SIX YEARS AGO, when Sutirtha Chatterjee began working on portraits of children at a blind school in Kolkata, he had intended to report on their daily lives and the importance of education for visually impaired Indians. As he grew close with them and gained an insight into their lives, the work started to evolve into a personal exploration of the stories of five students from the school. Chatterjee’s developing friendships with them led him to contemplate questions about the way the visually impaired make sense of the world. “I learnt how things that I as a sighted person hardly notice, have such a profound impact on their lives—the sound of rain, the sun on your face and the wind in your hair,” Chatterjee remembered. “How was I as a sighted person telling the stories of those who cannot see?”
Chatterjee met Brihaspati Mahato—a student with whom he became especially close, who later became both the protagonist of the series as well as co-author—nearly every day. “Gradually, Brihaspati and I began working together as a sighted person and a non-sighted person to build the narrative of his world,” Chatterjee remembered. At one point, Brihaspati, who has been blind from birth, narrated a dream about being stranded far out at sea. In it, he was alone. Sounds from the beach were being drowned out by the crashing waves, and he did not know how to make it to land until, eventually, a wave propelled him towards the shore.
The two decided to visit a beach in West Bengal, and photograph Brihaspati enacting sequences from his dream. This visit led to a critical turning point in the work, as Chatterjee increasingly thought about the form that memories take in the absence of vivid visual images. Brihaspati, for instance, “remembered the sea by the sound of the crashing waves, the smell of the shutki fish set out to dry and the feeling of sand on his feet.” Chatterjee then extended this approach to his photography work with other students as well. Hoping to build a layered understanding of their lives by blending images of fictional scenarios with documentary images, he began photographing their enactments of dreams at their schools and homes across West Bengal.