There is a particular collage in Indian photographer Devashish Gaur’s project This Is The Closest We Will Get that stands out in its cut-and-paste simplicity. Entitled Me and Dad, it’s a portrait, black and white, cropped at the shoulders, but most importantly, it depicts two men instead of one. The sitter of the original photograph—an archival one that’s been collaged over—wears a checkered suit and his hair is neatly swept to the side. It feels formal, perhaps a little dated even. Meanwhile, slices of a second face, arranged over this sitter, belong to his son—the photographer, Gaur himself. And their features, the contours and outlines of their faces, do seem to blend quite remarkably. Father and boy, artist and sitter, portrait and self-portrait, entwined.
Blending new images, archival pictures and digital re-workings, This Is The Closest We Will Get began in 2019, after Gaur discovered photographs of his grandfather during the renovation of his family home. His grandfather had died before he was born, and yet his family had always told him how alike they were in habits and interests, so these pictures fascinated him. How strange it was, he says, to resemble someone he’d never known. Thus the project in the first instance was a visual depiction and recollection of memories and conversations about his grandfather.
“The archive and the idea of absence have been an important part of the inspiration,” Gaur explains. “It triggered questions like ‘How can we know someone who we could never meet? How are we remembered in the now? And what aspects of our lives can be seen through life in photographs?’ The project is about my grandfather, which extends to my family, and it also touches upon the idea of intergenerational intimacy and the limitations of knowledge.” So, by way of excavating the chasm between him and his grandfather, the project also became about his relationship with his father too; a relationship that has played out on much closer physical terms, but has often felt emotionally strained and distant. Sometimes, says Gaur, that’s made him wonder if “maybe the only true heirloom is memory and intergenerational trauma” and this project is him attempting to visualize that.
The full title of the collage described at the beginning of this essay is, in fact Me and Dad; thinking of how much of our personalities can we rub onto each other before we start seeing each other in each other? How long can we stay our true selves when we share the same domestic space for so long? It’s a long one, yes, but inside of this musing title resides the core themes and thought processes at the heart of This Is The Closest We Will Get—a photo project about proximity, how we come to know each other and even mirror each other at home, and how the separation of family across generations complicates that. Me and Dad probes aesthetic similarities in the first instance, but in doing so what it really opens up is a space to feel around the edges of how else they may be similar too—in belief, for example, or action, or spirit. It’s a way of the artist figuring out how he and his father fit together, and how that affects their individual identities. “It is an ode to the fear of becoming like our parents,” he says.
Born in 1996, Gaur grew up in Delhi, in what he describes as a very conventional working-class family. “The only way for me to be influenced by the outer world was through television at the time,” he says, “and as drawing and sketching were a big part of my childhood, I would often escape into an imaginary world with fictional characters and repetitive looking houses, part of which was inspired by my childhood house located in a government apartment quarter.” This would explain his predilection for collage and altering images, because it’s a medium that offers world-building through the act of taking, curating and editing pictures to tell stories.
“My first inclination towards visual expression was through drawing, but I also have this clear memory of photographing the pictures from newspapers with a cellphone and thinking how it looked like I had made those photographs of celebrities and random spaces from news articles,” he recalls. “I was probably around seven or eight years old at the time and camera cellphones were still quite rare, so I was hooked on the fact that now anyone could take a picture, just like that. Photographing with cellphones has been a huge part of my process since. I went on to study communication and journalism, including photojournalism, but somehow got more interested in mixing fact and fiction. I like to create and work on narratives related to intimacy, distance, archive, youth culture, identity and the idea of home.”
That early draw towards rephotographing existing photographs, and then the trajectory towards using cellphone imagery, can be found in another of the images in This Is The Closest We Will Get. Entitled How much can the software know? How much meaning is lost in face detection and how many memories are forever gone?, it depicts a smartphone screenshot as the software tries to retroactively apply facial recognition to an archival photo of Gaur’s grandad among a group. As the questions posed in its title suggest, this image asks us how much we can really know through an image—but it also highlights ideas of surveillance that are carried through the project too. For context, Delhi is now the most surveilled city in the world, and what that means for social and private life is important for Gaur.
Another key image, Witness of Existence—a collage of many sets of eyes—continues the idea of surveillance. “I have been thinking a lot about how our past and present can interact with each other, and to mix historical records with current photographs has been a way to delve into a dialogue that is both a reflection of now as well as yesterday,” Gaur says. “Digital experiments like the collage of eyes act as witnesses of existence; do we need to be seen to prove that we exist or ever existed? The eyes from the archives are mostly from the people who surrounded my grandfather in old photographs… I wonder how he looked back at them.” It’s like an exercise in bridging time and space through screens, then. “To look at a photograph is to experience seeing what is gone or passed—something that is missing,” he says. “ I am always interested in how photographs from different times, places and atmospheres can be held together.”
Some of the images in This Is The Closest We Will Get are more tender, straightforward portraits the artist has taken of his father, in which he is seen altering his appearance to look like his grandfather. This is something his dad does of his own accord, Gaur says, and then he photographs it. “There have been phases where my father decided to dress and look exactly like his own father, in remembrance, pride and honor. Having never met my grandfather, to photograph my father in a look that resembled the archives was a way of reminiscing and carrying the memories forward.” Luckily for Gaur, his family have been comfortable with having his camera around so the project was able to evolve naturally in all its strands.
Gaur says that over the years, as his father ages, he sees him becoming more spare with his words, and that he’s taken to expressing his feelings about current events in short missives on social media instead of in person. “The daily status update has taken an important role in his life,” he explains. In this way, albeit secondary to the narrative of family politics, a wider political thread runs beneath these images too—one that speaks to the Indian struggle for freedom and how it has impacted family life.
“I grew up with many stories about it as my grandfather fought against oppression and British colonialism, and there are many published articles and letters that my father has been very proud of. The general idea of being anti-regime is very much ingrained within his behavior and after his retirement, he has become more critical and vocal about the state and all the wrongs which often gets his social media account suspended,” Gaur says. There’s the idea of surveillance emerging again, but where words have fallen short or become muddled or been silenced, the artist has used images to bridge the lacunae.
Right now, This Is The Closest We Will Get is still a developing project; ever-growing as relationships are, and in many ways, it’s about learning to photograph what can’t be said or seen. Through the experimental and deliberate act of altering, blending and reanimating pictures, it shows the limitless potential of photography as a narrative-based medium. Traveling into the identities of three people, it’s a story about fathers and sons, and ultimately, about how photography can help us to reconcile parts of ourselves and our histories as we shape our own identities, and become our own people.