Female in Focus: Buttons For Eyes

Priya Kambli physically manipulates old family photographs and then rephotographs the altered artefacts. In her Female in Focus winning series, she employs a variety of materials, particularly those that are grounded in everyday use. Flour, turmeric, and strips of wallpaper embellish old pictures of her childhood in India. “I re-contextualise these familial associations for my own artistic and creative purposes,” explains Kambli, “But also as a way of embellishing my past and connecting it to the present.” 

The photographer is interested in using her own experience of emigration to contribute to the broader cultural debate on migrant narratives. “As significant political forces try to suppress the concerns of those who are perceived as different, the need to present a variety of perspectives is simply more urgent,” says Kambli. “Sharing our stories has a civic and social impact.” While Kambli’s need to decipher and address her family photographs is personal, the work always touches on universal themes, with the potential to start a dialogue about cultural differences and global similarities. 

Mouths (Breaux’s Studio), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli

Kambli describes the process of creating her work as laborious, verging on obsessive. The way in which she maintains the photographs is akin to how Indian housewives tend to their kitchen deities, and with good reason. In many ways, the photographs are all that remain of Kambli’s life from before she emigrated: “My emigration to the United States on May 15 1993 was motivated by personal family tragedies,” she explains. Kambli lost her parents in 1991 – in response, she moved to the US to start a new life, while her sister decided to stay and make a life in India. “My sister and I split our photographic inheritance arbitrarily and irreparably in half,” she says. “One portion remained with her, and the other was displaced along with me, here in America.”

Archival work is meaningful to Kambli as it allows her to connect the past with the present, to bring forward memories, and to reimagine them adorned with tokens of the everyday – in a sense, making these memories physical. The title Buttons For Eyes references a question her mother used to ask, “Do you have eyes or buttons for eyes?” Her mother’s concern was about Kambli’s inability to see trivial objects right in front of her, but also about our collective inability to see well enough to navigate the world. “It is a question laced with parental fear,” she says.

I am Working Hard, from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli

Priya Kambli is one of two Female in Focus series winners. Her series Buttons For Eyes will be on show at United Photo Industries Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, from 22 October until 15 November 2019. The gallery is open from Tuesday to Friday between 11am and 6pm). The exhibition has been framed in partnership with Larson-Juhl. View the two winning series, and the 20 winning single images here

British Journal of Photography has been championing photographers since 1854. Female in Focus is one of six awards dedicated to platforming the next generation of talent.

f you’re a woman-identifying or non-binary photographer looking to get your work noticed by industry leaders, apply to Female in Focus today

Mehr (Flour Pattern on Back), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
Furniture and Altar Pieces, from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
Aaji and Me, from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
Eye (Muma and Maushi), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
India (Aajooba), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
Mehr (Muma’s Pictures), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli
Mehr Bellybutton (Turmeric), from the series Buttons For Eyes © Priya Kambli