Jai Toor is a British-Indian visual artist and photographer based in London. Citing influence from everyday life, he approaches his works meticulously - often through historical research, analogue processes and collaboration. Having spoken to Toor on some of his recent photography projects, it is clear that culture, history and diaspora takes a centre stage in many of his works.
My earliest memory of engaging with photography as a medium is when I was living in Mumbai. My father was an avid photographer and he used to take street photographs around beaches and markets. Fast forward 15 years, I was introduced to the darkroom in college and since then have done two degrees related to photography.
Visiting a thorn
Visiting a thorn is both a photography project as much as it is an archival one. This project began when Toor inherited film negatives from the 50's and 60's from his late grandfather who migrated from Kenya to the UK. What began with scanning and retrieving old family photos soon turned into a long-term project as he seeks to uncover and document a part of the history of the South Asian community.
Deployed within the body of work are themes of Friendship, Family and Community. For many this was once a harmonious time in their lives, coming to the United Kingdom meant leaving everything they had worked for.
As you go through and discover these photos of a past life, what was going through in your head?
My grandfather passed away in 2012, I had heard many positive and negative stories as a child but was never able to visualise his time in Africa. I think it also helped me to understand how the colonial hierarchy in Kenya and Uganda was positioned between the British, South Asian Diaspora and Native Kenyans / Ugandans. Growing up I was always told how peaceful and calm life for South Asians were in Africa however, the suppression of local Africans was often left out of the story.
However, I couldn't help notice themes of friendship, family and togetherness present in some of the images. Scenes such as men playing instruments in a jungle or riding a bike together displayed nuances of prosperity and youthfulness that doesn't exist today. The simple aspects of life. The person who made the photographs had a clear style. I am still trying to uncover who this is.
This photography project involved a lot of research, archiving and scanning. It must be a long process! What was your approach like? I initially started by organising the printed images into a timeline, this started in 1906 and ended in 1963 when my grandfather settled in the United Kingdom. After this, I began scanning negatives and adding them to the timeline based on his looks and dates written on folders. It was a difficult process.
Whilst this was on-going I began reading articles and books around this era, watching youtube videos and looking at other archival projects.
Re-scanning old negatives from the 50’s and 60’s was a very memorable part of the process, as the project has begun to evolve, new stories began to intrigue me even more.
How were you able to find photographs from other families? Were they relatives or did you work closely with an organisation to get in touch with them?
Initially, I began working with friends' families archives and then I put out a wider search on instagram. As the body of work is still open I would love to listen to more stories and see others photographs. So if anyone would love to get involved please email / DM me.
Why was it titled “Visiting a thorn” For you, what does thorn resemble?
“Visiting a thorn” is still a working title, however, it relates to viewing an image for the first time and it leaves a mark on you which is incomprehensible. It has a correlation to what Barthes calls a “Punctum”. It is a strong feeling that I and others who I have spoken to have felt when viewing these photos.
Novellara is a project about the Sikh community in Italy, more specifically Emilia Romangana region. Media representation of the Sikh community and other South Asian Diaspora within Italy over the last decade has been centred around migration, labour work, religious instabilities and more recently exploitation. Many stories surround negative news or focus on topics like religion, employment and emigration. As a member of a Sikh Community myself, the aim of this project is to change the narrative of how Sikhs are perceived in Italy and simply highlight community stories from the town of Novellara.
When I arrived in Novellara, I didn't know anyone, I was sitting on the train in Reggio Emilia and two boys came running onto the train shouting and swearing at each other in Punjabi, they eventually sat in front of me and we began having a conversation. One of the boys, Gurnoor, who is in the project said he would show me around the town and introduce me to more people. I found this really sweet and he did it out of kindness.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
Where there's a will, there's a way, is a body of work centred around a physical and emotional battle with trauma while visiting family in a town called Trenton. Through careful exploration of the everyday, I combined historical accounts of past and present alongside notions of self, fantasy and community to question if Trauma could be a gateway into fantasy. Toor’s thoughts and conversations are mirrored alongside Images in a non-linear fashion to uphold a diaristic narrative placing emphasis on the intricacies of picturing the invisible. The photographic journey through the streets of Trenton became a manifestation of externalising the unholiness left behind by family.
When doing Initial research around the reasons my family moved to Trenton, Canada. I came across the history of the town, It was once dubbed Hollywood of the North. This connection to a once prominent film industry led me to further investigate the town. I became fascinated with its connection to the UK and mysterious events that occurred in the town over the last 100 years.
During the making of the work, I spent a lot of time reflecting and thinking of the current juxtapositions between trauma and landscape. It is something I had not done before.
This was a new way of working and something I will continue to do in the future.
What influences your photographic works?
I think much of my photography work is influenced by notions of the everyday, however complexities between family, diaspora and fantasy are areas which are close to me. I feel most comfortable documenting and talking about subject matter that I can relate to.
What are you up to these days? Any new projects in the works?
Currently, I have just finished a masters and am working full-time to fund my photographic work. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, will be showing at The Photobook Cafe in March and at Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in Toronto around May, So keep a lookout on my Instagram for dates.
I am researching another body of work which is centred around a disappearance, however, more on that to come in the following year.