Picking the Poor for Pictures

Rahul Jayaram teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities
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The images chronicle Mumbai’s underclass—migrants who pour into the city’s entrails from various parts of Maharashtra and other states

If it’s odd for a book of photographs to have poetry, it’s odder for a coffee-table book to come alive through its words. Cameraman David de Souza’s coffee-table book, Itinerants—Mumbai’s Nomads, is a paradox between covers.

The book has images chronicling Mumbai’s underclass—migrants who pour into the city’s entrails from various parts of Maharashtra and other states. But its characters are almost entirely—and deliberately—plucked out of their social context: Mumbai’s mean streets. Its people include kadak laxmis (tribal dancers who make a living whipping themselves), gas cylinder suppliers, old-time water-wallahs, sugarcane sellers and balloon vendors, mainly captured inside de Souza’s studio.

At first glance, the book yearns for greater action: its primary material is mobile; de Souza’s handling makes them static. These render the images as portraits in contradiction. For a man who believes his “job in the world is as a mere conduit, allowing whatever it is that flows to flow unimpeded”, the photos seem his imposition on the people he attempts to capture. Why did de Souza take them off the street?

“I wanted to engage with the person, and not what s/he does for a living. I wanted to distinguish the man from the work, so that the inner personality comes out,” he says. The photos are flat, and people end up forming stances. Worse, they stall a full-scale engagement between subject and viewer. Are you trying to bring poverty onto the coffee table? I ask. David de Souza guffaws. “I don’t find these people unhappy. And let’s make it clear, these people are not poor, they’re not begging,” he says.

Though the images are divested of the social drama of street Mumbai, a crank about the book is Charmayne’s verse. The poetry goes where the photos don’t. The words, ironically, summon images which evoke and establish the relationship with the book’s people. Charmayne, who interacted with nearly all these people, farms those experiences into striking, snappy, confessional verse. Funny that words help lift a book, where the images should.