Forty students from Iqbal Mohamed’s Light & Life Academy put together their creations in a photography exhibition

The photograph looks innocent enough. A black bottle, placed against the silhouette of a bat’s wings. Seems straightforward, undemanding. How long did it take Fatema Zoyeb to capture it? “More than three hours,” she says. There’s another, of ripples in purplish water, which took just as long to do.

As one struggles with the idea of photographing a drop of water for one–eighth of a day, its becoming evident why these students from the Light & Life Academy, nestled in the Nilgiris, are some of the best trained shutterbugs in the country.

As the eighth batch passes out from the Academy, Iqbal Mohamed, who founded what is now the only dedicated institute for photography in the country, is elated. “Would you believe that by just shooting beverages, one could make a very comfortable living in this country?That’s the kind of demand there is for photographers who know what they’re doing,” he smiles. For the exhibition, Manit. A. Balmiki chose to look through the frame in a leprosy centre in South India. An old man sits cross-legged, his fingers and toes lost forever to a disease that he could neither understand nor treat. His face is drawn with the kind of torment that the most feral howl would fail to capture, and eyes that seem to demand nothing. “The documentary shots are largely left untouched, we don’t touch them up in any way,” says Iqbal. But evidently, Sakthi Dasan’s photograph of a man with bones peeking out from where his hands should have been, would have required some touching up? He smiles. “That’s the thing with concept and fashion photography. You can go where your imagination takes you.”

And, a lot of times, photography is about seeing what you want to see. To give certain alcoholic beverages that all-important warm golden glow, they actually place a golden-coloured paper cut in the shape of the bottle, behind them. Talk about devastating your illusions. “Photography is not a performing art, it is what you are left with in the end that matters,” says Iqbal. So Light & Life, which used to teach students to work with silver bromide film as well, switched completely to digital photography after its third year.

So, after a stint at the Academy, what has changed in the way Fatema takes a photograph? “Everything,” she is unambiguous. “In the beginning, we would take more than 300 shots to get that one right frame. Now, it’s down to less than 10.”

“We’ve started seeing things in squares and blocks now,” Abhay Kumar smiles, as he shows us his quirky photograph of an immaculate French model and three grimy, mischievous children, against the mustard-yellow walls and resplendent green pillars of an old house in Chennai. The students are unanimous about their hardest assignment — the ‘moonlight one,’ for which the students spent an entire winter night in the frigid Ooty air, hounding a moon that rose and set at its own languid pace.

The photographs at the exhibition came from a printer that uses natural dyes, which promise not to fade for over a century. And the colours are audacious, the reds angrier and the blues more forlorn, adding an eerie touch of life to the people and their stories, so much so that if you looked away for a moment, you’d think they had moved.

Each of the 40 students has been given a 40x50 inch stark white panel, to put up to 10 of their favourite images together. The doors of the exhibition open tomorrow, with more than 300 images that beseech you to “see differently”.