Images used to travel before most people did. The pandemic has put the world of events and tourism upside-down. Photographers used to travel to provide images of the world for us who stayed at home. Now only a few types of images circulate. In the current context local photographers are filling this gap of “Corona-emptiness” though their photos are rarely seen in the news. Tourists used to flood remarkable places to take millions of selfies and pictures of buildings and crowded streets. But without events and due to travel restrictions professionals and tourists have left the field of photography to locals like Champak Sharma and their particular view.
Mr. Sharma, where do you live and how do you manage time between a full-time job and your passion?
Firstly, I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share my stories. I was born in the beautiful state of Assam, India. I am currently based out of Kolkata, West Bengal, employed with a bank and working in the trade finance area. Am doing fine so far by God’s grace. News is actually not so good out here. I hear ambulances moving around every 5-10 mins. But life has to go on. No lockdown yet here in my state.
Work schedules are intense, we all at times need to balance extended work hours of a full-time job and passion close to our hearts. I suppose growing up in the vibrant and pluricultural setting of India, street photography naturally evolved as a means of storytelling – a glimpse into the lives often unscripted, yet holding a story of their own. The joy and anticipation of discovery of those sudden random frames which spring up out of nowhere–the feeling is a driving force in itself.
So, on workdays, my photography greatly relies on my way to and from office. Ensuring that I travel on wheels half of the way and then cover the rest of the distance on foot – this has helped a lot in capturing the details of day-to-day life around these streets I walk along, not to forget the added benefit of burning a few calories! I like keeping the images raw, so it cut shorts the time required for post-processing of the photographs. On weekends, it is mostly myself and my friends going for photography expeditions to locations which could be covered during day trips.
And of course, in pre-Covid times, planning for trips to different destinations was part of my schedule. Presently, these trips are limited to visits to my hometown and ancestral home, and have brought an opportunity to re-discover their mysteries through the lens.
How do you describe the kind of photography you do?
My interest in photography started as a child when my dad had brought home a Konica film camera. As a super-active child, I used to run around the house and surrounding garden capturing everyday things which I felt should be framed forever. Films were of course expensive, and those clicks were limited! I suppose that interest never really left me. Even now, I am always intrigued by people and events happening around me. The normal human tendency is to ignore common actions of our day-to-day lives, but when moments are captured frames, these very events have so much to say - a story to narrate. Along with the street genre, I also love to explore the settings of landscapes and architectural photography.
Did you hear the term “Corona-emptiness” related to photography before?
My idea of “Corona emptiness” when it comes to photography is like contemporary dance – elegant, fine art and with a story. The places which attracted crowds in huge numbers now stand in emptiness, and reveal a beauty which had never been explored before. Specifically, in a country like India, with an approximate density of 460 people per square kilometre, even non-touristy destinations and regular places now stand reflecting a whole new serene and calm beauty about them.
A trip planned last year to Keukenhof (for the famed Tulip garden in the Netherlands) had to be dropped due to the Covid situation. It was a vision in itself imagining the multi-hued tulips, like a sea of colours, dancing to the spring breeze, hidden from the eyes of the people. Like a fairyland tucked away in secret!
Here, I have been fortunate enough that even during the full-fledged lockdown, I could photograph a number of places as I continued to commute to my workplace - the banking sector being categorized under ‘essential services’ and hence offices were functional. The lockdown period introduced me to the concept of “Corona-emptiness” and I would not deny that although a bit risky, it did open up a new window for me when it comes to photography. It has been a new realisation to witness the beauty of the silent lanes, architecture which earlier went unnoticed, may be a small flower peeping out of a crack upon an old wall – which may have gone unobserved in the chaos of a busy city.
Most people used to take selfies with friends at their favourite places. What kind of pictures take your friends now?
The number of selfies still remains the same, the difference being the shift in locations – from their favourite cafes to their living room, from the beach to their private pools, from the hills to the open terraces.
I have also noticed a steep rise in the number of selfies and photographs of people with their pets, gardens and self-cooked delicacies. In fact, with additional free time available now with the employed group, people are rediscovering many dormant talents and investing their time in the production of creative contents.
The most often depicted animals online are cats, dogs and birds. In the ongoing situation, inflation of these images could be expected. Many people got pets recently and spend more time on their pets now. What do you observe in your area regarding these rather private everyday images?
Very pertinent and rightly said about the pet images trend! In work-from-home settings, people are spending time with their pets like never before, and their friends in earlier selfies have been replaced by adorable pets. It is a normal human tendency to long for company, and I know friends who have adopted animals and birds during the pandemic. Being an animal lover myself, I personally quite enjoy going through the images and videos shared by them. In fact, I myself raised a sparrow hatchling whom I had found outside my office last December (amazingly, a second sparrow baby I had found since 2019!) - and my Instagram and Facebook accounts were flooded with her videos and images! We also see a surge in the number of images and videos of home-made delicacies and art crafts, in-door sports including yoga.
People spend more time at their houses and animals have entered urban areas looking for the food and leftovers people used to leave. What about urban wildlife in your photography?
Here, in Indian cities, entry of wildlife and animals in search of food is not much prevalent as most cities are located quite away from the forest areas. There are certain areas though where leopards stray into human habitats and wild elephants enter villages in search of food. But these incidents occur irrespective of the lockdown impact, mostly because of loss of their natural habitat due to occurrences like floods or human encroachment. In Assam, there have been instances of rhinos and elephants entering villages and walking onto highways. I haven’t had the opportunity yet to capture any such moment. But yes, with the world slowing down and lowering the level of travel and transportation, it seems many urban areas are witnessing a growing population of birds and animals.
Photographers rarely meet at events now. But online platforms, groups, forums and magazines are the current networking platform. What platforms, groups or forums did you join recently and what was the topic?
To be honest, we really miss attending the exhibitions and workshops. It is a wonderful feeling to meet in person and exchange thoughts. However, online interactions have also enabled us to reach out to people globally. There are so many talented professionals and amateurs out there, connecting with them and following them on online platforms -especially on social media, has kept my learning curve moving forward. Am a fan of Steve McCurry’s work, and follow his work very closely. Few other names are Raghu Rai, Sarah Hickson, Michael Yamashita, Dayanita Singh whose work has inspired me a lot. A number of photography magazines and their online forums have been bringing in amazing talents too. I also feel lucky to have many friends, seniors and colleagues who share the same passion for photography and our groups and forums are undeniably a source of encouragement.
Investing in photography equipment in the rapidly upgrading environment is hard since all sorts of image formats and online uses have their particular demand. How is your current technical set-up and how do you wish it to be?
This might be one of the most difficult decisions when it comes to photography – how much should one invest, especially when you are not expecting a professional earning from it. As it happened for me, I had started with a point-and-shoot digital camera and upgraded to a basic entry-level DSLR soon. I am engaged to the same equipment since then for nearly a decade now (sounds really long!), with the only additions being a wide-angle lens and a tripod to the family. For my routine street photography requirement, they have been instrumental. Additionally, at times, I rely heavily on my iPhone as well.
For post-processing requirements, Photoshop and a few specific applications on phones are my preferred choices. I hope to get more involved professionally with photography and a wish is to get a set of the latest equipment in the field. I enjoy sharing the stories from my experiences and writing down articles about the travels – together with the visual descriptions brought along by my photographs. Trust I would definitely be one happily blissful soul if I can achieve that as a full-time activity!