Life on the Lens

Photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri had always wondered why almost no one he knew has ever been happy with the way they look in their own passport photographs. Then he decided to capture the various mood of the commuters on local trains in Mumbai. He spoke to The Thumb Print on the many stories a photograph can tell.

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Can you tell us what made you do the series on ‘The Commuters’?

I am not sure if there is one single trigger that set off the idea for “The Commuters”.

I had been travelling around Cambodia with my friend, the writer, Jerry Pinto and our usual group of 4 and, in Phnom Penh one day, we visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum or what is popularly known as S-21. This building used to be the prison and interrogation center run by the Khmer Rouge during their reign in the 1970s. Room after room here was lined with black and white mug-shots of the people who they tortured and then killed on those premises. These were haunting portraits given their context. Just a few days before that we were walking through the ruins of the temples of Angkor and admiring the peaks that civilization had reached. And here we were witnessing the depths to which that same people had fallen to. The contrast was staggering and stunned us and those portraits made a deep impact on me that day. Before that day I had never taken mug-shots very seriously though I had always wondered why almost no one I know has ever been happy with the way they look in their own passport photographs.

Some months later I happened to purchase Lee Freidlander’s “At Work”, a delightful book which got me thinking about that other seminal work by Sebastio Salgado called “Workers”. Both photographers were looking at a similar theme though very different aspects and had markedly different approaches. In Salgado’s work you see the visual drama of hard manual labour, the sweat and the toil, the strife and protests whereas Freidlander’s is a more quirky take on mostly the white-collar types. There’s a delightful series of pictures in “At Work” capturing the near blank expressions on people’s faces as they stare at their computer screens. These two books got me thinking about the nature of “work”.

These different strains of thought very often mixed with conversations I’d overhear during my commute to office, adding to the ferment, eventually planting the seed of the idea in my head. Mumbai work ethic always enjoyed a legendary reputation and I found myself thinking about how this could be represented photographically. Once that basic thought took grip I found myself grappling with the problem of approach and then literally, one day, out of the blue it struck me, as I waited at Thane for my train to depart, that I was sitting surrounded by the very subjects I was hoping to photograph.

At this time I was also struggling to fine-tune another idea where I considered using the mug-shots but that being a far more complex idea this became a way of testing out whether a large set of, primarily, mug-shot portraits could hold the interest of the viewer. So, in a way, “The Commuters” really started out as an experiment.

 

Can you describe some ‘commuters’ who left an imprint on you?

The face that will stay with me, for long, very long, is that man with the hairy ears sitting against a wall with a graffiti saying “Massage Boy” and a mobile number scrawled underneath it. On the Facebook page of “The Commuters” he has been quite a hit with the ladies! Many people came into the gallery and were disappointed that his picture wasn’t part of the show. He’s there in the limited edition book that was published though.

Then there was also this gentleman with his umbrella. He must have been about 60, I assume. He wasn’t very tall and his mannerisms were rather stiff and he had 3 or 4 rings on the fingers of his hands. I had spotted him on the platform as we waited for the train to arrive. I recollect thinking that it would be wonderful if he happened to sit in front of me because then I could photograph him. I remember he kept getting many calls on his phone and he wouldn’t pick up immediately but would only after studying the number carefully and then decide whether he wanted to speak. In fact, the picture I made of him is during one such situation and just before the train entered Mulund station. That was lucky because we both were occupying the aisle seat and soon the crowds blocked my view of him. It happens to be one of my favourite pictures from this project. It was also the first time I broke the rule of shooting only mug-shots!

Another face I remember very vividly is of a young man with thinning hair and smooth skin. He must have been in his mid-30s and didn’t have much facial hair and a very thin growth for a moustache. But what I remember about him are the shape of his ears and his near non-existent chin. I remember thinking of him as a character right out of James Cameron’s “Avatar”.

 

How do you set on your trips to meet your commuters? Please describe a regular day?

One of the things I decided was that since I was as much a part of the population I was photographing – people who every day traveled by the train to work like me, I too, like most regulars would set a routine and try and not make much deviations from it. So, most mornings I would board the same train – the 10.03 Thane local and travel to VT or Byculla as per my schedule for the day. I would board the train and find myself a place to sit. I had set some “rules” because this was a game that I would play with myself each day and games need rules. Some days there would already be someone sitting across me while at other times someone would come and occupy the seat in front after a few minutes. But once I got a seat, the “rule” demanded that I couldn’t change my seat even though there was a more “interesting” face in another corner of the compartment. Most days I had just one subject but there were days when a passenger vacated the seat next to mine and then, as in the normal course of a commute, you may be requested to push in and occupy the next seat. If I choose to do that (it’s a matter of choice for most commuters) then I would have a new subject for the rest of the journey. This is how it continued for almost a year and a half.

 

Do you take permission from your subjects? Do they know that you are clicking them?

In the case of “The Commuters”, no, I never asked anyone for permission. You see, I was working with a very small point-and-shoot camera – the Canon G-10 at first and then later the Canon G-11. They are both very unobtrusive and not the kind of camera many would take seriously. Nowadays everyone is armed with some gadget or the other I had a small camera. The cameras are compact but conceal a very sophisticated technology. I have been a photographer for close to two decades now and have developed methodologies about how to work quick and fast without disturbing the basic nature of the situation. And so, I would sit there fiddling with the camera, making innocuous movements and all along I would have the subject in my peripheral vision and very quickly make a few shots by looking at the LCD screen. I had also during the first couple of weeks figured out the kind of exposures that different lighting conditions required, for instance, I would generally be able to work with exposures of 1/200th of a second and f/3.5 at 400 ISO if I had a window seat while the train was running and this generally would fall drastically to about 1/6th or 1/8th of a second when we entered a station. There were obviously exceptions and variations to these but they were all worked out with time. About whether people knew if I was shooting, well, I’m sure many did figure that out. You see, I was also very open in my actions. As you can see from the compositions they are all shot at eye level and so there was no chance of concealing the camera. In many of the pictures you will see the subject looking straight into the camera. Many a times the passenger sitting next to me would peer over my shoulder or look from the corner of their eyes at the image on the LCD screen. After a while they would get back to whatever they were doing.

 

You are also said to be working on Mumbai’s working class. Can you tell us more?

I think this is a misunderstanding that was caused during an earlier interview given during “The Commuters” show where “working people” was inaccurately quoted as “working class”. And that kept getting repeated in subsequent interviews adding to the confusion. I am not working on this to set the record straight.

 

Are your works Mumbai-centric? Did you ever try to venture out to other parts of India like the Northeast for instance?

Yes, my works have largely been Mumbai-centric and that has to do with the fact that this is a city that I have grown up in and so this is a city that I understand. I believe our world throws up signals all the time and it is up to us to be able to read them intelligently and make sense of them by joining the dots depending on our life experiences and how much value we attach to these and eventually give our ideas interesting shape. I feel I would not be able to read the signals in other environments as well as I would be in Mumbai unless I have long-term engagement in the way I had with a place like Amadpur, my ancestral village in West Bengal, where I worked continuously for 12 years to understand the milieu and create a portrait of a tiny village in Bengal.

I am now, however, giving serious thought to developing ideas outside of Mumbai primarily in Kolkata a city that I have slowly started to love and that I think may be the first step to developing an understanding. Superficiality doesn’t interest me and that is also being dishonest with your viewer / reader.