This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.
In a study of his own identity, the British-born photographer collaborates with Emmanuelle Peri to explore what the idea of home and belonging really means
In Hindu mythology, there was once an idea propagated that if a Hindu crossed the sea away from India they would lose their very being – that meant no more religion, no caste, and becoming trapped in the reincarnation cycle ad infinitum. British-born artist Kalpesh Lathigra recalls how puzzling this parable was for him growing up, as he discusses the roots of his new project, Memoire Temporelle – or temporal memory. “My family had crossed that sea, but we were still Indians in the UK, and British non-resident Indians in India,” he says. So where did that leave them?
Between 2016 and 2019, the artist made eight trips to Mumbai, a place he considers his spiritual home. There, over those three years, he shot all the images for Memoire Temporelle – a through-the-looking-glass odyssey into what life could have been had his family not migrated from India to the UK via Africa over three generations.
“I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got back to London, but then I began to think, ‘Am I really ‘home’?’ That trip led me to start questioning my place and identity in the UK in a way I hadn’t before.”
The idea to begin the project presented itself when Lathigra was working on a social documentary commission in the lead-up to the 2016 EU referendum. During a road trip from Glasgow to Calais, he experienced a feeling he had not felt since his teens. Spending his youth in 1970s and 80s east London was tough, and racism was rife, but he was surrounded by a supportive, multicultural community – western, but still rich in the best parts of South Asian and Caribbean culture. “We were all magpies,” he says, “stealing from each other’s worlds.” But the atmosphere in 2016 felt different and more hostile than before. “Visceral racism came to the fore, and people were happy to use racial slurs in my presence,” he recalls. “I remember breathing a sigh of relief when I got back to London, but then I began to think, ‘Am I really ‘home’?’ That trip led me to start questioning my place and identity in the UK in a way I hadn’t before.”
The images in Memoire Temporelle span roads and reflections, portraits and parrots, flowers and fires, shot in both black-and-white and colour. When asked what brings these objects and scenes together, Lathigra says they are perhaps best described as “emotional resonances”, from memories that may or may not have happened, long since past. Some of the people Lathigra photographed, he met by chance, while others he cast through a modelling agency into vague roles. In the image of a girl, he sees someone who could have been his partner; and in a portrait of a young man, he recognises a version of himself. Some of the more abstract images relate to associative symbols that have recurred for him throughout his life. A bird and cage, for instance, remind him of a poem he wrote as a boy, and then later, of reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings for the first time and understanding its profound effect on a personal level. Regardless of subject matter, he says, every image came to him serendipitously, found while wandering the streets of Mumbai.
“For me, it was about having a dialogue around the narratives in the work, and on the nuances of its visual language.”
After making the first pictures, Lathigra began sending collections to his friend, Emmanuelle Peri. With a background in art history and museology, Peri added new layers of understanding to the images that really resonated with Lathigra, such as references drawn from painting, sculpture and film. This helped him to further shape the project, and over time a collaboration between the two emerged. Very quickly, Lathigra made the decision to give total editorial control to Peri. “For me, it was about having a dialogue around the narratives in the work, and on the nuances of its visual language,” he says.
As the duo continued their correspondence, Peri came across a word that encapsulated the essence of the project. In the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s book Istanbul: Memories and the City, the author introduces the word hüzün, Peri explains, which denotes a melancholy that is shared, as opposed to one that is private. Pamuk describes hüzün as the feeling of a veil over reality – a softening, obscuring phenomenon that brings comfort, like steamed-up windows when you are inside looking out, for example. Peri realised she saw the same thing in Lathigra’s pictures. “Kalpesh and I often relate to each other on notions of displacement and melancholy, and on the longing for belonging and identity we’ve both experienced [me being a Frenchwoman in the UK], so when I read about hüzün, it’s as if that steam described the imperceptible layer of significance that I could sense in his work.” In terms of process, Lathigra and Peri worked in stages. The photographer sent batches of edits, while Peri worked organically, whittling them down each time until a final selection emerged.
Lathigra and Peri are now working on realising Memoire Temporelle in photobook form. Edited by Peri, the pictures are accompanied by a translated text from the Indian Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and some of Lathigra’s own writings. He is slightly uneasy about sharing those, he says, but he felt it was important to scribble some thoughts and feelings down. “I want the book to be something you can stick in your pocket, pull out, look at a little, and then put back,” he says, “I want it to be like a living thing, as far as the design and edit will allow.” Meanwhile, Lathigra is beginning to dive into the archives of Indian photo studios. Memoire Temporelle has become the starting point for a trilogy of planned projects – the first in a series of compelling visual works that mine the possibilities of his cultural past.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London