“My mum served her community in the grandest way possible. That was the spark for this whole idea,” says Vikesh Kapoor, as he embarks on the Leica x 1854 Witnesses of: Devotion commission
Music was Vikesh Kapoor’s first love. Long before he found his way into the world of photography, he wrote songs. Travelling across the world to play shows, he’d spend months away from home. But at some point, he began to reflect on the path he’d taken. “I started thinking a lot about my purpose, and what kind of sacrifices my parents had made for me to get to where I was,” he says. “Being an American folk songwriter of Indian descent put me in a unique sphere — and I kept questioning whether what I was doing was valuable or consequential enough.”
Kapoor is the latest photographer to be commissioned to create a new body of work for the historic camera brand, Leica, in collaboration with 1854. Responding to the theme Witnesses of: Devotion, he will receive a £5,000 grant and Leica equipment to create a unique body of work over the course of three weeks.
Having emigrated to the USA from India in 1973, Kapoor’s parents settled in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, and to this day they are one of only a few immigrant families in the region’s overwhelmingly white population. Before their retirement, his father was a doctor, and his mother was an obstetrician-gynaecologist. After his period of existential pondering, Kapoor began looking back at old family photos, as well as spending time with ones he’d taken more recently. “At the time of taking those pictures, I was just documenting my life with them and creating memories,” he says. But almost unwittingly, a series of sorts had begun to emerge.
See You At Home is, as the photographer explains it, “a kind of visual examination of the latent sense of loss that immigrants can feel as they grow old in a non-native culture.” To be an immigrant is a strange paradox, he says, because the move can mean freedom, but also isolation too. In the pictures Kapoor took, we see a constellation of small but symbolic moments: his father alone in the garden; his mother, quiet and contemplative, gazing out of a window; framed photographs adorning a dressing table bathed in afternoon light.
Provisionally titled Modern Country Doctor, Kapoor’s proposal for the Leica x 1854 Witnesses of: Devotion commission continues the personal thread begun in See You At Home. In essence, it’s a love letter to his mother, and her devotion to her community across the decades — namely, in delivering babies. “Sometimes when I was growing up, I’d hang around in her hospital waiting room after school, and I’d hear her delivering babies, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started to think about her as an immigrant and how immigrants are often seen as servers,” he says. “This led me to realise that she served her community in the grandest way possible. That was really the spark for this idea.”
As a route into the process, Kapoor has been speaking to his mother, and her former secretaries, and is planning to sift through hospital archives too. After getting some facts together, he learnt the total number of children she delivered in her career is in excess of 3000. “In 2019, the census recorded 9083 people here,” he explains. “So that means, in an obtuse way, that she’s responsible for a third of the town.”
Kapoor’s idea is, in part, inspired by Eugene Smith’s iconic 1948 photo essay, Country Doctor. In a similar manner to Kapoor’s idea, Smith documented the everyday life of a doctor in a small Colorado town. Kapoor’s mother, however, is now retired, so he is tasked with finding ways to represent her impact after the fact. “I’ve been thinking about anecdotes my mother told me about how she bartered with patients whose children she delivered,” he says. “For instance, an Amish family in our community built handmade grandfather clocks, and so, in return for her care, we have one of those sitting in the living room.”
Another story he tells involves the owners of a Chinese restaurant — “we had unlimited Chinese food for the rest of our lives after that,” he laughs. He’s now thinking about the ways he can incorporate these layers of nuance and personal stories into the commission. Alongside the grant, he will also receive a place on the renowned Leica Lab course, one of the industry’s most prestigious online learning programmes which supports artists in evolving photographic narratives.
Kapoor is hoping to make new portraits of some of the people his mother delivered. In a more abstract sense, he’s been experimenting with projecting old photos, as another way to bring the past alive. “I also want to create at least one penultimate portrait of my mother,” he adds. In the end, this new work from Kapoor will be a story of devotion told via the many lives that branch out from the central figure of the artist’s mother: “[It] makes me think of a family tree, but one for the whole town,” he says.
Meanwhile, his mother has begun carrying stamped addressed envelopes in her handbag. If she bumps into any of her former patients, she’ll ask for pictures of their children and post them back to her son.
The Witnesses of: Devotion commission is a collaboration between Studio 1854 and Leica. Want to work with major brands and NGOs on compelling, cause-conscious campaigns?View our current commission opportunities.
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