Photographer Neha Hirve’s intimate series both your memories are birds captures the delicate time she spent confronting the vulnerable mortality of her grandparents, nature and the world during lockdown in Pune, India.
When Neha Hirve first planned her return to India, her intention was to “travel around a little and explore the country [she] grew up in. However, like many people in 2020, her aspirations were interrupted. Her move from Stockholm, Sweden to Pune, India instead found her within the confines of her grandparents gated community. Not long after she arrived a state of strict lockdown was imposed on the country.
“The series both your memories are birds was very much unplanned. I remember when the pandemic first began. I felt a lot of pressure from peers with a survival mindset to take advantage of the situation and come up with a ‘story’ that would stand out. I decided not to worry about making a project at all,” Neha explains.
“Soon I realised that the only thing I had was time ahead of me to take photographs when and as I wanted, indefinitely, and eventually it shaped itself into something. It ended up being more a project about my grandparents and the way I remembered them, about ageing and time, more than the pandemic, albeit heavily coloured by the situation.”
As a result, the series portrays a sense of fragile mortality. Skillfully reflecting the vulnerability of both her grandparents and the wider world to inevitable life experiences such as growing older and unexpected situations like the Covid-19 pandemic. Birds are a key motif in the series, a physical representation of her childhood memories returning while spending time in India with her family after a long time away.
“After so many years, this seems to be the only memory that remains unchanged during the lockdown,” says Neha of the birds that fly around her grandparent’s rooftops and balcony. “They [have] come to symbolise an anchor in an ungrounded time, their flight a promise of hope.”
How would you describe the creative direction of the images you’ve taken? There’s an interesting balance of nature-based photographs and portraits, both with varying levels of vibrance and colour.
I worked in a very intuitive way. Because I didn’t have any notion of what, if anything, the final series would be, I experimented a lot with the type of imagery I’d always wanted to make. I remember that I was looking at a lot of Karin Koenning’s work at the time, the way she mixed colour and black and white influenced me a lot. It was also the first time I was shooting digital in a long time, since I didn’t have access to the darkroom that I had in Sweden, so I experimented a lot with contrast and colour until I found the right look.
“The uneasiness and vulnerability reflects my inner state at the time.”
What part does the – as you described on your website – pressure cooker of political tension happening in India play in your series, if any?
If it plays any role, it’s in its absence. None of the political tension is visible in the images in any way, mainly because we were locked down and living in a gated community, which formed a sort of bubble in the grand scheme of things. Most news came through social media, through word of mouth, through the television. In a sense, the images are a sort of escapism, or even a statement, a way of deliberately choosing to look at stillness as opposed to chaos.
Looking over your images gives me a feeling of vulnerable stillness, sometimes uneasy and sometimes light, as well as at other times of someone holding their breath. Is that an intentional feeling? What were you trying to convey?
The uneasiness and vulnerability reflects my inner state at the time the pictures were made, and I suppose I was trying to convey just that. Later in the summer, we experienced a partial solar eclipse, and I photographed it from my grandparent’s balcony. I waited a long time, watching the progress of the moon, and there was a split second of blind panic when the sky went dark that the sun wouldn’t emerge again, even though I knew it would. There is always an underlying vulnerability and uneasiness in even the most sure phenomena, even though we know the sun rises every morning we can’t say that it always will. The pandemic uprooted our trust in a lot of things we took for granted.
I really liked what you said in your description of the series about how nature and the birds from your childhood came to “symbolise an anchor in ungrounded times, their flight a promise of hope”. What do you think it is about certain environments and landscapes that can provide such comfort and draw our attention (or camera)?
This question of landscape and environment and its ties to emotion make me think of Simon Schama’s “Landscape and Memory”. He describes landscape as a construct of the mind – scenery built from strata of memory as much as layers of rock. Art and writing about ‘place’ is heavily tied to personal interpretation and experience.
There was nothing inherently comforting about the physical place during the pandemic; India was not a country that felt safe or certain. We seek out symbols and assign meaning to our surroundings when we are in need of comfort. It’s been already 5 months since I left, and living in Sweden where the pandemic has had a relatively low impact on public life, already the period when I made this project has occupied its own strata of memory. It will be impossible to revisit this time and place ever again.
“A lot of the images ended up being from behind, or not directly in their faces, almost as a way of shying away from the discomfort of looking at death head on.”
Lastly, there’s a sense of fragile mortality in your images, particularly the portraits of your grandparents. Was it emotionally difficult to photograph them under such strange circumstances or cathartic in some ways?
Your description of fragile mortality is an accurate reflection of my intent when taking the portraits. I was incredibly aware of their mortality the whole time, both because I was spending so much time looking at them through the camera, and because of how much time had passed since I’d last seen them, they had both grown much older, less independent.
A lot of the images ended up being from behind, or not directly in their faces, almost as a way of shying away from the discomfort of looking at death head on. I’d say it was difficult to constantly remind myself of this, but, as is the nature of life, my grandfather ended up passing away from lung cancer fairly suddenly, just three months after I’d left them. I can’t express how valuable it was that I’d forced myself to confront their mortality all that while; I’d be filled with regret right now otherwise.