City of Photos

City of Photos explores the little known ethos of neighbourhood photo studios in Indian cities, discovering entire imaginary worlds in the smallest of spaces. Tiny, shabby studios that appear stuck in a time warp turn out to be places throbbing with energy.

As full of surprises as the people who frequent these studios are the backdrops they enjoy posing against and the props they choose. These afford fascinating glimpses into individual fantasies and popular tastes.

Yet beneath the fun and games runs an undercurrent of foreboding. Not everyone enjoys being photographed; not every backdrop is beautiful; not all photos are taken on happy occasions.

The cities in which these stories unfold themselves become backdrops, their gritty urban reality a counterpoint to the photo palaces. Desires, memories and stories, all so deeply linked to the photographic experience, come together as part of a personal journey into the city of photos.

About the Director
Alumni of Jamia Mass communication Research Centre, New Delhi and FTII, Pune, Nishtha Jain lives and works in her adopted city Mumbai.

From her first film City of Photos in 2004 to Gulabi Gang in 2012, she has been exploring the human condition in its myriad states. Politics of image-making and nature of memory; Complexities of social hierarchies and middle class sense of entitlement and privilege; Women’s movements and social change; Ethical implications of documentary filmmaking – these are some of the themes she has explored through her films. In her efforts to bring back documentray to the people, she makes sure that her muti-layered work is also highly accessible to people across cultures, classes and age groups.

Her films have been shown extensively in international film festivals and occasionally in art exhibitions. They have won several prestigious awards, been broadcast on international TV networks and are regularly shown in educational institutions in India and abroad.

Director’s Note
The film attempts to capture through posed photographs the vibrant, uncertain, complex and often desperate face of contemporary India. These photographs taken in small neighbourhood studios take us into an intriguing world of desire and fantasy.

This world is what I have called the City of Photos, a subterranean world that underlies our own. In this city we can travel freely through time, space and different realities, as photographs themselves do exactly that when they take us back in time or serve to express our fantasies. I draw upon this inherent quality to make inferences, and to speculate about what lies beneath and beyond the visible frame and, eventually, within ourselves.

My photo journey begins in Calcutta. Photos keep drawing us into the city, and the city, full of memories and nostalgia, nudges us back into the world of photos. We discover a place full of shifting time zones, where the past is inextricably intertwined with the present. In the city of Ahmedabad, a different spirit prevails. We share in the everyday happenings at a photo studio that lies, geographically and emotionally, at the heart of the Muslim community in an economically backward area of the city.

It is, paradoxically, the theme of absence that unites the wide variety of   photographic expressions in the film. Everywhere, absences feed the fantasy machine—the absence of the beloved, the absence of eyes on a dead man, the absence of resources that could allow us to travel to far off places or live in beautiful homes, the absence of greenery in the urban landscape, and even—from the beginnings of photography to the present—the absence of choice in facing the lens. It is in these implicit areas of longing and freedom that the political impinges on the personal.

City of Photos moves through the dualities characteristic of photography: Are they real, or illusory? Do they immortalise, or—capturing, as they do, fleeting moments of life—are they grim reminders of mortality?

The filmmaker takes on many roles—from an old woman remembering her visits to a photo studio as a child, to an old man talking about his response to matrimonial picture of his wife when he was nineteen.  The narration idiomatically shifts between the “you” and the “I” collapsing the distance between self and other, enabling individual photographic experiences to enter the space of collective memory and desire.