It is five in the evening, and the air in the room is heavy. With the windows covered by sheets of newspaper to keep out the dust and fumes of Delhi’s traffic, the only illumination is that of a tubelight which flickers to the plip-plop beat of a leaky tap in a toilet next door. This is the office of the Delhi Police’s crime team for the city’s south district.
Constable Girdhar Singh ambles in. As he bends forward to take off his black sandals and wipe his feet with a handkerchief, the buttons of his sea-green shirt struggle to stay together over his belly protruding above his loose grey trousers. He is not in uniform, but is here to report to his boss, a sub-inspector who has just picked up a blaring walkie-talkie handset reporting a suicide in Sarojini Nagar. “It has been a long day. All the hospital work has tired me out,” Singh tells the sub-inspector, who, unmoved, informs him of his next assignment for the day—the suicide.
What Singh wants right now is to grab some sleep, but the 46-year-old plonks himself on an iron bed and calls for some chai with extra sugar and a small packet of biscuits. “I have been out on duty since ten in the morning,” he tells me, “I had taken some evidence at AIIMS the day before, and had to mark and submit it to the investigating officers of the case.”
Singh may not be in uniform, but the black rectangular bag that he gently places on the table next to him hints at the nature of his work. He is one of the 50-odd constables who work as photographers for the Delhi Police. His job is to aid police investigations by clicking what he calls ‘evidence’ at scenes of crime. On average, he claims, he attends five to seven calls a day. Each of the 10 crime teams of the Delhi Police has three or four photographers who work on shifts. Of this particular district’s four police photographers, Singh is the only one on duty today.
It demands a special skill set. Just last month, the police was censured by Additional Sessions Court Judge Surinder S Rathi, who remarked that the crime team’s photographers did not know how to take photographs from correct angles. The judge, while acquitting six people in a 2007 murder case, lamented the poor quality of the five photographs submitted as evidence. None showed the actual crime scene or nature of the victim’s injuries, he complained, ordering the Delhi Police to fix its photography resources.
Singh’s manner does little to help counter the judge’s observation. He seems clumsy, casual and uninterested. For a man on the job since 1991, he does not have much to say about his work.
No breakthroughs or surprise findings that changed the course of investigations. No stories of sleuthing around to collect evidence. “We go on calls, click photos, send them for processing, and then present them in court in person,”
he says, sipping his sugary tea, “That’s how we work.” Prod a little, and he remembers one case where he had taken images of broken bangles, left unnoticed by the investigating officer, next to a corpse. It helped establish signs of a violent struggle between the deceased and the accused.
Originally from a family of farmers in Bharatpur, Rajasthan, Singh joined the police in 1990. “My family wanted me to be of some use to the country,” he recounts, “Many of my village were either in the Army or police, so I joined the police.” But barely a year into the job, he started losing interest. “My elders also taught me not to hurt anyone or indulge in unlawful activities like bribery. I was clearly not cut out for the regular police job, and needed something less stressful,” he says cheekily. Photography was perfect.
The Delhi Police usually invites applications from constables ‘interested’ in photography. After a written entrance test, applicants are trained at a training centre in Delhi’s Kamla Market for six months and then put on a three-month test stint. A final exam is conducted before recruitments are finalised. Of course, photography is just an add-on skill required of them. They are primarily cops. By official designation, Singh is not a photographer, but a constable of the police’s third battalion. Much to his irritation, he is often transferred from one district to another, put on court or police station duty. “How do I concentrate on my work if I don’t know where the next transfer will be? Besides, I am a peace-loving person and would rather not indulge in roughing or beating up people,” says Singh, who is often left
disturbed by the gruesome images he has to take. “We sometimes see the worst of humankind. I have to read the Ramayana every day. It keeps my mind from being affected by such images.” By now, he is already 45 minutes late for his Sarojini Nagar assignment.
At times when Delhi Police photographers are on leave, caught in traffic, or off on extended tea breaks, 33-year-old Rajesh Tyagi steps in. A private photographer who operates from a tiny studio in South Delhi’s Lado Sarai village and takes wedding snaps and the like, he helps as many as 12 of Delhi’s 165 police stations with photographic ‘evidence’.
Tyagi came handy when the police found a red bike in Saket that looked like one allegedly used by suspects of the recent bomb attack on an Israeli diplomat in Delhi. “There must have been a serious dearth of photographers that night, as I was travelling and could turn up to take pictures only in the morning. The forensic department reached out for me and used my photos,” he boasts.
On the job for about five years now, Tyagi was introduced to it by a relative in the police. Having done a brief stint as a photographer for the Indian Army, he was pleased to sign up. “Working with the police has its own perks,” he says, “You make contacts and there is a certain thrill to the job.” He would never join the force, though, since he retains the right to refuse assignments and earns a lot more as a freelancer. “I usually turn down demolition and crime shoots in Lado Sarai, as I know everyone around and it gets too personal.” And while a police photographer draws a monthly salary of Rs 20,000-35,000, Tyagi sells photo packages to the police’s crime team at Rs 500 per scene (up to five pictures) and Rs 2,500 for four hours of video footage. This is far less than what he charges for private events, he claims.
Tyagi is better equipped than his police counterparts too. He uses a digital Canon for his shoots, even as Singh and his colleagues struggle with archaic film cameras, shoddy film rolls and faulty batteries. Only photographers of the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch and Special Cell have been provided digital cameras; the rest, who cover some of the city’s most gruesome crimes, must make do with clunky old contraptions. For long, Indian courts have accepted only negatives as evidence, given that digital photos can be tampered with, though some judges do accept digital prints now.
“I usually refuse to do a shoot if negatives are required,” says Tyagi, “Film roles are extremely expensive and difficult to find these days, and the cost increases unnecessarily as developing each negative can cost up to Rs 10-15.” Black-and-white shots for forensic experts can cost up to Rs 25-30 per print.
A visit to the police photography centre in Kamla Market explains the gap between Singh’s and Tyagi’s output. One of the trainers at the centre is Sub-inspector Ramesh Chand. Not much has changed around here since he himself was trained in photography way back in 1977. Currently supervising a batch of ten trainee constables, Chand says that the force has not been able to keep up with the technology and resources needed to deliver top-notch quality.
This centre also functions as the Delhi Police’s processing studio. Negatives from all 10 districts arrive here, a lab technician develops them, and then the pictures are sent back to the district office for photographers to file them. But the centre uses obsolete photo-printing machines for which spare parts often need to be obtained from scrap shops. Small things like film rolls are also in short supply. “We needed about 135 rolls, as our department was competing in an inter-state competition in Nasik,” says Chand, recalling a recent crunch, “I had to go to every shop in Chandni Chowk, collecting rolls one-by-one.” (The Delhi Police finished fourth in the contest.)
The centre holds refresher courses every six months, but, as Singh hints, these mainly address issues like camera repairs and faulty batteries. “Besides,” says Chand, “we spend more time shooting at police functions and processing photos for our brochures and newsletters.” In the second week of March alone, the police had nine different events that needed pictures taken.
In the south district office with the flickering tubelight, Singh downs his last sip of tea, and picks up his tattered camera bag. “The judge may have been angry with our pictures, but we do our best. Sometimes, circumstances are such that mistakes happen,” he says, as he sets off on his latest assignment. The suicide report was of a young girl who’d hanged herself. “That’s why the Ramayana keeps me going. We all need it.”