Finding your roots and a new identity – Photographic work by Miraj Patel

In the series Do you see what I see, when I look at myself? photographer Miraj Patel recounts the effort to find a balance between his Indian roots and identity and his desire to assimilate into American society through meditative but also humorous and delicate images.

In a photograph of his home, one of many that make up the series Do you see what I see when I look at myself?, Miraj Patel appears three times in the same frame: first, as a ghostly presence peering out of an upstairs window; then, legs dangling from a roof, body stretched as far as the eye can see on the shingles; and finally, having fun behind a window on the ground floor. The multiplication of selves in different positions becomes a method employed by Patel to talk about his childhood in the American suburbs: the repetition and the monotony of the everyday, the isolation he experienced, not devoid of its own distinctive humor: “Look what happens when you’re bored,” he says.

In another image, inside his home, geometric shapes hint at the rigidity of the laws and rules that organize American society: sharp edges with little room to maneuver. Even the house itself is square: “square walls, square ceiling, square floor, square tiles. It’s an echo chamber,” says Patel.

It’s a far cry from the carefree sense of India’s unity he aspired to growing up in California – the Indian lifestyle he could only experience indirectly by visiting Indian relatives and friends also living on the West Coast.

He was four years old when his parents moved to the suburb of Westlake Village, an hour’s drive north of Los Angeles through the Santa Monica Hills. “Pretty nice” and “really boring”, he describes it: a wealthy region – and they weren’t.

He lacked the sense of community that Indian culture offered, and his childhood and adolescence were largely spent finding some sort of balance between his Indian roots and his efforts at assimilation. “You come home and you have to be a certain person; and when you are in the world, you are [another]. I was always in the middle of two things.

Do you see what I see when I look at myself? recreates that sense of urgency and determination to find balance, to blend. His photographs – sometimes conceptual, meditative, thoughtful but always humorous and delicate – encapsulate this volatility: “Always having something to do, always having to consider something. It’s never just, ‘Okay, can I be myself?’

In one image, Patel wears traditional Indian attire as he runs towards the camera, the Malibu shoreline in the distance. When he was younger, he was embarrassed to wear traditional clothes in public and was bullied for his culture. Now he owns it. Running towards the camera, in frame, seemed powerful to him. “I could never completely stop him,” he says of his legacy, “but I was always running from him, trying to push him away.” In the end, however, he couldn’t escape who he was. He chose to kiss her. “I exist in a brown body in America, in an Indian body. There’s no way I can reject it.

In the American cultural landscape, the Indian experience has often been simplified into a few stereotypes, says Patel: working at 7-Eleven, being a doctor, having an accent. “It’s always a matter of perspective,” he says.

This sparked his desire to produce visual representations through an anthropological approach, to more fairly represent people of Indian descent, reclaiming their role in the American landscape.

Drawing from typical imagery of the traditional American West, the arid desert, the imagery of cowboys, the dry vegetation, Patel incorporates himself into the frame, again in traditional Indian clothing, allowing a new “dwelling culture” of the landscape in a way that has not been done before.

While exploring his identity as a young Indian-American man, he occasionally encountered an opposite sense of frustration. During a trip to India, for example, he accepted feeling like an immigrant there too – a different accent, different habits.

And yet, he found meaning in the resolution through his work, bringing his parents into the frame as well. One image among many others bears witness to his approach. Patel appears lying between his parents, in their bedroom, the three of them under the covers, an intimate moment of family connection. The dog participates too. It was a typical scene from his childhood, running around his parents’ bedroom on weekend mornings, finding his place between them.

As Patel examines her experience growing up in America with an awareness of her Indian heritage, her work also becomes a coming-of-age tale. As he sees himself growing up, trying to fit in, and then reclaiming his identity, he also explores his relationship with his parents, who came to the United States with questions and confusion, but found in the ordinary a universal human way of staying close to each other.

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All photos © Miraj Patel – from the series, Do you see what I see, when I look at myself?

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Miraj Patel is an Indian-American photographer based in the United States. He is currently following the MFA Photography program at Yale University. Find it on instagram and PhMuseum.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer specializing in photography, illustration, culture and everything related to teenagers. She lives in New York. Find it on Twitter and instagram.

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This article is part of the New Generation series, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talent in our community.

Michael E. Marquez