Modern Life

At First Sight shows how a photo sparked a connection across continents

For Valentine’s Day, HP's short documentary explores and celebrates the power of printed photographs — and love.

By Patrick Rogers — February 6, 2019

Modern Life

At First Sight shows how a photo sparked a connection across continents

For Valentine’s Day, HP's short documentary explores and celebrates the power of printed photographs — and love.

By Patrick Rogers — February 6, 2019

“The physical parts [of a photo] are worth almost nothing, and so how can this material become a priceless object? That’s the magic of what a photograph can be.”

Tom Mason, co-director, At First Sight

With a casual portrait of her intended in hand, Arvinder Singh fell in love with just one look. But this wasn’t a love song or a romantic tale — it was real life in the early 1990s. 

She was student in her 20s living with her family in the Punjab, India, when a letter arrived from her brother in America, along with a color snapshot of a young man — with long eyelashes and his hair concealed in a traditional Sikh turban — almost 8,000 miles away in New York.

Arvinder studied the photograph intently. “I saw a very handsome boy,” she recalls of that day in 1994 in At First Sight, a new short film about love and the power of printed photos.  

Her family had arranged for her to exchange snapshots with a young man seeking a bride who shared his Sikh upbringing. “I saw his very kind and loving eyes, and he's smiling, and I thought he was smiling at me,” she says.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, a young man in New York City held another photo in his hands. It was a picture of Arvinder dressed in pink and white, her smile confident yet playful.

“I was like, ‘Wow!’” says Harbinder Singh. “‘I want to meet her.’”

Personal history

At First Sight, which was co-directed by Sarah Klein and Tom Mason of Redglass Pictures, is the first in a series of short films commissioned by HP exploring the profound impact that printed photos have on people’s lives and the power they hold over our own histories and memories. The film unpacks the ways in which simple photographs can become a talisman for a life — or two lives.

“The physical parts [of a photo] are worth almost nothing, and so how can this material become a priceless object?” asks co-director Mason. “That’s the magic of what a photograph can be. It’s the personal attachment that a photograph embodies so well.”

The film sensitively tells the story of their arranged marriage to an audience perhaps unfamiliar with the traditions and institutions of south Asian culture.

Brought together by their families based on their similar upbringings and future goals to raise a family, Arvinder and Harbinder met face-to-face on a spring afternoon at Arvinder’s family home in Amritsar in northern India.

Nine days later, they were married.

Challenging stereotypes

“There can be a misconception of the term arranged marriage,” says Harbinder, who remains happily married to Arvinder. They live in Long Island, where they raised their two college-age children.  

The couple’s courtship began after Harbinder’s father placed a matrimonial ad in a publication catering to Indian expats in New York and Arvinder’s brother spotted it, but nobody ever told the couple they had to wed. Arvinder says she had no hesitations about agreeing to meet a young man her family had chosen for her, even though her parents, who she describes as educated and forward-thinking, had also offered the option of a non-arranged marriage. When she did meet Harbinder in person after seeing his picture, she had an intuition that the man standing before her would make a loving partner.

“I trusted my parents,” she says. “It had worked for my brother. I saw how happy both he and his wife were.”

While the majority of marriages in south Asia are still arranged by families or traditional matchmakers, it’s now common for singles to meet and get to know multiple candidates before making a final choice. Matrimonial websites abound, with photos, personality profiles, horoscopes, financial and medical information to help parents pick potential spouses for their children. Meanwhile, India is Tinder’s biggest market in Asia.

“It’s not always what people think and hear. It’s not always ‘you never meet until the day you’re married.’ Things have evolved with the times,” Harbinder says.

He and his wife don’t expect their own American-born children to choose arranged marriage over a Western-style romantic relationship, however. “We realize times and cultures have changed. We are there to help, guide and encourage them with their choices,” says Arvinder.

Touchstones of a life together

At the Singhs’ house in Long Island, the pair of photographs that helped change the course of the couple’s lives are stowed away for safekeeping, but are occasionally taken out for viewing and reminiscing.

Filmmaker Sarah Klein watched carefully as they studied the pictures again for the camera. “It was clear they have a really sweet and sentimental but also serious feeling about those photos,” she says. “They really both believe they are the most important objects they possess.”

“Almost 25 years,” Harbinder muses about the life they have shared. “We experienced all the ups and downs, but we kind of know each year as we grow older that the love gradually grows stronger. We build the love.”

“She's actually gotten more beautiful over the years,” says Harbinder as he studies his wife’s portrait today. As for himself? “A few more grays,” he jokes.

 

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