Photo Essay: Mumbai Sleeping

February 7, 2010 2:46 pm by
View Slideshow

It’s something a lot of us take for granted – a good night’s sleep in a safe and secure environment. When documentary filmmaker Dhruv Dhawan set out to capture people sleeping on the street, he knew he was dealing with sensitive subject matter. “Although these pictures look beautiful, the reality of them is not,” Dhawan says. “A good night’s sleep is a universal human need and the reason I have called this project, ‘Mumbai: The city that never sleeps’ is because these people cannot get a good night’s sleep with trucks running by, bright lights in their face, rats gnawing at their feet and weirdos taking pictures of them.”

Dhawan hopes to eventually create a fund that will supply free bedding to the city’s poor. Given the provocative nature of the series, Dhawan sat down to explain his work. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about how you took these pictures.
I started coming to Mumbai in the summer of 2009 to begin work on some film projects here. As I walked around at night I started noticing some very interesting positions and ways in which people sleep. I also noticed that the street dogs and the homeless have a very strong connection where they always sleep together in the same spots. But what really caught my eye was the way in which the taxi drivers sleep – it just blew me away and that was the cue for me to start this project.

Did you ever feel you were invading their privacy? Did anyone ever wake up in the middle of a shot?
Yes, I feel that every photograph I take of someone sleeping is an invasion of their privacy because it is without their consent and they are unaware of it.  Furthermore, it is a potential threat to a human being when a stranger gets so close to them when they are sleeping.

Even though it is an invasion of privacy I do not feel too guilty about what I am doing because I know my intentions, and furthermore, on the streets of India, the boundaries between private space and public space don’t really exist. You can be in your car and some of the same people I photographed will stick their hands in through your window asking for money and they won’t let you go till the traffic light turns green.

But luckily, no one has ever woken up so far, and that’s because I have learnt to be very quiet and careful – my biggest fear is someone waking up and the feeling of guilt and shame I would experience. So I wear rubber crocs, don’t carry any change in pockets, mobile phone on silent, I never use a flash and I also wait for some traffic or ambient sound to occur before I release the shutter.

However other people around have seen me taking pictures of people in their community and have confronted me. At this point I just act humble and honest and tell them why I am taking these pics. Sometimes they have asked me to leave but more often they are ok with it and some even offer to pose for photographs.

But after the David Headley debacle things have changed a lot for a guy carrying a camera around at 3am. People are now very suspicious around South Bombay and since December 2009 I have been pulled into a gulley and made to meet the local don to explain what I was doing (he turned out to be a nice guy). I had another guy stick his fingernail into my lovely 50mm lens and I had one guy report me to the cops. But I was always out of trouble as fast as I got into it. Now when I am out, the cops recognise me and offer to drop me back to my apartment.

Some of these images are so beautifully lit and shot they look like paintings. Did you deliberately frame and shoot them that way? Were any of the shots retouched?
As a filmmaker I am very particular about framing but even when I do photography (which is just a hobby) I only use fixed lenses (as opposed to zooms)  so I have to move around a lot to get the frames I want. The shots of the young children sleeping for example, were taken with my chin on the pavement.

Regarding the colours, I don’t use a flash because I love using ambient and available light, and street light can be fun to work with because it is very warm. A flash (besides being the perfect tool to wake a sleeping giant) is very cold and unnatural because the human eye does not see the world with the same colour and intensity light of a flash.

I never retouch or Photoshop my images. I don’t even know how to use Photoshop. But I do alter the saturation, contrast and colour temperature with iPhoto to balance out the warm and highly saturated photographs I end up with when shooting at slow shutter speeds.

There’s something incredibly vulnerable about sleeping people, especially children. Did you ever find yourself backing away from taking a picture?
A few times, I have seen babies sleeping almost completely nude and while it could make a very poetic photograph, that just feels wrong and I walk away from the entire scene because I do not want anyone to see me with a camera around a sleeping naked child.

Another time I saw this guy sleeping with his hand in his pants and the PricewaterhouseCoopers building in the background. I clicked off one shot and then realised his hand was moving. That made me back off pretty fast.

There’s a thin line between being a voyeur and a photographer—did you ever feel those lines were crossed here?
Very good question but who draws that line? The text book definition of voyeurism is to gain pleasure from watching someone. When I go out at night to take these photographs the people are merely a technical/creative challenge—to frame, expose and focus within 2 minutes and then get the hell out of there before someone wakes up. I have no time to be voyeuristic and nor do I have any intention to take a photograph and then watch the person sleep.

Dhruv Dhawan is a Dubai-based documentary filmmaker whose 2005 film From Dust, shot in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami premiered to wide acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. He has also shot documentaries for international producers including one on the Indian fashion industry and another on autism.