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How a mysterious box of photos sent an Evanston couple halfway around the world

For a quarter century, Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller have been trying to figure out the identity of the photographer responsible for a treasure trove of images from 1940s India.

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When Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller first saw the shoebox half-hidden beneath a couch, they had no idea that it would, 25 years later, develop into an obsession that would take over not only their lives, but the lives of dozens of artists, scholars, students, and soldiers, and send them on an epic quest halfway around the world. At the time, it looked like just another estate-sale curiosity: an ordinary shoebox filled with 130 brown envelopes, each containing a four-by-five-inch negative, with a black-and-white print stapled to the front. The photos appeared to have been taken in India. The only clue to their provenance was the notations someone had made on the bottom of each negative that read "10th PTU" with a date, most either 27 April or 3 May, 1945. The box's previous owner, Zbiral and Teller's friend Irving Leiden, had recently passed away. He'd picked it up somewhere, but his widow didn't remember any details.

Zbiral and Teller paid $20 and took the box home. Only then did they take a close look at the pictures. Most of them were of temples and scenes of rural village life: people doing laundry, catching fish in a net, threshing rice, plowing fields with a team of oxen, playing the drums and sitar, stuffing betel nuts with spices to turn it into paan. There was an anthropological quality to the collection, as though the photographer were consciously trying to document the villagers and customs that were hundreds, if not thousands, of years old. What struck Teller and Zbiral most of all, though, was the quality of the photos.

"Everything is perfect," Teller says now. "You have big things of sky and portraits and temples, and they're all done beautifully. Every single one is spot-on. They were not snapshots. This was a serious professional."

There were also a few shots of American soldiers, which, along with the fact that the captions used American, not British, spelling, made Zbiral and Teller suspect that the photographer had been an American GI stationed in India at the end of World War II. This suspicion was reinforced by the last few photos in the box, which were labeled "Okinawa," implying he'd been transferred to another army base.

American and Indian soldiers at ease. For more photos from Zbiral and Teller's collection scroll to the bottom of this page. - COURTESY JERRI ZBIRAL AND ALAN TELLER
  • Courtesy Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller
  • American and Indian soldiers at ease. For more photos from Zbiral and Teller's collection scroll to the bottom of this page.

They replaced the old shoebox and envelopes with archival-quality storage materials. They stuck it in a closet for safekeeping, intending to get back to it soon. "That's what we do," Zbiral says. "We have so much shit." And then, as they put it, "life took over": their photography and film projects, their jobs to pay the mortgage on their house in Evanston—she as an art dealer and appraiser, he as a designer of museum exhibits—and the raising of their two children.

Sixteen years later, in 2005, Teller taught a class at Lake Forest College on photography and anthropology. It seemed like an ideal opportunity to revisit the box of photos from India. The collection raised questions about how cultures perceive one another (both the photographer through his camera and the subjects looking back), and it gave the students material to construct their own exhibit. One student in particular, Gwynn Milbeck Stupar, became fascinated and began researching the U.S. Army presence in India during World War II. She learned that the Army Air Corps had maintained several bases in what is now the state of West Bengal in order to fly reconnaissance missions over the Burma hump into China to map out a possible invasion of Japan. "10th PTU" stood for "10th Photographic Technical Unit," the unit assigned to take aerial photographs during those missions. It was likely, she thought, that the photographer had been part of that unit.

Zbiral and Teller began to wonder if the backstory of the photos went deeper than simply a curious American soldier who liked to wander around with his camera. Based on the size of the negatives, they suspected he had probably used a Speed Graphic, an army-issued press camera. It was a heavy and complex piece of equipment with f-stops and manual focus and film holders that needed to be replaced after every shot. Operating one required real skill. Were collections like this one common?

"The Library of Congress told us there's an archive at Maxwell Air Force Base," Zbiral remembers. "We sent them JPEGs and asked, Is there anything like this in the archive? They wrote back, 'This is amazing! We've never seen anything like this.'"

The University of Chicago library has an archive of southeast Asian photography, including a collection of photos of Calcutta street life taken in the 1940s by an American soldier who flew reconnaissance missions with the RAF, but that collection didn't contain any pictures from the outlying Bengali villages.

Teller and Zbiral showed their photos to Jim Nye, the bibliographer of the U. of C.'s south Asia collection, and his colleagues. "They went nuts," Teller says. "They were the first to encourage us to pursue the project."

Ralph and Marta Nicholas, U. of C. scholars who'd done anthropological fieldwork in rural West Bengal in the 1960s, confirmed that the photos were indeed taken in West Bengal—they recognized the landscape and the distinctive way the women draped their saris—but they weren't sure exactly where. Teller and Zbiral wondered if they could pinpoint the villages by identifying the various temples.

Then the class ended, and life took over again. The photos went back into the box.

Another five years passed. Zbiral and Teller's son, Max, a musician, won a fellowship from the American Institute of Indian Studies to study with a santoor master in Mumbai. Zbiral and Teller decided to go visit. But they didn't want just to be tourists. They wanted to explore with a purpose. They pulled out the box again, made copies of all the photos, and put them into a binder that they could carry with them.

Through the AIIS, they had access to photo archives and scholars and government officials in Mumbai, New Delhi, and Kolkata. They were able to identify one of the temples, the Karanagarh Temple near the Piardoba airfield, the site of one of the former U.S. Army air bases. They were slightly disappointed that it was now bright orange—though it might have been orange back in 1945 too; in black and white, it was hard to tell—but that was less important than the fact that, after so many years, they'd definitively found one place where their photographer had been.

By then, their connection to him, whoever he was, had begun to feel much deeper.

"In one town, we heard music," Teller recalls. "There was a guy in front of a temple playing a harmonium. There were cows in the background. I took a picture. The picture I took was identical to the one our guy took. India is a weird place. Part of it's in the 22nd century and part of it hasn't changed for hundreds of years."

Balaji Temple in 1945 and 2014 - COURTESY JERRI ZBIRAL AND ALAN TELLER
  • Courtesy Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller
  • Balaji Temple in 1945 and 2014

Teller and Zbiral combined their photo, the photo from the box, and the keys from an old piano Max had found in an alley into a "photo sculpture" that they ended up showing at the Schneider Gallery in River North. (It now hangs in the upstairs hallway of their house.) "This work can inspire the creation of new work," Teller continues. "There's energy. It's not dead. The pictures are living."

That gave them an idea. If the photos inspired them, could they inspire other people too? And not just other Americans, but Indians, who might have a different response to the way an outsider viewed their country?

"The original concept is that no one has ever done a cross-cultural look at photographs," Teller explains. "Will American artists and Indian artists reflect back on work by an American photographer 70 years ago and pick up on the same things?"

Not only that, the question might also make a grant application more attractive, particularly to groups such as the AIIS or the Fulbright Program, which encourage their visiting scholars to work closely with citizens of their host countries.

It took two more years and several applications, but last year they finally won a Fulbright grant for a two-part project: to track down more information about the photos in the box, and to recruit Indian artists to create work based on their own responses to it, which would be displayed in a gallery show. This past November, a few days before Thanksgiving, they moved to Kolkata for four months to start work.

Zbiral and Teller are 65 and 67, respectively, and very much a team. They both have curly silver hair and a tendency to finish each other's sentences. The word they most often use to describe their project is "amazing."

"They're very lively, effervescent people," says Philip Lutgendorf, a professor at the University of Iowa and the current president of the AIIS. "I knew they would do really well in India. People would take them into their hearts and homes in the way that Indians so often do. They would make friends and spread goodwill."

When they landed in Kolkata, however, they didn't know a single artist. All they had was one name, Sanjeet Chowdhury, a filmmaker who was a friend of a friend of a friend. They'd never met Chowdhury, but they saw that he'd had a gallery show not far from their apartment. When they stopped by, he wasn't in, but Amritah Sen, a painter and paper artist who was also showing work, was. She ended up joining the project. So did Chowdhury, when they finally got in touch with him, and three more of his friends.

"Everything was so peculiar," Teller says. "It was serendipity."

Most of the artists were less interested in tracking down the exact sites than in the photographer himself. "If you go to the outskirts of Kolkata, the villages look the same even now," says Alakananda Nag, a photographer who created work for the project. "It's shocking. And that they were taken by an outsider, not an Indian." She pauses. "There was great respect."

This, the Indian artists all agree, was not typical of the relations between Indians and whites in the 1940s. "It was an interesting time, pre-Independence India," says Nag. "That time was the height of everything," Sen agrees.

In 1945, India was just two years from independence from Britain. It was a tense period, especially in Bengal (which would later be divided into the Indian state of West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh), the center of the more radical wing of the independence movement. Subhas Chandra Bose, the Bengali leader of the Indian National Congress and Gandhi's chief opponent, declared, "Freedom is not given, it is taken." After the British exiled him to Europe, he tried to form alliances with Hitler and Mussolini, the enemies of his enemy.

"There was a very heightened atmosphere of rebellion and secrecy," says Prabir Purkayastha, a photographer who, as part of the research for his project, spent some time interviewing relatives who'd been involved in the resistance movement.

The British, for their part, had, in 1943, exacerbated a famine in Bengal by diverting rice that other provinces had sent for relief and declining aid from the U.S. and Canada. Three million people died. "It was the biggest man-made disaster in history," says Sen.

(Ralph Nicholas, the U. of C. anthropologist, however, says that it wasn't apparent until many years later that the British had played a role in the famine. Many Indians, he says, believed it was the result of a cyclone the previous year.)

The Americans were distinguished from the "Britishers" by their friendliness and their willingness to pass out candy bars (and, says Nicholas, their clandestine support for Indian independence), but they were still British allies, and they were, for the most part, still white. Teller found a memoir by a U.S. Army chaplain from 1945 that was, he says, "filled with racist diatribes. This was a common perspective." He believes that if the photographer had shared those feelings, or if the villagers had resented his presence, the contempt and hostility would have come through in the photographs.

"I've talked with artists in the rural areas of West Bengal," says Zbiral. "The community was anti-British. How a white guy was able to have tremendous respect for people and have such great ease is a mystery."

Another less flattering possibility comes from Ralph and Marta Nicholas, who spent three years living in a rural village in West Bengal in the late 60s. "Bengalis in particular want to be involved and engaged with you," says Ralph. "They're instantly friends." Adds Marta, "Back when those pictures were taken, in colonial times, people would have done anything."

Purkayastha, whose father was an officer in the Indian army, suspected that the photographer must have been an officer or a medic; a regular private wouldn't have had as much freedom to wander through the villages. But maybe he wasn't white. Or maybe he was another minority. Maybe Jewish? (Indians love Jews, Zbiral and Teller were told.) Or maybe, Zbiral speculated, he was actually a she, an officer's wife.

Teller and Zbiral realized they could narrow down many of these possibilities simply by figuring out exactly where he was based and then sorting through online reminiscences by World War II vets to find out what life there was like. Of the West Bengal air bases, there were two likely candidates, about 50 miles from each other, one near Piardoba, the other near Kharagpur. Based on the locations of several temples that the photographer had shot and also the exterior of a building clearly labeled "Bombay Cinema," Kharagpur was looking like the more likely candidate. There was one photo in particular, of an army laundry, that looked like it could provide a clue. The only problem was, it was labeled "SALUR." There are three towns in India called Salur. None is in West Bengal.

Zbiral and Teller originally misread the label as "SALUR." - COURTESY JERRI ZBIRAL AND ALAN TELLER
  • Courtesy Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller
  • Zbiral and Teller originally misread the label as "SALUR."

When Teller and Zbiral traveled to Kharagpur in March, they met Asid Agarwal and SJ Ghosh, two college students from the India Institute of Technology who were willing to serve as translators and research assistants. Agarwal and Ghosh suggested that the R at the end of "SALUR" was actually an A, and pointed out that there was a Salua Air Force Base nearby. ("What a difference a letter can make!" Zbiral marvels.)

If the photographer was indeed stationed at Salua, Zbiral and Teller concluded, he was most likely a white man. The U.S. Army was at the time still segregated, and the African-American soldiers on the base had largely been relegated to menial tasks and were unlikely to have had the freedom to go wandering on photographic expeditions. And there were no women at Salua at all.

Still, they wanted to be sure. With the help of the IIT students and their Fulbright connections, Zbiral and Teller were able to talk their way onto the base. ("We know the power of these photos and rarely take 'no' for an answer," Teller wrote on their travel blog at the time.)

After the Americans left Salua, the Indian army took over; today it's staffed by Gurkhas, Nepalese mercenaries originally brought to India by the British. They are said to be the world's fiercest fighters. "If a Gurkha takes out his knife," says Zbiral, "he can't put it back unless it's tasted blood." When the British left, most of the Gurkhas decided to stay on.

Despite their reputation for ferociousness, the Gurkhas now spend most of their time patrolling, and were eager to help hunt down traces of the American presence at Salua. But the exact location of the laundry in the photo, which would have provided definite proof that the photographer had been stationed there, remained elusive. Even after Zbiral and Teller left India in April, they continued to look and send back reports.

"We're now Facebook friends [with the Gurkhas]," Teller says.

"Their e-mails are so heartfelt," Zbiral adds.

"They said a couple of amazing things," Teller continues. "They were trying to find the laundry and they said, 'We are wandering the jungle for you.' And 'You have changed us.'"

The Gurkhas weren't the only ones who felt a strange reverence toward the box of photos. Even on their first trip, Teller and Zbiral noticed that they attracted attention, particularly around temples.

"It's like a magnet that draws people," Zbiral says.

On one visit to the Balaji Temple in Kharagpur—which, they learned, had been built by southern Indians who'd come to Kharagpur, a major train hub, to work on the railroad—they showed the crowd a photo labeled "Old Priest" of a fierce-looking man with a walrus mustache wearing a dhoti.

"One guy says, 'That's my great-grandfather!'" Zbiral recounts.

Raju Naidu holding a photo of his great-grandfather at Balaji - COURTESY JERRI ZBIRAL AND ALAN TELLER
  • Courtesy Jerri Zbiral and Alan Teller
  • Raju Naidu holding a photo of his great-grandfather at Balaji

"He was the founder of the temple," Teller explains. "He says if we come by tomorrow, he'll bring the daughter-in-law. She's 90 years old."

"We made a copy of the photo for her," Zbiral says.

"She clutched it to her chest. In 1945, in a small village, there were no cameras or family photos. That was only for middle-class people in urban areas. People were grateful to see the pictures. It was like we were bringing the past back to them. At one point, they tried to kiss our feet.

"It's the sign of utmost respect."

"Once we knew Salua, everything broke open," Teller says.

Agarwal and Ghosh, the two student assistants, discovered that there had been a darkroom on the IIT campus, another former air base, and that it had been operated by the 10th PTU. They wondered if the notations of the negatives only referred to the processing lab, not to the photographer's own unit.

They began searching the Internet for old soldiers who had been stationed at Salua. They found a blog entry about a man named Lewis Paltz, originally from New York, who had been a reconnaissance photographer. Unfortunately, the blog entry was an obituary: Paltz had died the week before. And, after the initial panic, they noticed that Paltz had been sent to China after the Americans left Salua in 1945, while their man had gone to Okinawa. Still, Paltz might have known him.

Paltz's son, David, didn't recall his father ever mentioning a photographer war buddy, but he sent them a collection of his father's own photos from the war. One showed a group of tough-looking GIs sitting around a table in their undershirts, playing cards.

"I look at it," says Zbiral, "and I think, 'Is this you?' One interesting thing in Salua: I was taking pictures and my shadow came in. I moved because I didn't want the shadow. I was looking at the 1945 pictures with a magnifying glass. Our guy never cast a shadow."

"At one point," Teller remembers, "we were following the Gurkha soldiers out into the wilderness. It was 102 degrees and we were looking for a temple. And I thought, If only the photographer's children knew about their dad's work, that it got two Chicagoans in their 60s halfway around the world following his work. Their dad's work inspired this quest. Now we have a theory that he died at a young age. The reason: If you went through war, you're not going to let it go. You give it to your children or donate it."

Zbiral and Teller are aware that the mystery of the photographer's identity is one of the greatest attractions of the project for all the artists who are building work around it.

"We have the freedom to invent whatever we want," Teller says. "Other people invent what they want."

Chowdhury, for example, created a short film that incorporates all 130 photos accompanied by a voice-over narration by the soldier, who he decided was a Jew from Baltimore who'd worked in his uncle's photography studio before he got drafted and took the photos to show India to his sweetheart back home. (He chose Baltimore because that was where the young Fulbright scholar he recruited to do the voice-over comes from. New York, he felt, was too cliched.)

“He must have seen the towns. He must have thought of the flatlands of Texas, the church he went to, the white picket fence, the farm machinery, the crop duster. It was like a conversation with someone who’s invisible, or trying to converse with someone that’s not there.”—Prabir Purkayastha, describing the identity he has imagined for the mysterious photographer

Prabir Purkayastha, on the other hand, is trying to approach the photographer's identity in a more intuitive way. He already felt a kinship with the photographer: he'd just published a book of his own pictures from Assam, a remote province in far-northeast India, and noticed that their work was similar in style. He studied the 1945 photos. He interviewed his relatives who'd lived in rural West Bengal during World War II. He thought about his own childhood memories of growing up in a military cantonment. He decided the photographer came from somewhere in the central United States, possibly Texas, where the terrain is similar to that of West Bengal. During a visit to the U.S., he spent three weeks driving through Texas taking pictures and trying to imagine what the photographer had seen, and how it might have echoed for him in India. "He must have seen the towns," he says. "He must have thought of the flatlands of Texas, the church he went to, the white picket fence, the farm machinery, the crop duster. It was like a conversation with someone who's invisible, or trying to converse with someone that's not there. It forms an entity."

He gave the photographer a name. In one town, he visited a small local museum in an old woman's house. "There was a list of six of those boys who had lost their lives in World War II. The name I gave my character was on the list. Sometimes, I think, I should give up and go home. It was uncanny."

Amritah Sen feels her work is a sort of conversation with the photographer as well. But instead of trying to give him an identity, she's created an accordion book that juxtaposes her own family's photos with his and places them in the context of the history of Bengal in the 1940s, represented by illustrations and collages and quotes from Gandhi and Bose. Her own family had lived a middle-class life in Caluctta, very different from the rural poverty depicted in the photos.

"I wanted to make a contrast between the two viewpoints," she says. "It's strange, looking at the way someone else looks at your country." But neither she nor any of the other Indian artists found the photographer's scrutiny offensive. And she hopes her own work can inspire the same sort of reaction in Americans. "Someone in the USA may not know much about Indian history," she says, "but I hope they can make a connection."

"A non-Indian came and took some photos," muses Alakananda Nag, whose project documents the life of Suerta Banerjee, a cricket umpire who was born on April 27, 1945, the same day some of the photos were developed. "They were found in Chicago 25 years ago. They traveled back here. And now they're being interpreted by people who belong here. It's coming together, a cultural mingling and understanding each other. There's so much to talk about and explore, so many ways to look at it."

An exhibit of the photos and the dozen pieces inspired by it—including work by both Zbiral and Teller—will open in Kolkata the second week of February 2015. (They're hoping to bring it, and the artists, to Chicago and New York in 2016.) Eight of the pieces—including both Zbiral and Teller's—remain unfinished, and there's still plenty of other work to be done: hanging photos and paintings, building display cases to show off the three-dimensional pieces, assembling equipment to show the video, writing a catalog, organizing transportation, finding someone to pay for it all. Teller and Zbiral also want to travel to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, to look through the archives and go back to India in November. The Fulbright grant allowed them to pay each of the artists $750 for their projects—a fee, they acknowledge, that's much less than what the artists' work normally sells for—but some of the artists require supplies that cost far more than that.

"The Fulbright is over, and we're getting freaked out about the time line," Zbiral says. "It'll cost a quarter of a million dollars by the time we're through shipping."

"To develop a major show in-house, most museums get corporate backing," Teller explains. They've had several meetings with potential funders and remain hopeful.

"We're going to do this, whatever," Teller says. "It's how we've always lived."

"We will not sell our house," Zbiral cautions. "We'll sell the artwork on the wall."

Purkayastha offered to help by donating more than 100 of his own photos to be auctioned off. Zbiral and Teller are planning a pair of fund-raising events, one this Saturday, August 30, the other Sunday, September 14. (For location and more information: followingthebox@gmail.com or 847-328-6994.)

The major selling point, they believe, is that there's never been anything like it before. There have been other collections of photos of India—many, says Teller, "by rich, white Americans"—and there have been academics who have considered the question of how India looks through American eyes and how Indians look back, but it's never been done through art, and it's never included both Indian and American points of view.

"It's a very unusual thing," agrees Philip Lutgendorf of the AIIS. "The fact that they're working with local people and other visual artists and photographers gives it a multifaceted richness."

Most of all, though, their obsession with the photos has grown into a love affair with India. One of their favorite photos was of an old temple with trees growing out of the roof. The only notation on the negative was "Temple Shot—Hindu."

"There is something about the tree growing out of the roof," Teller wrote on the blog, "the seemingly haphazard jagged line over the entrance, the three men standing in the doorway, the placement of the temple in space, the encroachment of the jungle. It is one of the forces that has motivated us over the years on this project. Where is this? If we could only find THAT one, we'd feel as though we had succeeded."

During their February trip to Kharagpur, they found it. It was called the Nandeswar temple, and it had been cleaned up considerably since 1945. It was no longer in the jungle, for one thing: the town had grown up around it. And the tree had been removed from the roof and a canopy had been built over the front, blocking the stonework over the entrance. It wasn't quite as romantic as the photograph had been.

But inside, the priest and the temple members gathered to look over the book and thanked them for bringing the pictures back. The priest gave them a blessing and invited them over later in the week for tea.

As they tell the story, back in their kitchen in Evanston, Zbiral looks wistful.

"I miss India," she says simply.

"I'll make you some tea," Teller offers, getting up to put the kettle on the stove.

"We lived an absolutely remarkable life," she says. "Our lives were chock-full of adventures."

They tell the story of how, one day in March, they drove east from Kharagpur, along a rocky road, to a village called Naya that's inhabited by artists who make story scrolls. One of the artists, Swarna Chitrakar, was a friend of Sen's. And, coincidentally, Teller and Zbiral had bought one of her pieces in a gallery in Kolkata during their first week there, before they knew anyone. They told her the story of the box and left her with copies of the photos.

"She selected a bunch and made a story scroll," says Teller. "She did a painting and composed a narrative song. We filmed her singing the song. The refrain is, 'It's an amazing story.'"

Clarification: The gallery exhibit for Zbiral and Teller's "Following the Box" project will feature the work of a dozen artists, some of whom will be contributing multiple pieces of art.

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