A 1937 photograph shows Jim Scott, a uniformed police officer who was believed to be the Chief Inspector of Bombay then, standing next to a man, described as a “Thuggee”. With bandages across his face, the officer appears least apprehensive of his accompanying partner, who was apprehended shortly after he had stabbed Scott in the face with a knife. “Thuggees”, a thriving band of robbers, would join travellers, gain their confidence, and later strangle them with a handkerchief, and escape with their valuables after burying their victims’ bodies. In 1835, the British government formed the Thuggee and Dacoit Department to eliminate the group.
Giving such insights about 11 significant cases is Mumbai-based Anusha Yadav’s latest exhibition “The Photograph is Proof”, which closes in May. On display at the Format International Photography Festival at Pickford’s House Museum in Derby, UK, it examines photography as a tool in the criminal justice system of India.
Yadav, the author of Indian Memory Project, met the family who owned the Indian Art Studio in Mumbai last year. Four generations of their family worked as evidence photographers for the police. Since the Format Festival was themed on “Evidence”, it fit the frame perfectly. “Photography is not something we look at as a craft or as an idea of evidence unless contextualised,” says Yadav, 40.
Her research of six months took her to the National Archives of India, the Nehru Memorial, the British library, and to doctoral thesis, private collections and archives. “I spread the word and started meeting forensic specialists, press photographers, criminal lawyers, crime reporters and former policemen,” says Yadav, who for the Indian Memory Project had collated photographs online from various contributors.
The Indian Memory Project was a result of Yadav putting an online call in 2010 asking people from across the country to bring out sepia-toned photographs from their family albums and share their stories about them, thereby giving them a new life virtually.
This culminated into an online archive of India’s history, where fraying black-and- white, vintage studio portraits and homemade family photographs, dating any time before 1990, are accompanied by stories, offering details of names, dates and other historical information.
“The Photograph is Proof” throws up many stories. It shows how Natwarlal was not simply a role Amitabh Bachchan essayed and a fictional character, but a real person, who was the greatest conman of India. He sold the Taj Mahal thrice, the Red Fort twice and even the Indian Parliament. There are also photographs of freedom fighters posing like celebrities.
“Photography was discouraged by the British. Not many in the colonial administration agreed that photography should be used as a tool to document evidence or criminals. The heavy equipment, huge costs and lack of expertise in handling the technology was deemed a burden. Evidence or forensic photography was finding itself hard to be justified. But with the fight for independence gaining momentum, evidence photography gained favour, as a tool to serve politics and power, both for and against the British Raj,” says Yadav, whose next project is a book on love letters, collected from across the country.
And while her project has shown there is a new way to look at photography, she has had elderly English ladies come up to her and apologise for the role of their people in the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.
The story appeared in print with the headline Proof is in the Prints