French photographer Bruno Sauerwein sees poetry in the people and movement on India's streets

That the French are at home in South India is not something new. Yet French photographer Bruno Sauerwein displays such affinity with everyday life, literally at its crossroads, that it's almost impossible not to ask him why. He is all set to exhibit his collection of street photography from more than five trips to the country, at the British Library, Bangalore from December 13 to 15.

Why did you pick South India as a location for your photography?

Because I really love almost everything I have encountered here until now. In 2008, my brother sent me photos from The Dune Eco Resort near Pondicherry, and we quickly decided to pop over. Every day at dawn, I would be wandering the nearby villages with all the surrounding temples delivering their musical encouragements. I got very excited and inspired by what I was seeing and catching with my camera. The streets and the roads at sunset and at night were inviting me to mingle with all kinds of people all over the place. My “India on the Move” series was starting to build up.

What is street photography all about?

Street photography is about liking to hang out on the streets, looking at things and getting involved in endless eye contacts and chats. Street photography is not indoors, not within the boundaries of ritualised domestic life. On the streets, everything that's happening is fundamentally routine. But extraordinary things keep on popping up all the same, at least in the eyes of the street photographer.

How and when did you get into photography?

In 1967, I arrived in the USA for a three-month stay. I actually stayed three years and enjoyed every bit of it. I discovered the charms of street photography on my second day, and soon worked as a freelance photographer.

Simultaneously, I studied psychology at a university. I was also was appointed to manage a language school in Boston. It was my very own American dream (not to forget encountering love)! When in 1969, discovering one of my Alabama prints coming out of the dryer at the MIT photo lab, eminent photographer Minor White exclaimed, “I've never seen so much poetry in a picture of people”. It did produce a bit of an effect on me.

What do you like about photography?

I like nothing more than meeting people all over the place and developing strange intimacies with the most improbable interlocutors. If I really get to like some people more than to just grab hugs and zap by, I shall go back and try to go deeper into this mutual discovery. Photography provides me the artistic thread or alibi I might need in my human adventures.

Could you describe your journey as a photographer?

I was a promising twenty year-old photographer in the USA in the late sixties. I worked as a freelance reporter with some Boston Newspapers. Later on I was into teaching languages, training teachers, and coaching all kinds of people in working situations. Photography was then basically left aside for over forty years. I loved all these challenging jobs, but always felt that I had something to further accomplish in photography. Now I am back into it with a fresh and new inspiration. Since 2008, I have already had four exhibitions around my “India on the Move” work — three in India and one, recently, in Paris.

How have you evolved as a photographer over the years?

In the late sixties, I would never have produced these night shots of movement that I have started taking in Tamil Nadu. I was then using film and was concerned with the subtleties of daylight: harmonious composition, hues of gray, and enhancing the hidden qualities of modest people. Today, I'm largely working with digital equipment.I'm much more concerned with poetry than with image excellence. If this moving girl zapping by on her bicycle I captured in the dark is grainy and blurred, but conveys a sense of grace and beauty in her ordinary daily endeavours, then I will have reached my ambition.

It's a different attitude with particular attention to the magic of this split second during which life seems to be so much more beautiful and India has offered me its incomparable colours.

What is your vision as a photographer?

Seeing the banal, the habitual, the ritualistic with new eyes is a necessity if you want to have fun in this life of yours. Photography is good training to open up our eyes to available but hidden dimensions of reality. Photography is magic! You make a permanent something that has no duration. It then becomes sharable.