PIX’s Personal Paradigms demonstrates how actions taken in private domain can change public spheres, start important conversations

In putting together these bodies of photographic work in this issue of PIX’s Personal Paradigms, the editorial team does allow for the reading that everything isn’t as it is: that the simple act of recovering deeply-buried family albums can topple truths.

Joshua Muyiwa July 06, 2020 13:37:27 IST
PIX’s Personal Paradigms demonstrates how actions taken in private domain can change public spheres, start important conversations

A handsome dark-skinned man with tight curls, two black brushstrokes for a moustache directly looks into the camera with a woman’s hand on his chest, she’s up against him, her head cradled between his neck and shoulder. She is open-mouthed, laughing. Her eyes are crinkled. In another: a girl dressed in a tomato-red kameez and parrot-green salwar is high up in a tree, leaning in the wedge of its branches, looking forlorn into the distance surrounded by the forest all around her. There’s one with a man on the street casually wearing a suit – he seems to have miscalculated the buttons to buttonholes equation on his shirt – holding a silver trumpet. His eyes are looking to the side, averting our collective gaze. In yet another one: a Marie biscuit – like the waning moon – sits snuggly at a foot that hints at the most exquisite wooden chair.

These are just some of the potent photos from the essays and writings that come together to form Personal Paradigms – the latest issue of PIX, a photography quarterly that is “about investigating and engaging with the broad and expansive fields of contemporary photographic practice in India”. It would seem that this edition of the quarterly couldn’t have come at a better time. While, globally, the pandemic has brought bubbling forth to the surface the systemic violence that marginalised communities have had to suffer at the hands of capitalism and their corporate and country’s leaders. Within the Indian context, these conversations on wholeness, completeness and pureness have been still putting on their pants in our drawing rooms, while they have long been rallying cries for grassroots peoples’ movements to break the system and reshape it in a way that made more room for them. The pandemic has ensured that we will no longer be able to be silent on these issues in our private rooms either.

In a way, this eighteenth issue of PIX reminds us that this undertaking: of writing and rewriting history (both individual and institutional) aren’t contemporary activities at all. Rather, they have always existed in the ways that people recorded and archived themselves, their own stories, and editorialising actually took place within the private sphere of the family. And this can be seen in the many essays that delve into family albums to tell a story of personhoods but also publicness. Joel Fernando’s Alaigal, which is Tamizh for waves, takes the oft-repeated story of the prodigal son, who went outside of his village to seize the economic opportunities and returned to do good for his own. In Joel’s essay, black-and-white photographs of everything from First Communions to functions to funerals are placed together as milestones to show the migration and the materials that made their way back over the years. On the hand, in Anu Kumar’s Ghar, one has the chance to look at photographs that might make it into a contemporary family photo album, where the characters aren’t entirely embodied but rather ephemera yet firmly present. And yet, it too tells the story of returning to the place of beginnings.

Then, there are projects that use personal archives and photographic interventions to deconstruct popular historical narratives around characters, cities and commitments. There’s Rohith Krishnan’s Praxis, which asks us to relook at the major players of the Naxalite movement to tell a story that muddles together glory, grit and getting left behind in a tender manner with a mix of recent portraits of them in their surroundings that captures the passage of time and the glories of their past as well as black-and-white photographs from a personal archive of agitations and action. Through Alakananda Nag’s The Armenians – only an interview – we are invited to understand the way a photographer’s personal projects can at times in becoming larger than itself unearth the missing bits of the past, in this case, the hand of the Armenians in building modern Kolkata. We are taken behind the scenes of a war through the images of Colonel Pradeep Kapoor in his son Aditya Kapoor’s contribution The Wartime Family Album and shown that even at extraordinary times, the human instinct is to search for the ordinary moment. Through these works, we are able to understand the ways that personal can unmake or remake our ideas of public knowledge. That the difference between the magical and the mundane is perspective.

Though: I think it is at the times that these photo-essays break out of being centred on blood ties as familial (or the ‘personal’ as defined in this theme), or attempt to take apart it’s scaffolding, it begins to intrigue and tugs at the visceral level just a little more for me. It steps outside of its “documentary-ness” to say something about the photographer and those in the photographs; it gives insight into the ways that relationships could be thicker without the bind of blood. As a Black, Femme, Queer, Afro-Indian, I’m particularly excited by the gaps that allow me to see my own trajectories even if I’m not physically present in those photos. And it is this openness and invitation that drew me into Sarah Ainslie’s Caught Between Two Worlds that literally pieces, pushes and pulls apart photographs to tell stories outside of their frames (and also within them). In their new avatar, they seem more honest to their origin: divulging family’s secrets around sexuality, dual, distant families and the dissonance of mental illness. And even if one didn’t know this, we’re left asking: there must be a reason for togetherness to be shown as (a)part?

In general, I’m also drawn to narratives around constructed families, and Srinivas Kuruganti’s Pictures in My Hand of a Boy I Still Resemble satisfies that need, fully. In his photographs, one is allowed to reminisce about the people in one’s own life who blur boundaries between family and friend. (Or maybe, who make us expect better from our first families?) It actually shifts the paradigm of the personal as something that isn’t simply one’s birthright to something that is earned over time. He seems to validate the admonishment from my childhood, you’ll have to work for a personal life, and yet shows that even if one “severely lacked” a family growing up, it is possible to find one you can name your own.

While one does always find it hard to place the political in the context of the happy, Rajyashri Goody’s Eat With Great Delight deftly achieves this usually unwieldy task. Here, the choice of showing her Dalit family and community gathered together over shared meals gives us pause from the Dalit body being a symbol of strife and struggle and instead colours in laughter, joy and enjoyment into this body. While it steps outside of the commonplace imagery of the Dalit person, it forces us to remember that despite on-going everyday violence and aggressions faced by this community, there will always be time for sharing, for coming together, for recharging the batteries. It reminds us that staying alive is a political act, laughing and making merry while doing it makes it an even better one.

In putting together these bodies of photographic work in this issue of PIX’s Personal Paradigms, the editorial team does allow for the reading that everything isn’t as it is: that the simple act of recovering deeply-buried family albums can topple truths. It demonstrates that actions done in the private domain can change the public sphere, or at least introduce it as a topic of conversation. Especially in a time when the government is forcing us to produce a document that proves we belong, that this is our home. This edition of the quarterly then poses these questions: What do family photo albums count for? What do they reveal about us? What can they tell of the ways we have always related to one another? What of the ways we have wanted to relate to each other? (We could assign them with values of good or bad, but maybe leaving them at the level of action might produce something else?)

But there is a loose-end that it doesn’t tie. In reading the accompanying texts and listening to the video synopsis, I noted a commonality: almost everyone was gifted their first camera. It definitely was/is seen as an item of luxury. So, the questions that still linger for me: Who gets to make these photographs? Who gets to be in these photographs? Who gets to have these deeply-buried family albums that can topple truths?

Joshua Muyiwa is a Bengaluru-based poet and writer

Banner image via enterpix.in

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