STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT
SOHAM GUPTA’S DARK PHOTOGRAPHS OF PEOPLE WALKING KOLKATA’S STREETS ARE HARROWING AND POIGNANT
SSoham Gupta’s portraits are not easy to see. Their narratives are stark—abuse, sexual harassment, homelessness, madness, hunger and even impending death. Gupta deftly chronicles Kolkata and its nocturnal wanderers. Now part of the exhibit at the 58th Venice Biennale, the portraits, titled Angst are all shot at night. They’re full of desertion and abandonment, of a harshness that lines the margins.
For Gupta, night is a sort of studio. “Night is when I feel really comfortable and also with darkness. With its promise of a sort of invisibility, it allows some people to haunt the streets, while others go home,” he says. Gupta’s brutal flash exposes those who would remain invisible if it weren’t for his camera.
The 30-year-old Gupta started
working on Angst in 2013. He has had panic attacks after hearing the harrowing stories of some people he has clicked, especially of one HIV-positive, schizophrenic girl who was been raped repeatedly. All of Gupta’s subjects are people he is drawn to emotionally. Though he has worked elsewhere, Gupta chooses to remain in Kolkata. “Calcutta is my muse. It never fails me.”
Despite the fact that his works are displayed beside greats in Venice, Gupta staunchly resists the ‘artist’ tag. “Photographer sounds better,” he says. Speaking about his signature style, Gupta says, “I prefer that my pictures give no context. The dark night helps me erase context altogether, with the flash singling out people. Why people on the margins? It’s because I’ve been on the margins my entire life.”
Gupta suffered chronic asthma as a child. Antibiotics and steroids did little to cure him of fragility. “To make matters worse, I was abused sexually by someone I trusted. These traumas from childhood led to the breakdown in college,” he says. After he dropped out of Jadavpur University in 2008, photography came to his aid. “The first work I did once I was emotionally better, was a portrait series on the homeless. Mentally disturbed people living a hellish existence,” he says. Even now, it’s the outcasts he first befriends. Seen walking with a camera at night, Gupta says it’s only the elitists who ask him if he is afraid.
Photographs from Gupta’s (far left) Angst series