Will you be a part of the Fatafat project?” he asks within minutes of our meeting at the Delhi Photo Festival. He is running as he talks. In New Delhi to attend the first ever photography festival of its kind in India last week, Sephi Bergerson is a terribly busy man. A visit to Delhi—from Goa, where he now lives—is to attend as many exhibitions as he can, meet publishers, catch up with photographer friends, but most importantly, it is to look for subjects for his latest body of work: the Fatafat project.
Over the last year, Bergerson, a photographer from Israel who moved to India in 2002, has been working with an old camera bought off a street photographer to shoot portraits of young, urban India. The camera was made in 1949, and it uses a technology that goes back at least 150 years. This contradiction lies at the heart of the project: an old camera which chronicles the new.
Bergerson’s subjects are those he meets in person. The portraits he’s made so far—21 in all—include writers, photographers, fashion stylists and human rights lawyers. “When I looked out of my Connaught Place hotel room when I first moved here 10 years ago, I only saw Ambassador and Maruti cars on the road below. That’s not what I see now,” he says. “And that’s only a small example. I would like each portrait to show a fraction of that change that Delhi has gone through over the last decade.”
Black and white: (from left) Fatafat portraits of magazine editor Vibha Kumar, music documentary film-maker Reshil Charles and fashion stylist Ranjunee Chakma.
He is interested in young people who have ventured into professions alien to their parents, those who dress differently, have outrageous hairstyles, or an interesting life story to share. So there’s Reshil Charles, 30, a music documentary maker whom Bergerson met at a party in Delhi, with both, an unconventional profession and unconventional locks; Vibha Kumar, 27, an editor with Maxim; and Ranjunee Chakma, an 31-year-old fashion stylist whom Bergerson came across in the course of his work—she hails from Mizoram and had come to Delhi in 1997 to work.
Getting hold of this camera wasn’t quite fatafat (a colloquialism for “snappy”). About a year after Bergerson moved to Delhi, he had a portrait of him, his wife and their two-year-old daughter shot by a street photographer near Birla Mandir in New Delhi. The photographer used a large, wooden box camera to make vintage-looking black and white portraits that cost Rs 30 for three copies. “I knew this couldn’t be the end of it,” says Bergerson, who had made inquiries to buy the camera then.
When he went back several years later, the photographer had tucked away this bulky contraption for a digital camera. “He told me no one wanted those pictures any more. After some pleading, he sold me the camera along with 60 of his own pictures. He wanted Rs 5,000.”
The camera, Bergerson explains, is an indigenous modification of the calotype—an early photographic process using paper coated with silver iodide— which was introduced in 1841 by the British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot. The calotype is the precursor to most photographic processes of the 19th and 20th centuries. It does away with film or plates (see How the Fatafat project camera works) and is a 20-minute process from start to finish.
In 2010, Bergerson started the Fatafat project by putting together a daylight studio on his terrace. He went to look for the man who’d sold him the camera but was told he’d packed up and disappeared. He called upon the expertise of Bharat Bhushan Mahajan, another street photographer who operates near Birla Mandir (Mahajan had also swapped his old camera for a digital one because it’s quicker: “more photographs, more money”).
“As I started shooting,” says Bergerson, “I realized that I don’t need to look for people with horns. It doesn’t matter who’s standing in front of the camera, the pictures are always so full of character.”
What lends to this “character” is that the Fatafat project pictures look antiquated and hipster both at once. Some are overexposed; some have chemical irregularities but Bergerson doesn’t throw these away. “The imperfections are what make these pictures perfect,” he says. Because of the way the camera works, every print is an original.
To complete his series, Bergerson intends to set up studios in the city’s hot spots such as Palika Bazaar and Nehru Place, frequented by the city’s young crowd for pirated DVDs and electronic spare parts. He plans to shoot 40 in all. It’s a good number to tell a large story, he believes. It is also Kabbalistic. Bergerson, who is 46 himself, and evidently spiritual (his guru is Shrii Shrii Anandamurti), says that in the study of the Jewish mystical path of Kabbalah, you’re not supposed to open the book The Zohar till you’re 40. “It’s the age, or number, when you start seeing things with a certain perspective.”
Bergerson’s publishing plans for the series are a small, 4x6-inch photography book. His first book, Street Food of India, published in India by Roli in 2009, won the Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2010. He envisions this book as having two parts. The first will have photos by the camera’s original owner and an essay on the history of the camera; and the second will have his portraits with a few lines on the subject and an essay on the change that the Fatafat project aspires to comment on.
It would be a requiem for a camera that is phasing out—a vintage apparatus that told us about the future.
HOW THE ‘FATAFAT’ PRJECT CAMERA WORKS
The camera remains at a fixed distance from the object (about 6ft). The photographer loads the camera with negative paper. Since there’s no shutter, the paper is exposed by taking off the lens cap. The subject must sit still: about 2-3 seconds in daylight and 20 seconds in subdued light. Prints are developed at the back of the camera which functions as a kind of darkroom (a tray inside contains home-made developing fluid). The photographer re-photographs the negative to get positives.
BLast: Mahajan with the camera.
Alec McHoul, an ethnomethodologist and professor emeritus of Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, writes that in the standard manuals of photography, there are no details of this incredibly economical process. “It appears that the early Indian street photographers managed to hybridize two 19th century technologies: the calotype camera and the portable darkroom into a single apparatus,” he says. These were being used in India before 1853, within a decade of Fox Talbot’s announcement of the process—one of the earliest photographic processes known.