Arc of a Name

Ed Kashi

2019 - Ongoing

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India

My name is Ed Kashi, and for years, it was just that – my name. I knew it was a family name with origins in Iraq, where my parents were born. It wasn’t until I turned 33 that I learned my last name carries the weight of centuries, that it has sacred origins, that it has traversed continents through the course of history.

The name Kashi derives from Kishi over 6,000 years ago in India. For more than five thousand years, Kashi was the name of what is now Varanasi, Hinduism’s most holy city. The name traveled to Kashan, Iran, a seat of ancient civilization at the edge of the Maranjab desert, and from there it migrated to Iraq, the home of my ancestors. To Persians, the name Kashi originates from Kashan. It is also the original name of Kashgar in China, situated at the crossroads of trade along the Silk Road.

Arc of A Name aims to discover the origins and modern manifestations of my name, which has made its imprint across continents and civilizations. This project is at once personal and anthropological, unearthing visual clues to the migration of a name—and thereby the people who carried it. My images will explore the transmission of cultural heritage, and the residue left behind by traders, seekers and spiritual healers who helped spread Kashi from one city to another, one continent to another.

In the spring of 2019, I went to Varanasi to begin my pursuit, interviewing scholars about the history of the city and making images that reflect the spiritual quality of the place. My photographs explore the quixotic mix of ancient and modern cultures, and my visual representation conveys the timelessness of the city. Stylistically I am deploying a less literal, more ethereal quality to my imagery in order to convey the essence of the place rather than the landmarks or rituals or issues of the day. These images bundle the kinetic energy of the people with a constant sense of movement, tension, and transformation.

I have spent the better part of the last four decades producing photo-documentary projects that tackle some of the toughest social and geopolitical issues of our times. Arc of A Name will liberate me from the constraints of journalism to pursue a more impressionistic approach, one which unlocks the past’s influence on the present and connects my own journey towards rootedness in these places.

For decades, I have mainly photographed the outside world, telling others’ stories and placing those in a broader political context. This project starts from the inside out, and seeks to elevate the gesture, the light, the detail that serves as a touchstone to something deeper, older, reminiscent. My heritage has been buried deep as a result of time, distance and assimilation. But it has informed who I am and the photographer I became. When I first visited Iraq, I perceived the cultural similarities to my family—the smells, faces, a loving “habibi” from father to son—but I never felt a connection to the country. Coming from a Jewish heritage, it was painfully clear that I had to hide my identity in order to work safely. I’ve come to understand that being an outsider has allowed me to be a consummate observer, enabling me to document and explore issues I care about from a personal distance that denies my sense of self. Arc of a Name is pushing me to become an insider, someone whose past is present, whose reflections are the story that needs to be told.

Over the next year, I plan to return to Varanasi to complete my work there, and go to Kashgar and Kashan to continue this visual exploration of their shared histories. I will be seeking parallels and intersections that unlock some of the mysteries that pique my curiosity. Rather than going with a preordained agenda, I plan to allow for revelations in the same spirit as my time in Varanasi, which was guided by scholarly research and then unleashed by dogged discovery. A grant would give me the support to continue this project and delve more deeply into my journey. My goal is to create a photographic body of work for a book with deeply researched texts, exhibitions and some form of multimedia treatment, to bring these geographically distant places to life in ways not yet seen.

Names are our legacy, surviving long after we’re gone. Names travel through commerce and conquest, through colonization and consummation. They are seeds left behind, both literally and figuratively, and they exist as proof of the interconnection between forgotten pieces of history. How have these shared histories morphed into something at once disparate and recognizable, foreign and familiar, ancient and modern? As someone who has never reconciled my own identity—at once American and Iraqi—I want to examine the places that bear my name to find clues of my own belonging.

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