A Serious Comic

 

Dhruv Dhakan’s sense of humour creeps into his images. But as Ambarin Afsar finds out, he is a harsh critic of his own work and makes no concessions.

The Illusion: Made in a fruit market of Ahmedabad in 2014, the image shows what Dhruv likes capturing best—tricks of the eye. Here, the men are actually catching the watermelons instead of throwing them. Photograph/Dhruv Dhakan

The Illusion: Made in a fruit market of Ahmedabad in 2014, the image shows what Dhruv likes capturing best—tricks of the eye. Here, the men are actually catching the watermelons instead of throwing them. Photograph/Dhruv Dhakan

There is a new breed of Indian photographers who are mixing conventional street styles with unconventional, peppered with their own vision. They are coming up with a hybrid aesthetic that is entirely native, entirely chaotic, and entirely unique. Dhruv Dhakan is one such photographer. Ahmedabad-based Dhruv has dabbled in quite a few streams, including web designing and engineering. In fact, it was during his stint as an engineer in Dubai that he decided to start shooting because he wanted to do something constructive with his time.

 Denim: His uncanny sense of humour acts as an unconscious trigger, as is evident in this image that was made at Kakaria lake, Ahmedabad.

Denim: His uncanny sense of humour acts as an unconscious trigger, as is evident in this image that was made at Kakaria lake, Ahmedabad.

Is Photography Cathartic for Engineers?
I have noticed that plenty of photographers in the fraternity also happen to be engineers. This struck me as strange and also sort of funny. So I ask Dhruv about it, “Since engineers tend to be in an environment that is very rigid and taxing, we often think of breaking loose. There’s something very freeing and relaxing about photography. What starts out as an activity that helps people unwind, eventually turns into a passion that is more rewarding than anything else.”

 Maximum City, Mumbai: Dhruv moved from a monochrome thought process to one based entirely on colour. However, his proficiency with colour makes it seem like an effortless shift.

Maximum City, Mumbai: Dhruv moved from a monochrome thought process to one based entirely on colour. However, his proficiency with colour makes it seem like an effortless shift.

Narrowing Down to Shooting Street
Three and a half years ago, when Dhruv started out in Dubai, he would shoot nature, still life and the usual things that we all shoot in the beginning. “I am a people’s person. I am drawn to their lives and the small dramas that play out. And so, street photography was sort of a natural progression.” Eventually, it was time for him to extend his contract. “That is when I realised I wanted to return to India because the colour palette of Dubai was so sober, formal and dry, I began to miss the liveliness and vibrance of India. Here is where the chaos resides. Here is where everything is truly alive.” And so, he came back.

 The Kurukshetra: A crucial element that draws him to a particular scene is the sense of direction or movement in the frame. To indicate this, he speaks about this image, made at Bhadrakali in Ahmedabad, where everyone is facing different directions.

The Kurukshetra: A crucial element that draws him to a particular scene is the sense of direction or movement in the frame. To indicate this, he speaks about this image, made at Bhadrakali in Ahmedabad, where everyone is facing different directions.

A Punchy Concoction
A proclivity for chaos and layers is quite evident in his images. Initially, you get the impression that the image is an effortless capture, and that’s when the careful positioning of elements begins to grow on you. “My background in web designing helps me make use of colour palettes. On the other hand, I see illusions wherever I go—things that seem to emerge from other elements, or elements that seem to combine. These are what I notice almost unconsciously. I’m also looking for unusual expressions, actions and poses. So, it is an amalgamation of all of these that makes me release the shutter.”

 Brother and Sister: Made in a Kutch village, the image shows Dhruv’s ability to bond with his subjects and melt into the surroundings.

Brother and Sister: Made in a Kutch village, the image shows Dhruv’s ability to bond with his subjects and melt into the surroundings.

On How to Do Colour Well
Colour isn’t an easy medium to work with— it can distract, create chaos, and if not used effectively, draw the viewer’s attention away from the subject. It can also become a crutch for an image that isn’t working otherwise. So, how does Dhruv deal with it?

“I was shooting purely in B&W for about a year. I was only seeing the works of masters who have made B&W photos, and practically any image I shot could be turned into a black and white photograph. After a point, I got saturated. I felt that shooting in B&W became too easy. Street photography is a complex enough genre on its own, and I realised I needed to complicate it further with colour.

 Children’s Playground: He is always on the lookout for moments that are unusual such as this one at a local fair in Ahmedabad. If he discovers that his presence, as a photographer, is disturbing the moment, he leaves the scene.

Children’s Playground: He is always on the lookout for moments that are unusual such as this one at a local fair in Ahmedabad. If he discovers that his presence, as a photographer, is disturbing the moment, he leaves the scene.

Acquired Versus Inspired Style
When you set out to shoot, it is inevitable that comparisons will be made. What, then, remains unique, and what becomes inspired? “Practically everything has been done, everything has been shot in plenty of different ways. So how is an Alex Webb photo different from a photo that I make? I believe that there is a certain personal vision that makes every photographer different. Even if I shoot a frame that is reminiscent of Alex Webb or Raghubir Singh, ultimately, it cannot be the same. It has my history, my story behind it.”

 Art and People: The daily lives of people interest him greatly and this is what he elevates as art.

Art and People: The daily lives of people interest him greatly and this is what he elevates as art.

On Viewing the Work of Masters
Considering that photoschools in India are still in their nascent stages, and a full-fledged education in photography seems like an unaffordable dream to many, who did a young Dhruv turn to? “I started buying a lot of photobooks, almost obsessively so. If I like a particular photographer, I try to collect all of their works. My journey to any city is incomplete without having visited a bookstore. While a lot is being uploaded online, there are certain monographs, retrospectives and compilations that are not available on the internet.”

 Daily Life Yellows: He likes making the most mundane of locations such as this local market in Pune, seem dramatic and extraordinary.

Daily Life Yellows: He likes making the most mundane of locations such as this local market in Pune, seem dramatic and extraordinary.

There is an argument that says that viewing too much work can end up affecting your vision. “You need to see different kinds of photographs to know that this can be done, and that can be done too. Studying someone else’s work is enlightening. But what you do need to have is a strong individual style that does not get overshadowed or influenced by the greats.

 Ticket Counter: Dhruv can spend hours at a particular location, such as this local fair in Ahmedabad, till people forget about him and the camera and consider his presence a routine part of their day.

Ticket Counter: Dhruv can spend hours at a particular location, such as this local fair in Ahmedabad, till people forget about him and the camera and consider his presence a routine part of their day.

A Strict Photo Editor
How does he weed out the good images from the bad? “I think I have shot about 20 good images in the last one year, and over the last three years, I might have 50. I don’t shoot on the Burst mode any more. At best, I will have eight frames of one situation, taken over the period of an hour. I know instinctively which frame I have to keep, and then I print it and put it up on a huge noticeboard in front of me. I keep looking at the photos every day, for four months, six months, a year… the ones that stay with me and have immediate recall value are the ones I end up keeping.”
It is quite heartening to see this emerging breed of photographers. While they have big shoes to fill, it is their insistence on doing things their own way and refusal to be cowed down by pressure that is bringing about an aesthetic that truly represents the churning nation that is India.

Gadgets and Gear

  • He does not shoot beyond an equivalent focal length of 35mm.
  • He believes that he would rather use a camera that has turned into an extension of his arm, than experiment with new fangled devices.

Tips by Dhruv

  • It is very important to slow down. If you are in a hurry, you will end up missing the most basic of moments that you could have easily captured.
  • The photographic community is huge. But if your work has potential, and if you continue doing good work, people will come looking for you.

You can find more of Dhruv’s work on www.50mmstreetsasia.com

Tags: Ahmedabad, Ambarin Afsar, colour, dhruv dhakan, Documentary, photobooks, Raghubir Singh, street, Swapan Parekh