When one talks about a journey, we usually start from one place and end at another. In the last 25 years I have made a journey that started and continues to be in the same place. While I have held stead-fast to who I was, the place has changed. And it is not just the name. I was born in Bombay and today I live in Mumbai.
It is a city whose map is linked to the map of my life.
The Beginning – taking the first steps in Photography
It took me a few months to collect enough money to buy my first SLR camera. And I did what seemed to be the first thing to do. I read the manual end-to-end. It dawned on me that the biggest challenge was to understand the play of light and expose correctly. The next was to get my composition right.
My salary was Rs 2,680 in 1987, and a film roll cost Rs 200. My mind was like a mental calculator constantly crunching numbers: skipping a movie with friends equals one roll of film, missing the picnic equals two…
I started to document my immediate environment. The streets where I grew up, the beach where I went as a child, the horse stables in the neighbourhood, the old age home down the lane, Mother Teresa’s Asha Daan, the market place, the temple at Mahalaxmi… I would go around shooting discreetly, swallowing my fear of walking Bombay streets with expensive equipment.
It was at this time that I also began the transition from taking just ‘good’ and ‘interesting’ photographs to perceiving the power of the medium of photography.
One day, Dom took me to meet Rex Baker, Director at the British Council. Dom gave a gratifying appraisal of my work as he introduced us and he told Rex that it would be a good idea to showcase a compilation of my Sunday Mid-day assignments at the British Council gallery. I suggested that I take new pictures of the city for next three months and combine them with my earlier unseen work for a show, rather than exhibit work that had already been published. They agreed and dates were set. I had four-and-a-half months to put up my first solo show.
My first show ‘Echoes from Bombay’ was held in 1992. Dom did not approve of fanfare and did not want to inaugurate the show or be the chief guest, so we had a low-key opening. The guest list read like the who’s who of Bombay’s culture club. The show was reviewed in several papers and I was also invited for an interview with Doordarshan, the only TV channel at the time.
Dom wanted me to work with him on a book. We spoke a lot about it, but it never happened. Sadly, he passed away while I was on tour. I will be forever indebted to him for his invaluable critique and advice, for caring enough to create this wide platform for a relatively unknown, young photographer.
From the little money we were able to save from not spending on lavish wedding, Arwa and I bought our first house in what was then a distant suburb of Bombay, Goregaon. That meant travelling by train to town every day. Every day, I would travel with my camera amid packed crowds. Often, I travelled in the luggage compartment, with the Dabbawallas, sometimes in between compartments, and on a few occasions on top of the compartments. I would play music with the bhajan singers and walk along the tracks and see the families with children living by them – an entire world revolved around the tracks.
The key lesson I learnt being a commuter in Bombay is the human capacity to adapt. If you can get used to commuting on Bombay’s trains, you can live in any part of the world! It was inevitable that my next project would be titled ‘Tracks – Bombay’s Lifeline’. I exhibited this show during the Kala Ghoda Festival.
Three years into marriage, when my wife was expecting our twin daughters, I was sent on an office assignment to Kamathipura, Bombay’s red light area. Early for the assignment, and due to be a father soon, I found myself drawn to the children in the area.
For six months I visited Kamathipura regularly – without my camera. I would walk the by lanes, interacting with the children, watching them play, sometimes joining them at their games. Familiar with my presence among the children some of the sex workers began calling me `Dadhi’ because of my beard. They assumed I was one of the many social workers operating in the area.
After six months, I took my camera to Kamathipura and gradually started documenting the lives of the children. This became the subject of my next show `Children of Kamathipura’. What struck me and moved me most while working on this story was that while most parents want their children home before dark, the children of Kamithipura had to stay out at night. Most of them would be on the streets and some would seek refuge at a nearby shelter run by Prerna.
These personal projects kept me going. Magazine work is usually remembered only as long as the issue is on the stands. I felt the need to do something more enduring.
Arwa and I were blessed with twin daughters, we named them Marziyah and Nabilah. And as fate would have it, they were born on 19 August, World Photography Day. It had to be a divine coincidence.
Years passed and close to my 40th birthday my relatives urged me to start preparing for the hereafter. Just as most of my other projects reflect my life-map, I began to work on`Faith’, to discover the concept of faith in different religions and regions. I travelled and documented man’s association with faith and discovered how each man expresses belief in his own way.
Faith awed me; some beliefs shocked me, a few moved me deeply. I remained a silent spectator, my camera simply documenting without making judgments.
One subject I always wanted to work on was Mumbai’s film industry. The film industry is so much a part of Mumbai. People simply can’t get enough of Bollywood. I wanted to be part of this world, even if fleetingly, and so began the `Silverscreen’ project. I could not work on this subject while working at India Today because it meant spending a lot of time on the sets. So I now headed to the film sets in the city.
The brief that I drew up for myself is that I would shoot candid images on the sets, on the periphery. I spent the longest time doing this project, almost four years. I became a `Still Dada’ and probably the only ‘unpaid’ person on the sets.
Silverscreen led me to ‘Beyond Silverscreen’, a look at the fascination Indians have for films. Once I started looking, I could find the evidence all around. There were movie traces in restaurants, on kites, in gyms, in rickshaws, screen-savers. This was ‘Silverscreen’ away from the sets.
Bombay and Mumbai
Twenty-five years of photography has taken me to almost every street, corner and crevice in the city. Photography has shown me Mumbai in all its myriad facets. I distinctly remember a day with an assignment at the Taj in the morning and another one at Deonar dumping ground in the afternoon. There could not be a more striking contrast of the city.
It is said that one has to be born here to like the city, but this is not true. I know many who have come here and made it their permanent home. The city is still a magnet, despite the costs and the crumbling infrastructure.
Mumbai is also a city of festivals and towering above them all, both literally and metaphorically, is Ganesh Chaturthi. What Durga Puja is for Calcutta, Ganesh is for Mumbai. My photographer friends from overseas often time their visits with the festival.
Mumbai was a much easier city to move about in earlier. You could walk around with a camera slung over your shoulder and no one would mind. The 1993 bomb blasts changed all that. The city’s growing traffic has led to a mushrooming of flyovers. These, along with the metro, have become a photographer’s nightmare. The city has lost 25 percent of its façade! Traffic bottle-necks make it so much harder to be on-time for assignments and the growing prominence of far-flung suburbs makes it harder to cope with multiple assignments.
So, this, in a nut-shell, is my twenty-five year journey as a photographer, and all my work during these years is a product of my own experience. It has been a wonderful, life-changing journey – a journey that has taught me to be discreet and friendly; to adapt to the environment; and, most importantly, to be patient. That is the only way you can capture truly candid moments. Everyone has a personal journey to share. Some prefer to talk about it, some would rather write. I choose to say it through my pictures.
Fawzan is a photojournalist, creative artist, teacher, and an organic farmer. A self taught photographer, key projects of his oeuvre has been widely exhibited and published both in India and abroad. With over 24 years of experience as a photo journalist his pictures have found space in publications like The New York Times, TIME, The London Telegraph, GEO, Gentleman Magazine – Italy, Epoca, Negocios – Brazil, South China Morning, Post, AP, and Asia Week.
He says he loves this city because “the city is full of surprises and that’s what thrills me no end.”
A product of St. Ignatius High School, he then went on to complete his graduation from K C College & a Post Graduate in Journalism from Bombay School of Journalism