By Shikha Sreenivas
Anusha Yadav is the founder of Indian Memory Project — an online visual and narrative archive that is in its seventh year now. It traces the histories of the people belonging to the Indian subcontinent, through images that from before 1991. It is a part of The Memory Company, a consultancy which curated ‘The Photograph is Proof’ — a collection of narrative-based photographs about historical criminal investigations in India.
Anusha is also a photographer, photo archivist, publication designer and a curator. She has been working as an independent photographer since 2006, and her work has been exhibited all across the world, from India and Austria to China and South Africa.
At the Times Litfest Bengaluru 2017, presented by ACT Fibrenet, Anusha spoke about family secrets, looking into one’s ancestry and the power of photographs.
We had a quick conversation with her right after her session, on the photographs that are a part of the Indian Memory Project, and why she loves to photograph her friends.
Do you think that photographs, in this age of visual media, can desensitise the audience?
It can desensitise, because you are looking at a picture from somebody else’s point of view. But I think you can re-sensitise by contextualising the image. And if it is relevant to you, then the sensitivity increases; it depends on how much you can relate to it and how much of it is working towards the context that you have. It is sort of fixed into that little story that you have about your own life. So it also depends on what cultural systems are documenting it and for what purpose.
The intention of taking a picture is always relevant. Whether you are trying to remove yourself from something or you’re trying to attach yourself to something — it’s just a matter of context. When there is too much of it, there is only so much bandwidth one has for absorbing ideas. Which is why storytelling works brilliantly around a picture, because then at least somebody is taking you through the photograph, explaining its roots and how it came to existence, and attaching a human story which people find easier to relate to.
What do you think is the texture of memory that photographs retain, as opposed to other mediums?
It is visual memory, but it is your job to unravel them. Memory has a life of its own — it can be fictional, it can be factual, but it’s one-sided, because what I perceive as memory may not be the same for you. It might trigger ideas which are not linear, you can jump from the 19th century to the 20th century, and then go back to the 15th century.
So there is also a degree of illusion-making in a photograph?
Yes, there is. Memory is tricky like that. I think sometimes dreams become a part of memory. Sometimes you want something to be true so much that it becomes a part of real memory. And some of it is juicy telling, someone just adds the little detail that makes a story more exciting than even the real thing was. Or it could be traumatic, it could be exciting. It’s all of these emotions working together.
Why do we search for history through photographs?
In the end, it’s a quest for answers. People are looking for identity. People are looking to be surprised. They want adventure. They want to see it happen in the past, because it is like permission. I have seen this in families who discover adventurous pasts, and suddenly their lives do tend to become more adventurous, because it is permission from the past, it’s permission from their DNA. And in some cases, if their history is not that interesting, they still try and make their presence interesting.
Is that why you started the Indian Memory Project?
Essentially, I’m curious. I’m curious about everybody, and it might be a quest for answers. People have done fantastic things, and it’s incredible for me, and especially women. When they have done things that one can’t even imagine and because we grew up with a different story about women or a completely different narrative. It’s also incredible to be flawed and to be wrong. So I’m just awestruck with everything, it’s my way of life.
When did you first take up photography? How was it?
I started photographing in 2007. It’s very natural for me to hold the camera, that’s all I can say. My adrenaline is the highest when I am shooting.
Do you ever feel self-conscious when you have a camera?
I only feel self-conscious when I feel I’m interfering in a space and that my subject is not comfortable. One way to get over this self-consciousness is to do self-portraiture which is what I started doing a lot of. It was how I understood that the camera is a powerful weapon, because it can violate privacy, and should therefore be used very sensitively. And you understand the vulnerabilities of the people you are dealing with.
How do you know you are not appropriating your subject in a photograph?
The fact is, that if you are photographing something, you are already appropriating it. You will only photograph what you see, you will not photograph what somebody else sees. You have to find a way to fall in love with your subject and for them to fall in love with you. I’m exaggerating when I say “fall in love”, but they must like you and to be engaged enough to get you a good picture. And you find different ways: Conversations, storytelling, gossip, anything, bollywood, cricket or food…
So what was the first photograph of the Indian Memory Project?
The first photograph never got included in the Memory Project because the family had a problem showcasing it. It was a chartered accountant in the 1890s who had photographed himself with both his wives. It was very interesting to see a man being photographed with two of his wives and children. Then there was some politics with the family because they put it on Facebook and suddenly they didn’t want to.
What’s your favourite photograph from the project?
That’s an unfair question. Sometimes it depends on the story, which can transform the simplest picture. But sometimes the picture is so powerful, even without knowing the story. The Devadasi picture is definitely a favourite. And the pictures of the African-Indian weddings. And the latest picture, of Jalabala Vaidya, who is the first Indian woman to have performed at the New York Broadway in the 1970s. There should be a biopic on her!
Why do you photograph your friends?
Because I adore them. I enjoy their company, and because photographs are documentation. I look at them as my own autobiography, maybe. But of course, it is all dependent on good light — when there is good light, you cannot miss a picture. And I like photographing them, when they look so happy. And I am comfortable with them, and they are with me, so that can make for a picture that you cannot get with an unfamiliar photographer. It has intimacy.