Representations of South Asian American Life
By Anar Parikh |
JUNE 14, 2017
There is a great deal to be said, both technically and ethnographically, about The Americans. It pays obvious homage to the eponymously named collection of iconic black-and-white photographs taken by Robert Frank during the 1950s. For two years, Frank traveled across the United States to photographically document the vast expanse of American life. With attention to the stratification between high and low culture, Frank’s images stand in as iconic representations of American life during the mid-20th century: full of prosperity and promise, but somehow also segregated and eerily alienating.
In her 2010 review of The Americans, Bakirathi Mani, a literary scholar, urges viewers not to see The Americans ethnographically—which might reinforce dominant narratives of migration and diaspora—but rather as “an aestheticized narrative of personal history.” She argues that doing so can allow us to understand how viewers from different religious, gender, class, and even national backgrounds may have found resonance in Gill’s photographs.1 As an anthropologist-in-training, however, I could not help but instinctively think of The Americans as an ethnographic project. In this sense, I do not speak of “ethnography” as an objective or scientific endeavor that strives to essentialize and easily categorize South American people and culture. Instead, by highlighting the specificities of particular experiences, ethnography has the potential to challenge and add texture to the overgeneralized and stereotypical narratives that dominate popular understandings of immigrant and diasporic experiences. I see The Americans as identifying the public and private spaces of the South Asian diasporic experience not as monolithic, but as richly textured by material cultures, transnational connections, and aspirational imaginaries. Gill captures the lives of Indian Americans not only in the bastions of 19th- and 20th-century South Asian settlement in the United States—New York, New Jersey, Chicago, and California—but also in five southern states: Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.
Although the images in The Americans are the product of her travels across the United States between 2000 and 2007, in an email correspondence, Gill noted that she first began the project while pursuing a BFA in photography at the Parsons School of Design at the New School in the early 1990s. At the time, Gill was living in New York with close family members who had migrated to the United States. Gill recalled how, as a student, she never saw her desi family or friends represented in her coursework. As such, she became interested in photographing her family and from there moved outward to friends and to the larger South Asian subculture.
Gill’s rationales for pursuing this project resonate with me deeply. They are the same reasons why I felt so compelled to find a copy of The Americans. As a South Asian American growing up in the American South, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood desperately searching for representations of myself and people like me in the US popular and cultural sphere. If South Asians have heretofore been invisible in the spaces of American fine arts, popular culture, and academia, their presence in the American South has been rendered even more invisible. As a southern South Asian American, Gauri Gill’s images remind me that the makeshift Indian beauty parlor in an Econolodge storage closet in the rural suburbs of Jackson, Mississippi, is not only the beginnings of an absurdist short story, but also an instance of entrepreneurial creativity.
This invisibility, and these stories, are also what inspired me to now pursue a PhD in cultural anthropology. Anthropology has offered me a vocabulary with which to articulate how traces of colonialism are manifested in everyday life, taught me to take Bollywood and popular Hindi film seriously, and helped me understand the South Asian diaspora as a historical and cultural phenomenon. In my graduate work, I want to bring South Asians in the United States out of the privacy and obscurity of our homes, temples, and cultural centers into the American public sphere.
Cultural isolation and loneliness are pervasive to the diasporic experience—not only for immigrants, but often for generations thereafter. The Americans and projects like it, then, offer a double purpose. On the one hand, they serve as reminders that we are not alone—that there are others who share our experiences. On the other, and perhaps more importantly, they tell us that our stories are worth capturing in images and in words; that they are worth being read and seen not only by our friends and family but also by the world.
1. Bakirathi Mani. Viewing South Asia, Seeing America: Review of “The Americans” by Gauri Gill. American Quarterly (2010): 140.
Anar Parikh is a PhD candidate in cultural anthropology at Brown University. Her work is interested in questions of belonging and citizenship in the South Asian diaspora in the United States.