CNN Photos

Portraits challenge cultural perceptions

Living in this multiracial, multicultural world requires a sharper critical eye, says photographer Annu Palakunnathu Matthew.

Her project, “An Indian from India,” places attention much more on its onlookers than its photographic subjects, whisking us away from preconceived generalizations and facile truths about minorities.

Born in England, raised in India and now an art professor at the University of Rhode Island, Matthew has been widely acclaimed for her discreet blend of activism and experimentation in works such as “Bollywood Satirized” and “Open Wound.”

The same thread continues in “An Indian from India,” where Matthew uses Photoshop to manipulate portraits of Native Americans that were taken in the 19th century and early 20th century by ethno-photographers such as Edward S. Curtis. Her process includes photographing herself mimicking the pose of a Native American, extracting it and pasting it onto the original photo.

“I use Photoshop, but I try to use it as a tool where it isn’t obvious,” Matthew said. “Usually it takes the viewer four or five images before they figure it out, and then I print them so they look like old photographs.”

Juxtaposing the original photograph of a Native American with that of herself dressed in garments from her native India, Matthew seems to ask the viewer to scrutinize the reinforced stereotypes about Native Americans and people from India. People from India also suffered the same form of stereotyping by British colonial ethnographers and photographers.

“I think it’s more about being the ‘other’ within a larger majority and sometimes the assumptions and the stereotyping that is done of a community that maybe you’re not as aware of,” said Matthew, who also changes the texts inside the photographs.

“To me, I am almost holding hands with the Native Americans and reversing the gaze.”

Matthew said the fabrics in her clothing are all from India, but the way they are put together is not how you would see them in India.

“It is actually a commentary on some photographers who would sometimes make Native Americans wear clothing that was not necessarily part of their tribal wear in order to make them look more exotic,” she said.

On a personal level, Matthew said she has had to do a lot of explaining to people about her own cultural dilemmas.

“I have a strange accent as a result of my upbringing, and people can’t pinpoint where I am from,” she said.

“I see my larger work being about living between cultures and being transnational, which is more and more people’s experience.”

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN