“Street photography is like hunting; it takes intuition, speed and a loaded gun’: Pablo Bartholomew

IT’S IN walking, in the unexpected, the unknown, in the moment just around the corner. Street photography has always been a craft that has turned the ordinary into something magical. One of them is the photograph “Jain Nuns” by Ketaki Sheth, Walkeshwar Road (Bombay, 1989). Against the dark backdrop of a building are two figures in white, their identify masked by their covered heads, moving away from the attraction of parked cars. Photography allows you to interact with the environment as if you were there. Another such is Sooni Taraporevala’s photograph, “Women of Kamathipura” (Bombay, 1987). This well-known shot presents the uncertainty of the moment as it forces you to engage with the streetscape and the people in the frame.

‘Jain nuns’ by Ketaki Sheth, Walkeshwar Road, Bombay, 1989. ©Ketaki Sheth (Credit: Photo courtesy Ketaki Sheth and PHOTOINK)

These are part of the exhibition at Delhi’s Photoink gallery where 23 black and white photographs from the archives of Sheth, Pablo Barthelemy, Raghu Rai and Taraporevala present the poetry of street photography. Hosted by Devika Daulet-Singh, “The Passerby,” which ends June 26, harkens back to simpler times. “A time,” reads the gallery note, “when permission and consent were not negotiated in writing and the photographer could photograph with the tacit agreement of passers-by.”

‘Women of Kamathipura’ by Sooni Taraporevala, Bombay, 1987. ©Sooni Taraporevala (Credit: Photo courtesy of Sooni Taraporevala and PHOTOINK)

From 1970 to 2000, called the golden period of photography, these images capture everyday life on city streets, from posing eunuchs to pushing carts, from sleeping men to horses and carriages. In this interview, 66-year-old Delhi-based Bartholomew discusses how street photography has changed, its performance and drama, and why it requires a loaded gun.


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How is street photography different today from the 70s and 80s?

These days it’s just a button you press to get an image. At the time, it was a process of time. You take a photo, you have to complete the role and you process it. Sometimes, if you’re in the field, you get all the reels and go back to the studio, watch them and edit them, which can sometimes take months. In 1989, when I was in the Northeast exploring the Naga tribes, it took me over two months to take the photos and come back to process them.

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These days, it’s something you can do with your eyes closed. Just one click and you’re done! You would have an image without having any knowledge of the mechanism behind the image.

Suppose you want a certain effect, you want to put something out of focus, or you want to bring everything into focus, how would you do it? You had to learn the technique. These days, you don’t have to. This is the main difference between photography then and now.

With an analog camera, how would you know you’ve captured the moment?

To look at Raghu‘s photograph, ‘Two Men’ (Old Delhi, 1970). If it was even a millisecond late, the picture would have been different. The cane of the old man in the background is said to have been blocked by the man in the foreground. And the image will not be what it is now. This shows that split seconds matter and can change the representation of a photograph. It’s like hunting. It takes intuition and speed, and a loaded weapon, of course!

‘Two men’ by Raghu Rai, Old Delhi, 1970. ©Raghu Rai (Credit: Photo courtesy of Raghu Rai and PHOTOINK)

Do you see a difference in people’s attitude in front of the camera now?

The difference is that everyone knows what a mobile is now and how it clicks images. People are posing, smiling, making funny faces, waving. At that time, people weren’t shy or awkward, they were more natural and outspoken. They didn’t even notice it, sometimes, thanks to our little portable cameras.

So you were like a spy on the street?

I wouldn’t say ‘a spy’, but ‘a fly on the wall’ is more like that. What were the challenges of street photography then? There were these myths about photography. When I was in China in 1987, they didn’t want to be photographed, there was this overriding fear that the camera would take your soul away.

Tell us about your photograph “The Eunuchs Pose” (Grant Road, Bombay, 1976). How did you approach them?

‘The Eunuchs Pose’ by Pablo Bartholomew, Grant Road, Bombay, 1976. ©Pablo Bartholomew (Photo courtesy of Pablo Bartholomew and PHOTOINK)

There are different ways. One is to engage with the subject, the other is to observe. Eunuchs, anyway, have a interesting element. They make eye contact with you; they want money from you. So there’s this whole element of drama and performance in there.

Then there are others like the ‘Parsi beggars’, Fort (Bombay, 1976). When I posted the photo online, people were shocked: “Oh, how can there be Parsi beggars?”. God knows what the story is behind it all, but they were right there on the street. When they saw me taking a picture they hid their faces because at that time the Parsi population was so small that if it was published they would be recognized. It is all this dissimulation and this secrecy that make up the image.

Soror Shaiza is an intern at the Indian Express

Stewart C. Hartline