Sooni Taraporevala ’79 bought her first camera with money she borrowed from her roommate. Decades later, she has returned to Harvard for the opening of her photography exhibition.
Taraporevala spoke on a panel Thursday with Professors Homi K. Bhabha and Sugata Bose to discuss her exhibit, “Parsis, The Zoroastrians of India,” on display at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts until Dec. 20. The collection of photos provides a window into the Parsi community, a religious and ethnic minority in India.
Before the panel discussion began, Taraporevala gave audience members insight into select photographs that she displayed in a slide show: her grandfather leaning in close to the shopkeeper because he was hard of hearing, her young cousin during the ritual seclusion that marked his preparation for priesthood, and her grandmother laughing. She was “probably saying ‘why are you taking my photo again?’” Taraporevala quipped.
“I just started photographing my family,” Taraporevala said of her career’s beginnings. “I wanted to document the older generation before they passed away.”
The Bombay native eventually spent 35 years on a project that began with intensely personal photographs. The collection also includes portraits of prominent Parsis, such as television stars, the former attorney general of India, a nuclear scientist, and Queen singer Freddie Mercury. Taraporevala said that she only included those photographs to make her project more comprehensive.
“I would rather photograph ordinary people,” she stated.
In her discussion with Bhabha and Bose, Taraporevala mused on her creative process and the meaning behind her images.
“As a photographer, you take a photograph and hope that someone interprets it in a certain way...I rely on other people to provide the subtext,” she said.
Bose and Bhabha, a Bombay Parsi himself, offered cultural and historical insight into the unique Parsi community. Bhaba noted that Parsis “don’t have great, stylistic markers” of their community, so a heavy importance is placed on the domestic and quotidian life—a theme that Taraporevala captures in her photographs of Parsis at home and in town.
The juxtaposition of Taraporevala’s earlier photographs with her later images allows viewers to trace the visible transition from more traditional Indian styles to contemporary life with its increasing Western influences.
Audience member Natanya E. Kashan said she found Taraporevala’s work inspiring. She was interested by the photographs of “a culture that is not well-known,” and could appreciate their aesthetics as a young photographer herself.
“Her images are really beautiful,” she said.