Can grief be told or shown without taking something away from it? “Where there is leisure for fiction, there is little grief,” Dr Johnson had written uneasily, about a highly wrought elegy by Milton. Shakespeare brings to this problem of representing the pain of loss a more perverse and ambivalent magic. “Nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ Into something rich and strange,” Ariel sings to a young man who thinks he has lost his father, in The Tempest. With the invention of photography, documenting disappearance, and the afterlife of disappearance, becomes at once more immediate, more intimate and more mundane — think of RIP postings on Facebook.
Yet, some of the most iconic photobooks of the 20th century are a testament to how photography — with its ability to regard from a distance the pain of others — lends itself naturally to the journal-keeping aspect of grief-work. Nobuyoshi Araki’s day-to-day record of his wedding, honeymoon and then the untimely death of his wife, followed by a companion volume recording the death of their cat, remains a signal moment in the history of modern love, modern loss and modern bookmaking. In his shrewdness, Araki calls these books “Sentimental Journeys”, drawing attention to how they corner the reader, through emotional blackmail of a very fine order, into accepting the books on their own terms. We cannot bring ourselves to judge, or be critical about, expressions of actual grief. And this is part of the tender unease we feel when confronted with such personal elegies.
So, Adil Hasan is perhaps not being entirely fair to his own process when he writes, in his photobook, WHEN ABBA WAS ILL (Nazar Foundation, Rs 1,000), that his old analogue cameras served as “distractions” from the reality of his father’s terminal illness. Maybe the cameras were doing exactly the opposite — sharpening his perception of the difficulty of those months, opening his eye to how people live and die surrounded by architecture and light and nature and other people, making him see how emptied spaces evoke the presence of those who have vanished from them, and how it all becomes part of one’s inner life, a life of ‘making’ — which are the true gifts of loss.
I found myself wondering whether the book would have been different if Hasan had edited and designed it himself — processes that photographers are still hesitant to see as integral to their work. Would he have kept as many gate-folded pages, which make the book, otherwise quite delicate to hold, a little too distractingly complicated to read, the turning of pages continually interrupted by the act of having to open and close the folds without creasing the edges? There are quotations from Rumi and Epicurus, extracted from his father’s diary. “Books, music and intelligent conversation brought him pleasure,” Hasan writes about his father, “and the company of his diverse friends, comfort.”