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“A fly on the wall”: Interview with Sooni Taraporevala on Mumbai, VR and more

Sooni Taraporevala is an Indian photographer, screenwriter and director who has extensively documented her city, Bombay, and her Parsi community. This interview was originally published on Art Radar, now defunct, on 30 August 2017. 

“Sooni Taraporevala: Home in the City, Bombay 1976 – Mumbai 2016” is at the Whitworth in Manchester through early 2018, featuring 30 black and white photographs by Taraporevala spanning four decades. The exhibition is developed in partnership with Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts. Art Radar finds out more. 

Curated by Sunaparanta’s Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, this exhibition is only a small selection from the work of a photographer who has been, since the 1970s, diligently documenting the numerous and changing faces of the city she calls home. Sooni Taraporevala is also a renowned screenwriter and award-winning director. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2014, and her photographs have been exhibited at the Tate Modern, the National Gallery of Modern Art Delhi and Musee du Quai Branly, among others. 

In this interview, Taraporevala tells us more about her methodology, her favourite photograph from the ongoing exhibition at Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery, as well as her upcoming projects.

Congratulations on your first UK solo exhibition! How has the response been? Were there any particularly interesting reactions or observations from viewers? 

Thank you. The response has been better than I could have hoped for. The exhibition has got good notices and reviews in the press. When I did a Q&A at the Whitworth, there was a British gentleman who surprised me with his knowledge of the city. It turned out that he had visited [Bombay] many times over the years, so he was familiar with the city during all the different time spans in the photographs. 

Sooni Taraporevala, ‘The Boy and the Bay’, Mumbai 2015. Image courtesy the artist and Sunaparanta. © the artist.

Why were only black and white photos chosen for this exhibition? Do you have a preference for monochrome over colour? 

When I began photography, and for a considerable time after that, I was only shooting in B&W. Many years later, I met the legendary photographer Raghubir Singh – the master of colour photography. He persuaded me to start shooting in colour, but even when I did, I never stopped my B&W work. At those times, before digital, I would carry two Leica M6 cameras, one loaded with B&W Tri-Xfilm, the other with a colour transparency roll – either Kodachrome or Ektachrome. More recently, I bought a Leica Monochrome – a digital camera that only shoots B&W, with which the more recent photos were taken. 

I have no particular preference. I enjoy both. I used to love printing my own B&W prints in the darkroom. And there’s nothing quite like a perfectly exposed Kodachrome slide with the reds and greens jumping out at you. 

How would you say your work and focus has changed in the 40 years from 1976 to 2016? 

Funnily enough I don’t think much has changed either in my focus or in my work. I still look at the world in the same way, I shoot with the same favourite focal length lens (35mm), and the same subjects interest me. I guess I’m boring that way! 

If you had to select a favourite photograph from the exhibition, which one would it be? What is the story there? 

The Gateway of India seen from the Sea Lounge of the Taj Mahal Hotel. It was the first good photo I ever took all those years ago with my first camera, a Nikkormat, bought with my student earnings. For me, this photo evokes an era that has gone. 

32 years later, terrorists held the hotel hostage for five extremely bloody, brutal days. Now, of course, because of security, no windows can be left open to let the sunshine in. 

Sooni Taraporevala, ‘The Gateway of India from the Taj Mahal Hotel’, Bombay 1976. Image courtesy the artist and Sunaparanta. © the artist.

How is Bombay as a city – as a character – constructed in this exhibition? If someone is not familiar with the city, what were you hoping they would see? 

I chose to show the worlds within worlds that comprise this mega multi-faceted city I belong to, with all its economic and visual contrasts and its incredible diversity. It’s a personal view, a quirky view, with nothing to prove, no agenda – just a celebration of the city I love. 

The press release for this exhibition uses the terms “street style photographer” and “flaneur”. What is your process like when you are not shooting people you know? How do you see the relationship between photography and walking? 

I suppose the term ‘flaneur’ was used because I do like to saunter and I do observe society. Bombay/ Mumbai is a flaneur’s delight because there is just so much to see – life is lived in public and the incredible density of the city offers many opportunities for someone like me who loves photographing people. 

The reason I became the photographer I am is because I fell in love (along with millions of others) with the work of Henri Cartier Bresson. From him I took my cues. I wanted, and still want, to be a fly on the wall, unnoticed. If I am making a portrait, I naturally strike up a conversation with the person and ask if I can photograph them, but otherwise I try to be as invisible and as quick as I can. 

India is a street photographer’s dream location because most people love being photographed, and in fact you have to work hard to keep people you don’t want out of your frame. With strict privacy laws in the West, it’s slim pickings for street photographers there. How sad that in the land of Bresson and Brassai it can now be illegal to photograph anybody you don’t know. And photographing children you don’t know? Forget it. If I was in Paris I could end up in jail. I have photographed children extensively over the years, in various countries, and it’s safe to say I didn’t know most of them. A case in point: when I was in Manchester for the exhibition last month, my best friend Rashida, who has been living in Manchester for the past 20 years, took me around. Naturally I was with my camera and freely photographing as is my habit. She warned me to be careful – that things were different there – this was not India. 

Sooni Taraporevala, ‘Kamatipura’, Bombay 1987. Image courtesy the artist and Sunaparanta. © the artist.

You have extensively documented your own community, the Parsis. Did this, at any point, change the way you see the community (other than realising how invisible it had been)? Do you still continue to photograph Parsis to continue the narration? 

I was born and brought up in a Parsi family in a Parsi neighbourhood, and even after I returned from America, this was the milieu I lived in. So photographing Parsis did not throw up any surprises. I still continue, though not with the intense focus I used to earlier. I figure I’ve documented the community for so long, why give up now? 

You are a photographer, filmmaker and screenwriter. Which came first: photography or film?

Photography came first, then screenwriting, and then directing at the ripe old age of 50! 

You recently made a VR film about ballet. How different is the visualisation of (or visually thinking about) a VR film compared to the other media you have worked with? 

Very different, because there’s just no place to hide! There is no “behind the camera”. The camera sees everything in 360 degrees. You also can’t shoot close-ups and nobody can come within three feet of the camera all around. So those are the technical challenges you have to work with. The upside is that it’s wonderfully immersive in a way that 2D is not. 

What are you working on at the moment? Are there any exhibitions or films (or other projects) coming up soon? 

A lot actually! An expanded version of the show at the Whitworth will open at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, in October. The Whitworth has 30 photos and this one has 100. It will then travel to the place it originated from, Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi who is the Creative Director there has curated both the Whitworth show as well as this larger one. After Goa, it will travel to Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi. There will also be a book, Home in the City, published by Harper Collins for which Pico Iyer and Salman Rushdie have kindly written introductions. Meanwhile, my screenwriting continues and I’m hoping to make my next film.