Naked Babes and Garlanded Corpses

Report by Zoé E. Headley

When I arrived at the IFP in the summer of 2013, my initial purpose was to pursue my ethnographic work on conflict management at the village level and coordinate the completion of a five year project on vulnerable village records. Amid the books, files and personal items I brought along with me for this three year stay was a box of some thirty ‘vintage’ Tamil studio prints which I had collected several years back whilst doing fieldwork in south-central Tamil Nadu. I had purchased these family photos in the shadowy lanes of what is known as the ‘Sunday market’ in Madurai. There, amid oily bicycle chains, rusted water pumps, sheets of tarpaulin, gutted radios, live poultry and pets, was a small shop buying and selling dismantled wooden frames and sheets of glass. This wood and glass once served as frames to family portraits which I found stacked on the dirt floor. Over the course of my visits I bought one, then two, then ten and then a few more of these black and white prints. These discarded brides and patriarchs, naked babes and garlanded corpses eventually travelled back to Paris with me, moved flats, shifted to Delhi and finally found their way ‘back home’ when I returned to Tamil Nadu a little under two years ago. For years, I did not engage with these portraits as anything more than mementos of the profound attachment I have to the Tamil country.

However, when returning with these portraits to their native place, I began collecting more prints of these forsaken ancestors. Largely unfamiliar with the history of photography and visual anthropology, I began shopping around the literature in search of studies to learn about the production of Tamil studio portraiture and clues to understand their consumption. Though the history of photography in the subcontinent has some superb coffee table books, and its use by the colonial administration and Indian royalty has benefited from some in-depth scholarly scrutiny, and there has been solid but scarce work from Madhya Pradesh and Bengal on commercial studio photography, the south Indian social history of commercial studio photography and the visual rhetoric of the family portraits produced here has failed to attract attention.

The personal history of the women, men and children whose portraits I have collected is sadly irretrievable, but part of the story of South Indian commercial studio photography and black and white hand-processed family portraits—which spans over a century (1870s-1980s)—is still retrievable, though it will not remain so for very long. The last generation of men having owned or worked in these studios are aged and their narratives are vital to document. Similarly, in the same generation, there are men and women who remember vividly when, as a child or young person, they entered the fancy photo studio for the first time, took a pose and got ‘clicked.’ When put together, these seemingly anecdotal narratives can help us piece together part of the history of commercial photography.


Besides this fieldwork, several other means of investigating this topic have been implemented. For one, my collecting of discarded original prints has turned bulimic as the IFP has asked me to create a permanent collection of early studio photography. No such collection exists in India or abroad and over a three year period I have the delightful task of rummaging through Tamil Nadu to acquire further prints, of finding the funding to preserve them (many are severely deteriorated) and make them accessible for research. Further, Ramesh Kumar (IFP) and I obtained funding from the British Library for a 12 month pilot project to build an archive of family studio portraiture, working here not on discarded prints but portraits inside households and photo studios. With a team of three other photographers and field assistants, we will not randomly digitise but ‘test out’ my hypothesis that during the first five to six decades of the introduction of photography in South India, variations both in the production and consumption of studio photography can be observed not simply according to the rural/urban divide but also, potentially, within the urban context according to factors of caste and occupation.


This is only one of the many threads which I want to pull from a closer examination of these portraits. The interest, extent and diversity of research to be carried out to understand Tamil studio photography is such that I have appealed to several usual suspects from the IFP and the CEIAS, as well as collaborations from further afield, to engage further with these naked babes and garlanded corpses…


For Tamil TV report on the street exhibition curated by Zoe Headley in Pondicherry see the Tamil studio photography video.