Approaching Calcutta

Photography is the touch of light made indelible on a sensitive surface. Yet descriptive photographs, like overstuffed novels, always carry the risk of disconnection: “everything perceived, nothing seen into, nothing related” (Henry James).  These photographs are from a series on the globalizing present and ghostly pasts of Calcutta (Kolkata), once the capital city of the British empire in India and now a vast megacity. While the project encompasses Calcutta’s developing outskirts, this selection shows a few fragments of its old colonial center. The photographs approach questions about what kind of modernity Calcutta embodies, as well as more personal questions about family a few generations past the reach of memory. What answers they afford and what truths they touch are to be found only between the pictures.

Two of the photographs were made in Calcutta’s Scottish Cemetery. At the base of the decapitated monument in the first is the inscription “Born 2 July 1870. Died 29 August 1870. ‘Of Such Is the Kingdom of Heaven.’”

These photographs were made in Kolkata, India, between 2011 and 2014, and are drawn from an ongoing project entitled Approaching Calcutta. For more information, please visit


Alan Thomas is a publisher and photographer. He exhibited most recently in Lens2020 (2020) at Perspective Gallery in Evanston, IL; and in Go Down Moses (2019) at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago. In 2012, his one-person show at the Seagull Foundation for the Arts, Kolkata, India, surveyed photographs made over two decades in Chicago, Tokyo, and Kolkata. Thomas was for many years the acquisitions editor for religious studies at the University of Chicago Press, where he now serves as editorial director. He can be found online at or Instagram and Twitter.

Our project takes the words spoken by Jesus to Mary Magdalene in the garden after she discovers his empty tomb — noli me tangere (“touch me not”) — as a provocation for reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, and on other pandemics, viral and social, that engulf us.