Here’s the plot: In 1988, a couple visited an estate sale of a deceased friend and stumbled upon a shoebox of old photographs tucked under a couch. It contained more than a hundred envelopes filled with negatives and contact sheets for photographs depicting India in 1945. The identity of the photographer: unknown.
But only until they set out to discover the man behind the lens. The answer (and the photographs) hang at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts till January 31.
How did this set of sepia-toned images end up at a sale in Chicago four decades after they were taken? Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral, who ended up buying that box full of pictures for $20, have been trying to solve the mystery ever since. “We are curious people, we always want to see what’s in boxes,” said Zbiral. “We found these pictures and were immediately drawn to them.” The curiosity of the two artists took them halfway around the world to identify this anonymous photographer.
The collection includes photographs of temples and scenes from rural India: of villagers washing clothes, fishermen going about their work, children laughing while enjoying a piece of chewing gum (probably gifted by the photographer), women engrossed in their daily job of threshing rice, or sometimes posing and looking directly into the camera. The only details provided by the photographer are quick scribbles at the bottom of every picture indicating the year they were taken and a short description: “(10th PTU) (3 May 45) (902) (Indian woman and child)” or “(10th PTU) (3 May 45) (895) (Indian boy on cart)”.
After several years of research, the duo discovered that the photographer was an American soldier who was based in what is now West Bengal during the Second World War.
While the pictures have been in their possession for 28 years, it was only about a decade ago that they began actively exploring Bengal in search of the story behind them. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the show, Zbiral said: “There is something so magical about the fact that a person held these photographs, prints in their hands 70 years ago. It had the power to bring us halfway across the world to find out who this person was.”
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