“There was an open yard in front of our old house where we used to play, and there stood a tree. During a specific time of the year, we would see fireflies around it at night,” recounts Anupam Diwan. This faraway vision, a glimpse from a childhood spent in Chhattisgarh in central India, resurfaced during the young photographer’s studies in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The fleeting moment triggered something deeply rooted in Diwan that refused to wane; a feeling of displacement and longing for a place that no longer exists. Following construction work on his family home, the blurry vision of fireflies swarming around a familiar tree at night now belongs to the past. Prompted to give body to this memory, he set about on a series of nocturnal journeys around the streets of his adopted home in search of his childhood.
Formerly a student of engineering before enrolling at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute in Dhaka, Diwan’s move into photography was led by a desire to find and express his internal landscape in the small details of his everyday surroundings. Looking for importance in the most ordinary of things, his work seeks meaning in the subtle beauty that often lies hidden to the unobservant eye. “Like beauty in the land and its silence, in the people, their bodies, their voices, their emotions,” he explains. “The nature of being present somewhere, looking at things and reading them is a profound experience, and also very humane.” Describing photography as near-ritualistic, it is Diwan’s way of paying attention to the world around him.“
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies,
That though they never equal stars in size,
(And they were never really stars at heart)
Achieve at times a very star-like start.
Only, of course, they can’t sustain the part.”
—Fireflies in the garden by Robert Frost
Inspired by American poet Robert Frost’s Fireflies in the garden, which tenderly draws a parallel between distant stars and the humble firefly that momentarily glimmers like its celestial counterpart, Diwan’s Fireflies finds magic in the darkness. Perfectly ordinary subjects from Dhaka’s landscape emerge from the night to take part in the story, transfiguring into new, surreal characters in the photographer’s reconstructed memory. “The nighttime hides everything in a blanket of darkness, and sets the stage for things to be discovered and revealed,” he says. Animals, children and fire are illuminated in washes of dreamlike blue, foreboding red and the more familiar yellow tones of reality.
In this patchwork of flash-lit scenes, Diwan’s split-second of childhood memory is stretched out, inhabited by other nighttime creatures and given a new life in the present—an ethereal hybrid of his memory and his present surroundings, where scale is indeterminate and splashes of mud seem like mountains. “The poem unlocked a missing link for me between the fireflies and the glimpses of my memories which, just like stars, are unreachable and have immense energy or potential, which cannot be realized from where I gaze at them.”