“Two murders for $35,” reads the undated invoice to the legendary photographer Weegee. Sent by LIFE magazine, the invoice uses the word murders as a substitute for photographs of murder, inadvertently reminding us of the French film critic and theorist André Bazin’s debatable claim that “the photographic image is the object itself”. Although Bazin’s notion, proffered in his book What is Cinema?, is not very reasonable, it does play out in images that serve as evidence of an occurrence – such as, images of crime.
It was perhaps this thought that prompted an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London in October 2015. Using eleven cases, Burden of Proof: The Construction of Visual Evidence looked at photographs as evidence in instances of crime or acts of violence. It brought to light not only the how, the when and by whom of the images, but also a deeper understanding of interpreting the images as forensic evidence.
That very year, photographer Anusha Yadav was led to delve deep into evidence photography in India from 19th and 20th century owing to a commission by the Format International Photography Festival, Derby. The exhibition that she assembled after completing her curatorial research – titled The Photograph is Proof – is showing at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road from March 9 as part of a larger exhibition, Access Time, and the biennial FOCUS Photography Festival.
A connoisseur of memory, Yadav is the founder of the Indian Memory Project which presents a “visual and oral history of the Subcontinent via family archives”. Her fascination with crime as a subject goes back a long way – but it was when she discovered the Indian Art Studio, one of Mumbai’s oldest photography studios whose four generations of owners have worked as evidence photographers with the police, that the idea of working with old forensic and evidential images began to take shape.
“I like the stories, not necessarily the technique when it comes to photography,” says Yadav of her engagement with the medium. In The Photograph is Proof, Yadav stresses on the criticality of understanding when photography was being done and when it wasn’t, and how images were being appropriated. As part of the research and curation, she met criminal lawyers, crime reporters, press photographers, detectives and forensic specialists, while scouring the Nehru Memorial Library, British Library and the National Archives of India for historical data.
Yadav springs some surprises in the exhibition. There is a reminder of the case of revolutionary-turned-philosopher Sri Aurobindo, who was sent to prison and later acquitted in the Alipore Bomb Case in 1908. His photo, captioned “Aurobindo Ghose the alleged leader”, is a fascinating portrait, unlike what one would imagine of a prison mug shot. The poise is remarkable. He appears unaffected – a reminder of the conviction of the bombers and their nationalist intentions. Then there’s the case of Jim Scott, the Chief Inspector of Bombay who was knifed in the face by a man accused of being a “Thuggee”, a term used for bands of robbers responsible for about 20,00,000 deaths, according to British records.
The Photograph is Proof also remembers the murder of businessman Prem Ahuja by naval officer KM Nanavati, whose coverage by the tabloid Blitzwas as sensational as the crime itself. Placing Nanavati’s wife Sylvia’s photograph in the middle of his and Ahuja’s images with a (love) triangle running around the three, the tabloid drew from forensic photographs and was intent on influencing public perception with its visual narrative.
In the 1958 record Famous Photographers Tell How, Weegee said of the camera, “It’s like a modern Aladdin’s lamp, you rub it, you push the button and it gives you the things you want.” Armed with a police radio in his car, Weegee nursed his fetish for photographing murder by being the first to turn up at the crime scene. It wasn’t just the crime he liked photographing – he also want to photograph himself with the evidence and criminals. This is another way of seeing how people, including image-makers, engage with the visual medium even when it is primarily hoping to carry a sort of evidential weight.
Yadav’s The Photograph is Proof draws attention to instances where a crime or criminal has been thought to be a work of fiction, but in fact stems from a historical truth, as depicted in the photograph. Debunking the myth of Natwarlal, a popular Indian con artist largely remembered in public memory as a film character played by actor Amitabh Bachchan, Yadav presents the real context and a chance for people to reconsider their own perceptions of fact and fiction. This explains why her project is text heavy and intentionally so.
“For me the individual stories are important, especially since these are in the public domain, but not necessarily meant for the public,” she said.
Yadav is interested in an unprejudiced reading, one that could be deemed similar to what was delivered by Alphonse Bertillon, the father of forensic photography in his use of a tripod to achieve a bird’s-eye view of the crime scene, where all details received equal attention.
In her storytelling, Yadav lends an environment of relevance to photography as being not just a tool of evidence, but also a form that was restricted in practice under the British rule in India. For instance, in the Amherst street murder case of 1868, the first to be documented for forensic purposes, the death of Rose Brown (referred to as an East Indian and accused of being a sex worker) was declared a suicide even though it appeared a murder. Yadav points out that this crime led to the setting up of the Detective Department of Calcutta Police. The photographing of the Brown murder also turned out to be a landmark move since the medium could be used to identify bodies and maintain a record of the crime.
Yadav’s curation of the history of crime by way of a photographic enquiry opens up a previously unexplored archive not just for a re-reading of the visual medium but also to locate it as an accomplice to history.
The Photograph is Proof opens on March 9 at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, as part of a larger exhibition, Access Time.