Stuart Freedman: The Palaces of Memory

© Stuart Freedman | The Palaces of Memory
© Stuart Freedman | The Palaces of Memory

Stuart Freedman has the kind of experience in photojournalism that the word “expansive” hardly does it justice. Born in London, he has been a photographer for just over 30 years now and his photography has been published in the likes of Life, National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel and The Sunday Times Magazine, among others. Freedman regularly judges awards, guest lectures university students and writes and photographs for various publications on pertinent topics such as HIV in Rwanda.

I came across a body of work by him by chance as I stumbled upon his Twitter profile and his images looked very well photographed from a technical point of view. The title — The Palaces of Memory — was so evocative, of fairytales and grandeur but also psychology and the intangible in the human mind, that I spent a minute or two with my imagination running wild before I actually clicked and looked at all photographs. What I saw inside The Palaces was nothing like I imagined and it was a very pleasant surprise. There was no gold and glitter but in fact shabby Indian coffee shops that are far from grand, some even appear quite run down (the legs of the sugar bowl table in one are supported by empty tins so that it doesn’t wobble), but are nevertheless warm and welcoming.

© Stuart Freedman | The Palaces of Memory
A customer has a conversation with another in the Indian Coffee House, Kottayam, Kerala, India. © Stuart Freedman | The Palaces of Memory

The feeling the viewers get when they look at the photographs is the sense of a community, a common spirit of togetherness. Photographs of exteriors are mixed with interiors, some visitors are skinny and barefoot, others are wearing their finest attire, but don’t appear out of place or snobby. Everything is colourful and calm, far from the glitzy keyboard-clicking coffee shops in London, which habitants of the Big Smoke treat as a second office. No, the cafes documented by Freedman are places where people gather to form connections, exchange ideas, have a laugh and bond, or just have a nice time with their families. As he mentions, these spots were once the birthplace of revolutionary political ideas such as the concept of modern India — not everything groundbreaking has to be fuelled by alcohol and pubs it seems, coffee might be just as good of a stimulant. They are “aide-mémoire” for plenty of Indians who remember them as the places where new thinking thrived and knowledge was born.

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