The Story of ‘Following the Box’ (part 1)

Following the box

We never intended India to take over our lives.  It just happened.  It involved a shoebox, an estate sale, a student exhibit, our musician son, our curiosity…and Eye on India.   The full story can be seen on our website Following the Box but suffice it so say that serendipity propelled us.  Here is a description of the project:

An estate-sale find of a shoebox filled with old photographs and negatives made in India in 1945 leads a Chicago couple half-way around the world. As they “follow the box” to try and unravel the mystery behind who took these compelling photos and for what purpose, they gather together contemporary Indian artists who each draw inspiration from these images and create new artworks in response. The resulting exhibit and film is a cross-cultural exploration of the power of art to reveal our different cultures and ourselves over time and space.

We discovered the box many years ago but didn’t begin to unravel its mysteries until Alan taught a class on Anthropology and Photography at Lake Forest College about 10 years ago.   His students produced a small exhibit of the old photos, the first time those images had been seen in perhaps 60 years.  When our son got a grant from the American Association of Indian Studies a few years later, enabling him to spend a year in India, we decided to delve further.  That was in 2011–the first year of Eye on India.  In effect, we grew up together.   We went to India on a preliminary research trip, guided by anthropologists Ralph and Marta Nicholas–honorees at this year’s Eye on India Gala.  

Once we experienced India, and saw the reaction our old photos were generating, we understood that we were at the beginning of an unfolding story, although we were yet to grasp its extent.  After we returned from that intense 3-week trip, we began to make new art pieces–photo sculptures–that incorporated the WWII-era images.  We exhibited this work at the Martha Schneider Gallery, where Anu Behari and Sanjoy Roy met us.  It took 2 more years before we received the Fulbright award that enabled us to return to India and another 2 years before we were able to produce a 3,000 square foot exhibit and a documentary film about our patient box.  Last year, we were honored to be part of the Eye on India Festival and to be able to screen the film at the Field Museum.

India changed us.  It opened us up to new worlds, established new and lasting friendships, and provided a perfect storm of our interests and abilities.  Our next entry will share some of our experiences in India.  We are grateful to Eye on India for making possible this forum and for permitting us to share our story.

To learn more about Alan Teller and Jerri Zbiral’s adventures visit

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Eye on India is a young and dynamic organization whose role is to serve as a facilitator and integrator. Promoting appreciation for diverse programming in the cultural landscape of Chicago, the festival’s uniqueness lies in its ability to create and inspire collaboration among various cultural, community and business organizations across Chicago and other cities in the US and India.

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