In December 2013, the India Today magazine cover went viral. It was just about all that anyone following news, publishing and photography would see on their Facebook and Twitter timelines. A dishevelled man in a plain white T-shirt, with a stubble and messy hair, was declaring through a chalkboard that he was “NOT A CRIMINAL”. He had been deeply affected by the then-recent judgement of the Supreme Court, which upheld Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a law that criminalizes gay sex. And the man was Vikram Seth, an otherwise media-shy writer and poet who was angered enough to write a moving personal essay which the magazine carried as its cover story.
A blown-up print of this photograph hangs in the entryway in photographer Rohit Chawla’s Delhi home. Other prized portraits find place in the sitting room—including one of Robert De Niro, and a famous (and controversial) portrait of artist-activist Ai Weiwei on the island of Lesbos, recreating the heart-wrenching image by Nilüfer Demir of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on the Turkish shore. Seth’s photograph has been placed in such a way that you can see it from almost anywhere in the hallway. While Chawla describes the Weiwei portrait as his “most seen and celebrated”, Seth’s is one of his “most meaningful and satisfying”.
“It was the right portrait to do at the right time,” he says. Chawla, 50, had gone to Seth’s house early one morning; the writer had had a long, busy evening the day before and was looking haggard—he had just stumbled out of bed. “He was going to fix himself up for the shoot, but this was how I wanted to shoot him,” Chawla says. Referring to the shoot, the otherwise prim Seth had expressed reservations about looking, as he told the BBC, like an “unshaven goonda (goon)”. Upon the author’s request, a second set of pictures, with him cleaned up, was taken that evening. But it was the first set which made the cut—with Seth, his family, and Chawla’s editors.
This then is a quick snapshot of Rohit Chawla’s oeuvre. He stages his portraits when there’s a statement he wants to make. He has a soft corner for artists, writers and politicians as subjects, but approaches those in the entertainment industry somewhat warily—their usual entourage of make-up and fashion experts goes against his style of working, he says.
All of 17 when he picked up his first camera—a Canon AE-1, a gift from his uncle—Chawla has spent two decades in advertising, a career that he has navigated through his lens too, focusing on art direction. He turned to editorial photography as a consulting photo editor after a long stint at J Walter Thompson, and continues to pursue his personal photography projects with much energy.
The most focused of these is his ongoing series of author portraits captured at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF). Since the festival’s inception in 2006, Chawla has photographed both established and emerging authors and poets at the venue. This year, the JLF displayed his collection of over 200 portraits (a curated selection of which has been running over the last three months in Lounge). So why did he make this annual pilgrimage to the literary event? Says Chawla: “Writers tend to intimidate me. If reading their books is one way of getting to know them, taking their portraits is another.”
It was during the 2011 Tehelka-organized THiNK Fest in Goa that Chawla’s now trademark Out Of The Box series took shape. All his subjects, photographed in black and white, engage with an odd choice of prop—a rectangular box atop a tripod. For some viewers, these photographs seemed too off-kilter and esoteric. Some labelled them gimmickry, others took selfies with the portraits.
“What is a portrait?” Chawla asks, when asked about the use of the box. “To my mind, increasingly, the conventional portrait seems to be one where the photographer uses a single light source, and invariably half of (the subject’s) face is in darkness and the other half in light,” he says, adding that he got “a little bored” with that. He created the prop to think “out of the box”, and started using it “purely because it became a graphic idiom”.
The first person to step in that box was then 80-year-old architect Frank Gehry. It was a task in itself to get the man who inspired a large part of Chawla’s minimal design sensibility to come up to the kiosk where this box was. “He said he was claustrophobic and barely stayed in there for 10 seconds. But that was enough,” Chawla recalls. Certainly, Gehry looks rather uncomfortable in his portrait, mouth half open and tilted in a grimace. Chawla doesn’t edit away any discomfort.
“What is the purpose of a portrait, I want to ask you. Is it to create a fantasy of a person? Or is it to show the person in an introspective moment, reflecting what they’re really like,” he says rhetorically, adding that “if it is to create a fantasy, I don’t want any part of it.”
Apart from authors, Chawla has shot artists, politicians, and various other celebrities with the box. “I thought it became a beautiful device to hold on to. How people use it differently also tells you a lot about them,” he says. Author Hari Kunzru is quite the showman, making a face; economist Montek Singh Ahluwalia is half in and half out, with a barely-there smile; anti-corruption activist and now Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, with his plain everyday shirt and a pocketful of pens, has his face turned decisively away, eyes closed. British-Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif too has his eyes closed.
The conversation moves to what is occupying Chawla at the moment. “Whenever we look at a portrait, the eyes invariably just take over and become the focus,” he says. “But what happens when you close the eyes? When you have this whole persona, minus their eyes?” he asks, explaining the rationale behind a new series, Eyes Wide Shut, in which he is photographing all his subjects with their eyes closed. They include Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“I’m interested in the quieter, softer, and more feminine side of Modi, which hasn’t been really captured so far, especially since he doesn’t give much access to people,” Chawla says. At the JLF this January, he also got many authors to do shoots for him with their eyes closed. “Getting anyone to close their eyes is like, for a minute, asking them to surrender to the photographer’s vision…so this is exciting to me,” he says.