Formed from three distinct groups of photographs, ‘People of India’ draws out aspects of British colonial history, a subject that continues to resonate and be relevant to both countries. Although the photographs, many of which are portraits, have been taken in India over a period of one hundred and fifty years, the majority of those shown are contemporary images by Jason Scott Tilley. Based in Coventry, Tilley has both British and Indian heritage, and his photographs are the result of several journeys to India, in part tracing his own personal histories.
The exhibition touches, as one might expect, upon racial, social, religious and cultural assumptions, as well as those pertaining to disability. But the photographs do not present generalised stereotypes or attempts at classification. Instead they show individual, surprising stories discovered by Tilley. For instance, the caption for one work describes a handsome young deaf man who leaps from high platforms into the sea to impress watching girls and monkeys. Captions in the first person intensify the visitor’s experience with each portrait subject and strengthen the authenticity of each of Tilley’s encounters.
Jason Scott Tilley ‘Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai, Maharashtra’, 2003 © Jason Scott Tilley
‘People of India’ is designed simply and elegantly. The silver gelatin prints allow easy engagement with the astonishing clarity and content of the portraits. Tiny details within each frame can be discerned: beads of water on a young boy’s shoulder from ‘Juhu Beach, Mumbai, Maharashtra’ (1999), the straining buttons of a coat over a musician’s paunch in ‘Paharganj, New Delhi’ (2004).
There are stark and startling moments within Tilley’s photographs too. Labels tell us that street children use coins they collect to buy glue to stop hunger pains, and many images are uncomfortable to look at. Other images are full of joy and humour: a young girl laughing, a bearded man with huge black sunglasses with ‘punk’ written on them. Repeated subjects show different encounters with Tilley over time. Aspects of tourism, of financial success, of hardship, poverty and difficulty are all depicted. But here there are no judgments or preconceptions. Tilley’s is not an anthropological survey but a telling of real human stories.
Jason Scott Tilley ‘Paharganj, New Dehli’, 2004 © Jason Scott Tilley
A series of classic anthropological photographs from 1868-75 form the middle section of the display. These are taken from volumes that show the ‘races and tribes’ of India through albumen print portraits by various photographers. Needless to say, the original captions use language which is offensive and troubling to modern eyes, and some of the sitters are visibly uncomfortable. There is none of Tilley’s warmth in these older photographs. Yet these nineteenth century works are important historical records nevertheless.
The last section contextualises Tilley’s practice and shines a light upon a lesser known photographer: Bert Scott, Tilley’s grandfather who was born and lived in India until 1948 when the violence of Partition forced him and his family to leave the country. Scott worked for The Times of India newspaper and alongside professional photographs many more intimate images are exhibited: wedding day portraits, Scott’s young friends playing in the sea in Bombay, Tilley’s mother as a chuckling baby.
As a photographic catalogue of the inhabitants of a nation, ‘People of India’ is inevitably partial and fragmented. Its focus is upon unique stories, of Tilley and Scott and each portrait sitter. These make up a complex collection of memories, journeys and lives that have been lived in this place, in all their rich variations and nuances.
Jason Scott Tilley: People of India
Herbert Museum and Art Gallery, Coventry
26 September 2014 – 11 January 2015
Commissioned and published by Photomonitor, 6 November 2014