the lede

Time Frame

A photographer returns to a childhood pose

By MEHBOOB JEELANI | 1 January 2012

FOR 56-YEAR-OLD PABLO BARTHOLOMEW, the time has come to relive a moment from his childhood. Frozen in a black-and-white portrait taken in the early 1960s by his father, Richard Bartholmew, a seven-year-old Pablo stares at the camera rebelliously while sitting in a dark corner of his then-residence in Old Delhi, leaning against a drab wall with his knees bent upwards while carrying a notebook on his lap.

Five decades later, Pablo has decided to reenact the pose. But a lot has changed since then. His hairless, youthful face has been roughened by a grey beard, and his eyes have softened with time. And behind the camera, in place of his father, is an Argentine photographer, Irina Werning, who has been travelling around the world recreating photographed moments captured in the past. The title of her project is Back to the Future 2. And Pablo, a Delhi-based photographer, is one of her subjects. It is an intimate moment for a family of photographers—that Pablo, having chosen the profession for himself, is revisiting his childhood role as the subject of his father’s compositions.

One morning, soon after Werning enters a South Delhi apartment owned by Pablo’s aunt, she fixes her gaze on a dark wall. “Here,” she says, “I think we can do it here.” After covering a small portion of the wall with a rectangular piece of gray fabric, she wraps three cushions with a black cloth. As Pablo enters the room dressed in a dull shirt tucked into his shorts, Werning’s face lights up with satisfaction. “You look good,” she says. “Take off your watch.”

Pablo sits on the floor and looks at his childhood picture. He appears to have been a favourite subject of his father, who, before he died in 1985, left behind thousands of photographs of the older of his two sons. In an attempt to capture the truth behind an expression, Bartholomew père, an acclaimed art-critic, poet and photographer, was swift with his camera. He would take photographs of his family members sleeping, reading, smoking and even lost in deep thought.

Pablo scoots up against the wall to imitate his childhood pose—the posture, the expression and the slight tilt of his head.  He shrivels his lips slowly, stiffens his face and looks into the lens of Werning’s camera. Unable to restrain his smile, he bursts into laughter. “I don’t remember anything about the picture,” Pablo says. “I have many pictures taken.”

Werning smiles back, but in a quest to find the right angle, she crawls across the floor. As soon as she finds the perfect spot, a barrage of clicks rains down. Suddenly she stops, leaps onto her bag and begins to unzip it, all the while staring at Pablo’s chest. Retrieving a pin from the bag, she approaches Pablo and carefully clips the pin to his shirt, creating a crease above Pablo’s breast pocket, just as it had appeared in his childhood picture.

“I think life is ridiculous,” Werning tells me while explaining the rationale of her project. “I probably like to show that.”

She has chosen to come to India with her project because of the sheer magnitude of the response she received: “I got thousands of emails. People sent all kinds of photos. Most were silly.” Speaking from her experience, she makes a comparison between Europe and India: “Europeans love their past. South Americans live in the present. Indians love their future. They are obsessed about it.”

The shoot continues for about 45 minutes. It is as if Pablo is nailed to the floor, making only the slightest of movements—turning his head to the left, entwining his fingers in knots and shifting the book on his lap. “I think we are fine now,” Werning says. Hearing that, Pablo releases his breath in one sudden rush. “Whoop!” he says, “I never knew it would be so difficult.”

Mehboob Jeelani is a former staff writer at The Caravan. He is currently studying for an MA in journalism at Columbia University. He has extensively covered the Kashmir conflict, and has contributed to the leading English dailies of Jammu and Kashmir.

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