The stories in an old photograph

This post is not about extracting the medicine in a story. It is about helping us realise how we often unconsciously use objects - in this case a photograph - as a resource and a starting point for story-telling. It is about understanding the process and appreciating the fact that the stories we choose to 'read' from objects are never objective. They are coloured by our own personalities and histories as much as they are by the object's content. It is also about recognising that the stories that inform our lives are not just about what we hear, or read, or see, but the meaning we choose to give these sensory inputs. What follows below is a record of some of the processes by which interpretation could occur...


How often do we think about the stories a single photograph can suggest to us about the people in it and ourselves? I chanced upon the photograph below which made me stop and think about this.


What can a faded photo in a time-mottled old book have to say? Well, let us start by examining the photo itself.

If I were to examine the photo with the idea of using it as a resource for planning a painting, I would focus on the different compositional elements, the interplay of lights and darks, the position of the different 'shapes' and their relationship to each other. The people in the photograph, the buildings, landscape and historical context would be irrelevant to my focus outside of these parameters and I would safely ignore them.

If I were to view the photograph from the point of view of examining it's historical context, I would look at it in quite another way.

In the foreground are 28 men and five women, in the best Victorian finery, on the grounds of what looks like a colonial bungalow under construction, in a landscape which could be anywhere on Earth, except, for the fact that:
(1) the information provided with the photo specifies that it was taken in 1892 in Lucknow, India. (A date which more-or-less coincides with the "high noon" of the Raj) and
(2) the background contains five figures who are in traditional Indian clothes of the time.

If one of the people in the foreground were a beloved ancestor I would have a very different perspective from if the beloved ancestor was one of the five figures "contained" behind two sets of "fences", in the background. I would have yet another approach if both the background and the foreground contained beloved ancestors.

If I were to attempt a 'content analysis' on the photograph I would have yet another approach.

Each standpoint would suggest different interpretations and consequently different stories.

To illustrate, I will launch into the 'content analysis' approach and allow the story which this focus suggests to unfold.

Let us start with the obvious - the group in the foreground, who are carefully positioned in rows, decked out in their Sunday best and positioned to show them off to the best advantage. All, save four men have luxuriant moustaches  and every one of the women has a large, distinctive hat - fashion statements at the time.  Hats, canes, suits and boots appear to be de rigueur for membership of this group, though all these items of clothing are obviously inappropriate and uncomfortable for the tropics. Yet why do they wear them? Clearly to mark their membership of the ruling group, the fact that they were "up-to-date" for the time, as the imagined audience for the photograph would have been their families and peers back in England and in other parts of the Empire who would read the implied message as intended. Would those who posed for the photo ever have imagined that their images would be analysed by the "eyes of the future" - ie those of us who would view them long after their 'world' was gone? Chances are their imaginations never went that far, or if they did, nothing in the photograph suggests that they would have thought they would be judged from the standpoint of a world view other than their own. 

Why is one of the background figures on the 'outer' though he is appropriately dressed?  The obvious fact of the matter is that he, like the other four background figures, is not white. He is what they would have viewed as a 'marginal man', caught between two widely different cultures and belonging in neither. Why that interpretation? His body language suggests that though he is grouped in the background, with other men of his 'race' (a loaded term which nonetheless formed the basis for society during the Raj) he clearly set himself apart from them and was facing in a different direction.

The positioning of all five background figures seems to suggest that they were sent to there to exclude them from the photo and failing that to ensure that their images would be small enough to be unrecognisable and blend in with the landscape. Unless this photo is magnified to its original size, two of these five figures are almost 'invisible'.
Two of the other four 'background' figures looked directly at the camera. One had positioned himself squarely in the middle, while the other, a child, looked on with interest as if he knew that there was something of importance going on, but did not know how it worked. A third figure, stood patiently in the background, waiting, his attention arrested by something in another direction, while the fifth was pre-occupied with some concern of his own and showed no interest at all in what was happening around him or in the fact that he was positioned to be 'invisible'. Can the body language of each of these background figures be taken as representative of different attitudes among Indians of the day? Is it valid to ask such a question, or is the mere act of asking such a question telling us something about ourselves?

Well to repeat a cliche - a picture speaks a thousand words. Every figure in that photograph is a product of its time. Yet each represents a human being, whose legacy - whether it be attitudes or offspring or anything else, live on. If each of those people were to get a contemporary makeover and we were to meet them in the street, at work, or somewhere else in the course of our own lives, we would probably smile and say 'hello'.

So, having said all this, what is the purpose of this exercise, of spending so much time and effort examining an unremarkable scrap from the past? Well for me personally, it makes the past come 'alive' in ways that social history, novels, artefacts and written documents can never compare. It is a chance to 'see' and in a limited way, engage with the human face and stories of the past. It provides me with a mechanism for uncovering how stories may have crept into my subconscious and quietly nestled there affecting my emotional responses to people and situations. The exercise itself gave me an opportunity to uncover and examine my attitudes towards the past and how they inform my present.

It also affords me an opportunity to demonstrate how depending on our focus, we see different stories in the same situation or artefact. Being aware of the viewpoints and how they operate within us, allows me to develop a deeper understanding of what it meant and what it means to be human.

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