Glimpses of Istanbul and Kolkata as seen by photographer Shivani Dass at the Contemplate Art Gallery

“The true culture of a place is found in the small unknowns,” says photographer Shivani Dass. Her exhibition ‘Contrasting Illusions’, on at Contemplate Art Gallery, captures precisely those moments in the bylanes and hideouts of India’s Kolkata and Turkey’s Istanbul.

Despite these cities’ diverse cultures, Shivani finds commonalities in the warmth of their people and the everydayness of their routines. “They also bear marks of having been crossroads of civilization and it was interesting to see how those played out in daily life,” she says.

Shivani’s series on Kolkata features none of the cliched cyclewallas ploughing through thronging crowds. Instead, a solitary man catches a quick smoke by a door post, women in Kalighat carry buckets of water through lanes slightly larger than them, and a worn cane chair in Indian Coffee House stands reserved by a grandfather’s umbrella. A management graduate by training, Shivani says her recent stint at Ooty’s Light and Life Academy weaned her away from shooting clutter. “My photography is now about character portraits, abstracts and play of light. The focus is usually on people’s expressions,” she says.

And it truly is the facial expressions that best tell the story of the three Turkish aluminium foundry workers, with whom she spent two weeks shooting. In Istanbul for the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop, Shivani stumbled upon them while trying to photograph the city’s Jewish ghettos.

Instead, she found a small foundry hidden inside an 800-year-old disused synagogue. “I didn’t want the standard baklava and belly-dancing shots that supposedly represent Turkey’s culture. Here was a dying, small scale industry with regular men doing hard physical labour for nine hours a day, only to return home to sleep. That, to me, represented the real Turkey,” she says.

Everday stories

The series encapsulates the workers’ average day, right from pouring molten aluminium into heavy moulds, baking them in blazing fires and cooling the final product under cold water. Sometimes in work-stained clothes and otherwise bare-bodied, the men sweat entire days within four walls only to occasionally break for meals within the foundry itself. Kettles and kitchen bowls lie between spanners and spades to say the foundry is a second home. Shivani says, “For this series, I first spent a day working with them. Once they were comfortable with my presence, I began shooting, but even then, I didn’t see myself as having a camera. I always separate myself from the camera so that it doesn’t become intrusive.”

Shivani’s Kolkata series is in black and white while the Istanbul one is in colour but both use little editing besides cropping. “I want to show it as it is,” she says and this ties in with her vision of being more a documentary photographer than a photojournalist. She explains, “Photojournalists capture situations where the news has already been made but documentary photographer weave stories from the everyday. But above all, I see myself as a storyteller first.”

The exhibition is on till November 30.