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Retelling Stories, Rebuilding Histories

From the Songkit Lepcha collection at TCC Photo Archive

‘Kam Dorjee (Ranger) and his colleagues, Kurseong Forest Department’, reads the annotation in one of the photographs that the Confluence Collective has collected as part of our archival process. Kam Dorjee is standing in the top row, far right. This photo has been contributed by his daughter Tshering Kit Lepcha, who in turn received the photograph a few years ago from a relative working in the Forest Department in Kurseong

“While the unusual historical course of the photograph makes this a fascinating object of study, for an analysis of an image’s trajectory and human transactions evoke multiple meanings both within personal histories and social realities, we will focus on the content of the photograph itself.”

There are 15 men (excluding the shadowy figure lurking in the background) in this image. Seven men are seated, but the distinction between the ones seated on chairs and those on the floor are unmistakable. The hierarchy is evident not only in the position each man occupies in the photograph but in the very demeanour of each. The self assured postures borne by the White “sahibs” is in stark contrast to the nervous, self-conscious manners of the others; so much so that it looks as if the person sitting on the floor on the far right is in a hurry to exit from the frame.

Another photograph in our expanding collection is that of Songkit Lepcha taken at Puspa Studio, Kalimpong in 1958. Songkit is posing against an ornate stand in the studio and the print is further mounted on a florid frame. This particular photograph allows us to reflect on the significance of materiality in photographs and by doing so explore subtle socio-cultural connotations. Here the decorative frame on which the photograph was mounted tells us as much as the content of the photograph itself. For one, it allows us a comparative study with the first photograph. The disparity between a photograph made out of personal desire and one that perhaps was enforced upon is striking. The ostentatious choice made by Songkit almost confronts the awkwardness of Kam Dorjee and his colleagues.

The studio portrait and the workplace group photo that unexpectedly fell into the hands of Tshering Kit Lepcha are both emotional and affective objects, ones with immense historical importance. It allows us to trace the past, encounter difficult narratives, activate memories, engage with latent emotions and even solidify our identity.

In her book Listening to Images, Tina Campt urges us to engage with photographs in a counter-intuitive manner, to look beyond what we see within the frame. When we experience photographs this way, with each of our sensory qualities, we are compelled to confront what’s beyond the obvious.

“It’s time that we start doing the same with our visual history of Darjeeling Hills and Sikkim. And a good place to start unlocking memories and retelling stories is with family albums, which are both repositories of histories, as well as cultural objects in every sense of the term. What is normally considered an ordinary image, will have an inherent potential to produce critical knowledge of peoples and places.”

Why Archiving and What we seek to Do?

Our purpose at the Confluence Collective is to use visual mediums to rewrite and re-tell our stories from within, filling in the gaps that continue to dominate the narratives on the people, places and communities that make up the region of Sikkim and Darjeeling Hills. We seek to create a space where Kam Dorjee and Songkit Lepcha’s stories find as prominent a voice as anyone else’s, through their histories and their experiences. We seek to rebuild our stories, lost in the distorted narratives defining our existence and identities likewise, constantly reducing us to the margins with our stories only being told and written from the Outside.

The photographs that we collect will be digitised, catalogued and preserved and will be made accessible for academic, institutional and independent research and practitioners of the region.

Our purpose is to engage with the local community to keep our tradition and essence of story-telling alive, afterall ‘guff’ lies in the heart of the Pahari way of life, and also where we find the rich repositories of our history, culture, tradition and collective existence. We wish to preserve this history captured in Photographs, passed down over time, but dangerously on the verge of being wiped out.

We therefore feel the urgency and necessity of the Archive and seek your engagement and contribution likewise in the form of photos and any other relevant materials for the Archive.


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