often pull out their family albums. I have always found old black and white snapshots, especially studio images, to be both beautiful and haunting. The images highlight the passage of time and the impact of life's experiences on the people in the photos. I have had a similar reaction browsing the Alkazi collection when it was in New York City, with its wonderful collection of old photographs.

Q. In the larger realm of photography, and in theory, where does the family portrait stand as a trope?

A. Unlike other art forms like painting and sculpture, photography is created from reality. When we look at a photograph, we assume that the moment being portrayed happened at some point in time. Some contemporary photographers try to challenge this notion by creating illusions of reality (Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, to name two.) Old family portraits are a quintessential example of how photographs are metaphors for memories. Family photographs usually reflect a special event, a moment, and at the same time, sometimes hide the larger stories and histories.

Q. Can you explain the technology you have used to create these animations?Image 2nd

A. I scan old family photographs and with the family's cooperation, three generations of women are posed and photographed so they are mimicking the original photograph. Then, using Photoshop, I extract the newly photographed figures from the background and make them match the original photograph in terms of lens quality, grain and color.

This part of the project is a lot of detail work. I then import the different frames into Final Cut Pro, where I work on the pacing of the dissolves and the time for each frame.

Q. Through your travels to Israel, Vietnam and Palestine, what about their respective conflicts struck you the most?

A. My trips to these countries/territories has made me more conscious of how political events shape the way that different families gather, keep, value and appreciate old family photos. All three places have large populations that have been displaced by historical events. When families move, as voluntary or involuntary immigrants, one thing they try to take with them are their family photographs, which are irreplaceable depositories of their histories and memories.

In India and Israel, I was able to converse with my subjects. Learning the stories of the families, especially from Israel, has become an important aspect of the work.

Also, having visited Holocaust Museums in the US and in Israel and then interacting with survivors and their families made me realise how healing it is to honour and validate the experiences of those affected by such horrific political events. Over 12 million people were displaced in India and Pakistan in 1947 within three months and over a million died, but there is no memorial for the Partition.

Q. In India you've chosen to essay Partition victims. Why that particular conflict, when we have had so many more massive violent incidents since 1947?

A. I think that a lot of the violent incidents since 1947 have been echoes and reverberations from the trauma of Partition. Also, the people affected by Partition are getting older, so time is of the essence. I intend to create work that is accessible to a larger audience and make these stories part of our history. I intend to personalise it and make sure it exists beyond just academic books. When I studied in India, I never learnt about the Partition. Today I ask various people of different ages and get the same response. It is important to honor and collectively remember the people who were affected by the Partition. It is also important to address our violent history to not repeat it.

Q. Can you illustrate your research experience in India so far?Image 3rd

A. I started my project by contacting friends, family and other acquaintances I know and asking them to help me find families with the profile I am looking for. I then spend time with the older generation listening to their recollections about the Partition. Seeing and sometimes discovering the old photos, brings back memories for the families, which we talk about.

The voluntary participation of the families is an important part of the way that we collaboratively shape how their story and history is told.

On this trip I have met and photographed a range of families with an interesting range of experiences. In one family, the grandmother was born in a small room in the Red Fort, where her family lived after leaving West Punjab just before the Partition. In another, the grandmother was saved as she had been pushed through the window of the train that was leaving for India. I have been surprised at how willingly and openly people have told me their experiences. Some of them have been disturbing descriptions of what happened and others have been heartening stories about people who helped them in their towns and villages and along the way, which is why they are alive today.

Q. Often, a conflict that has damaged a family is something that they would be interested in forgetting. Have you seen this trend?

A. That is usually true. I think since it has been 65 years since the Partition and those who survived it are aging, that same generation is now more willing to revisit their memories and tell their families (and me) about their experiences. When these Partition survivors agree to take part in the project, they know that they will be talking to me about what they went through. I have been surprised at how willingly they start to talk. I work to try to dig in to their stories to distill it down to the most memorable part of their experience.

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