Portraiture as Home: Clare Samuel on Arpita Shah’s new work

The Mapira Family Zimbabwe / Scotland

The Mapira Family Zimbabwe / Scotland ©Arpita Shah

Arpita Shah’s new work Portrait of Home is composed of group photographs of Scottish families, where at least one of the relatives is originally from another Commonwealth country. The series explores themes of cultural identity and belonging, and questions the definition of home. Engaging with the work has led me to reflect on my own experiences of immigration and return, as well as my friendship with the artist. I also wonder if some of these ideas could provide a way in to considering the nature of portraiture itself.

Arpita and I first met ten years ago when we both went on exchange from Napier to the photo programme at Ryerson University in Toronto. We had been in the same class for two years, but had never really talked, both having the impression that we didn’t have much in common. But in this process of adapting to a new culture, as strangers in a strange environment, we become good friends. Now we both work with portraiture and we often discuss why that is, and what happens in that moment when you photograph someone, and in the other moments that lead to the ‘image’. I often wonder what it does to someone to take their picture, and what it does it me.

It can be very enjoyable to be let into a new person’s world in this way, and many people are enthusiastic and accommodating. But there is always some awkwardness in that sudden intimacy, in trying to explain what the project means to you in terms they will accept, and in the delicate process of gaining their trust. It is an odd experience to photograph people. In a way you have to ‘perform’, but also to genuinely give something of yourself within that interaction. People tend to assume that you have to be quite outgoing, but I find that it is often the shyest photographers who work in portraiture. It’s something to do with being drawn out of yourself when you look so intently at another person and their life.

The Huzir Family Malaysia / Scotland

The Huzir Family Malaysia / Scotland  ©Arpita Shah

There has been much criticism of the power dynamics in photography, but there is pleasure in being seen as well as seeing. There can be the sense of validation, of being recognised. And it’s a gaze that works both ways, the photographer isn’t hidden behind the camera. She is part of an intense relational exchange that has been set in motion not for merely it’s own sake but ‘for the photo’. In Barthes’ classic text Camera Lucida he argues that the essence of photography is that the subject ‘was there’, but Azoulay contends that ‘a photograph produced in the course of an encounter between photographer and photographed is created and inspired by a relation to an external eye’ [my emphasis][1] . This third gaze is one from the future; that of the spectator who will see the image. It is for them, as well as each other, that we are both performing and revealing ourselves.

To allow someone to photograph you is an act of trust, even more so if it also involves exposing your dwelling and loved ones to them. Levinas says to dwell is ‘a recollection, a coming to oneself, a retreat home with oneself as in a land of refuge’, and this refuge may be particularly precious for those who have left their land of origin. But he goes on to say that this home is meant to be opened to the Other, it ‘answers to a hospitality, an expectancy, a human welcome’ [2]. For Levinas this is an imperative, but I think there is also pleasure in opening your home to a stranger. For the last few years I’ve experienced this through Air BnB and Couchsurfing, there is the thrill of the new, not knowing what this person is going to be like. And they can be ‘a shock to your sense of yourself […] Someone else is taking a measure of your life […] the size and shape of your life are seen from a different perspective’ [3].

In our culture the home is often seen as a fortress that only family and friends have access to, that security measures are needed to protect. One aspect of hosting people in my home that I’ve enjoyed most has just been the simple affirmation that most people are basically good. This seems like a small thing, but I think it’s actually highly significant, since the way we organize society and our households suggests that we generally assume the opposite.

The Martinez Family Belize / Scotland

The Martinez Family Belize / Scotland

I imagine most of Shah’s’ sitters enjoyed the process of welcoming a stranger into their space, of getting to know a new person in this rather unusual way. When asked to define home, most of the subjects in Portrait of Home said something to the effect that it’s about people, rather than a place. Having lived in several different countries I can identify with that. For many in our contemporary world, ‘home’ is no longer something you are born into, but something you have to actively create. Or a state of mind you have to achieve.

Arpita says that she immediately feels comfortable with, and connected to, people who have also undergone immigration, ‘even from very different places than me, there’s a familiarity there’. When we were in Canada together, and becoming frustrated with strange accents, all the photo equipment having different names, and not being able to find baked beans without maple syrup in them, there was a comfort in the familiarity of each other. The international student’s office had warned us about ‘culture shock’ which I thought was ridiculous, but later I think I experienced something like that.

One thing that surprised us was how the national flag and maple leaf insignia seemed to be everywhere in public and private space. Culture and identity are always constructed, but here it seemed so obviously so, to have these bold symbols everywhere. I’m not sure why it’s not like that in European countries. For me having grown up in Northern Ireland, flags are inherently associated with violence and territorialism.

Maybe the flags of older countries are too heavy with the history of what’s been done in their name, from colonialism to football violence to the National Front. For better or worse Canada’s policy of multiculturalism uses national identity as a kind of umbrella under which all Canadians can be different, but the same. It has been praised as inclusive, and criticized as homogenizing and marginalizing experiences of isolation. Scotland’s cultural identity is in a period of intense change, and perhaps its diversity is more complex, less easily packaged into symbols.

Much of Shah’s previous work such as Ghar (Home) and Nymphaeaceae, is highly constructed and refers to mythological and religious stories. Portrait of Home is much more rooted in everyday life. Here there is no vivid symbolism into which to read narrative, instead we see their living spaces, which start to feel familiar –maybe we have a similar couch, or know someone with those types of chairs, or we recognize those distinctive tenement windows. Knowing the premise of the project we start to guess from their physical attributes (or occasionally traditional dress) which of the family members have come from ‘somewhere else’ and where that might be. The work still feels controlled, perfectly composed like her earlier series, but we sense the rawness of ‘real life’, of real individuals, more fragile than characters.

The Atia Family Canada / Emirates / Norway / Scotland

The Atia Family Canada / Emirates / Norway / Scotland ©Arpita Shah

The ethereal light in these images is the one thing that is not quotidian. Often the windows that it burns through are visible, and it wraps itself around the sitters, at times almost seeming to move through them, giving them an air of transparency. Particularly in the The Atia Family the figures seem delicate and insubstantial, as if in the process of transformation, very much in contrast to the frozen stillness in her other work. It is as though this pose is one moment out of a constant flux where the family is gathered together in this unit, a moment that is temporary and tenuous. Each shoot takes about an hour, and Arpita told me that several of the mothers said this was the longest they had been in one room together without an ipad or a TV playing, and that it was actually a lovely experience to be physically connected to each other in silence for a while.

Portrait of Home follows in the tradition of Dayanita Singh and Thomas Struth in terms of investigating the family portrait in a contemporary art context. In his essay on Struth’s work Konigsberg discusses how family photographs are always about marking time, they represent ‘families at a resting point between whatever has transpired to split and realign the individuals and what will inevitably come in the future to create further joys and problems’. As stills from multiple lives in constant flux, separate people who also make up a ‘family unit’, ‘the pictures capture an uneasy peace’[4] . In looking at Portrait of Home I feel privileged to see this fleeting moment whereby in waiting for the photo to be taken, this collection of individuals seem to meet our gaze as one entity.

It’s true that family portraits are always about time, not just the idea of capturing moments for posterity, before everything changes, but also deep history and genetic time. As well as cultural origins, we start to try and discern the difference and similarity between children and their parents in Shah’s images –an expression, a gesture, the shape of their nose; these are attributes that may have been repeated throughout centuries.

The Shittu Family Nigeria / Scotland

The Shittu Family Nigeria / Scotland   ©Arpita Shah

In The Shittu Family they look bundled together, arms wrapped around arms, hands around hands, and the two parents’ arms seem fused together. The oldest daughter pops up at the top of the pile, as though asserting her presence or watching over the rest of the family. We see a resemblance between her and her father, something around the eyes and the set of their jaw. And the girl on the right seems to echo the softness and openness of her mother’s expression, as she sinks back into her embrace.

The artist specifically posed the subjects so they would be always be touching or connected, becoming one entity in the frame. They appear gathered, piled, clinging, or sometimes pushed; together. We see them as individuals, but also as almost a collective force. With so many eyes meeting our own, it feels more like they can really look back at us. I wondered for Arpita if photographing groups was a different dynamic, since the photographer is so out-numbered is she in a less privileged position? She said it did feel different, especially with The Azad Family, where there were 23 people. With so many subjects she ‘couldn’t watch everyone at once, so I felt less in control. But I’ve known that family for years, I’ve photographed some of them for other projects. So I didn’t feel too intimidated’.

The Azad Family India / Pakistan / England / Scotland

The Azad Family India / Pakistan / England / Scotland ©Arpita Shah

I wonder if this idea of familiarity is key to Portrait of Home; the recognition of their homes and furnishings, the resemblance of the sitters, and the repetitions in the configurations of the groups. Maybe the urge to photograph people is also related to familiarity. As portrait photographers perhaps we need these encounters where we look and are seen so intensely, so that we start to see the familiar in the unfamiliar. And can begin to build a home there.

About Clare Samuel

Clare Samuel is a Northern Irish artist who lives and works between Edinburgh and Toronto. She studied Photography and Film at Napier University and Ryerson University, and holds an MFA from Concordia in Montreal. Her photographic, video, and installation work is often a critical dialogue with the genre of portraiture. She is fascinated by the fraught negotiations between Self and Other, and how these play out in representation.


[1] Ariella Azoulay The Civil Contract of Photography (New York: Zone Books, 2008), p. 129.

[2] Emmanuel Levinas Totality & Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 24th ed. 2012), p. 156.

[3] Mary Jo Leddy The Other Face of God: When the Stranger Calls Us Home (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011), p. 34.

[4] Eric Konigsberg, ‘Akin: On the Family Portraits of Thomas Struth’ in Thomas Struth, Family Life (Cologne: Schirmer/Mosel, 2008), p. 80.

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