Following the Box: A cross cultural journey

Exploring history through images


News - India & You

February 4, 2017

/ By / Kolkata

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Some copies of the images on display at the American Centre during the event

Some copies of the images on display at the American Centre during the event

Chicago couple Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral share a visual story of old photos from India and artworks inspired by them, as their documentary, titled ‘Following the Box’, showcases.

Following the Box, a documentary tracing the journey made by an American couple to unravel the mystery behind a shoe box of old photographs that they found in an estate sale, was screened at the American Centre in Kolkata yesterday. The 127 photos and negatives, as found by the couple, originated from India, which is why they made their journey here to explore the origins, leading to a Fulbright-Nehru grant in 2013 to further unravel the pieces of the puzzle. These photographs were eventually located to West Bengal, showcasing the locals, temples and rather nondescript locations, but with great intimacy with subjects who were portrayed in their daily lives.

“Initially, the identity of the photographer was not a focus, as collaboration with artists from here was the highlight. With the 127 photographs, which were 4 inch by 5 inch in dimension, with the negatives, ten contemporary Indian artists across disciplines interpreted these images, as displayed in the film,” stated Alan Teller. The exhibit of the artworks was shown in a large art gallery in Kolkata, and was attended by many. As the documentary showcased, it was a journey of multimedia artists, painters, graphic designers and even an indigenous craftswoman whose traditional ‘Patua’ scroll paintings were inspired by the photographs to make for contemporary artworks.

An inspired artwork by Sunandini Banerjee

An inspired artwork by Sunandini Banerjee

The film traced the couple’s journey to the place of origin of the photographs, in West Bengal, which was found after research and indication based on the photos. “Our best belief is that these pictures were taken by an unknown US soldier assigned to the 10th Photographic Technical Unit, which operated in the China-Burma-India Theatre during World War II,” said Jerri Zbiral, adding, “We narrowed it down to the Salua army air-base, near Kharagpur in West Bengal, where these pictures, dated May 3, 1945, were also developed.” Teller added, “It was fascinating to learn about the rich links between India and America during the war years. Many people still don’t know that US soldiers were stationed here.” As the couple walks around and speaks to the local Gorkha unit in Salua, they find traces of the images still lingering all around.


History comes alive

“The pictures revealed to us a post-famine Bengal. Americans we are low on awareness about India’s role in the second World War. But the Bengal famine came as a complete shocker,” confessed Teller. Perhaps, it was the exploration and chance at discovery of cultures, as showcased in the film, that led to the collaborative project. “The images itself were taken as a personal project though, and not one commissioned by the military, as there seems to be no documentation of the same in the archives we visited in the US,” explained Zbiral.

The couple, who hope to keep following the box, are taking the documentary as a visual token of their project to other places in India. “There always remains a mystery, whether there were more pictures, what the reason behind these pictures were, and so on,” shared Zbiral. The unique and long history between India and the US comes alive through projects such as this, and the couple hopes that there is further scope for collaboration between the two countries.



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