Watching television is not just routine. Olivier Culmann's photos reveal they are a great unifier.

When a photographer confesses to being partial to the quotidian, preferring to shoot things considered ‘banalities of daily life', what does one make of him? Olivier Culmann calls the exhibition of his photographs ‘TV Viewers', which doesn't sound too interesting. That's where Olivier has us fooled.

Visual delight

Remember that thing about not judging a book by its cover? Same goes for exhibitions too. The exhibition, on at Tower House (Fort Kochi), is a visual extravaganza. Each frame, to slog a cliché, tells a story. Banal? Not at all, the photographs are a study. In every photograph there is a TV viewer (obviously), each from a different part of the world.

The exhibition is an eye-opener to the space that television occupies, literally and figuratively in our lives. “Television is important to people, in fact people spend a lot of time watching television,” Olivier says of his rather offbeat, choice of subject. There was also a desire to chronicle or preserve a ‘not so interesting' aspect of contemporary life for the future.

Olivier is a freelance photographer, who is also part of Tendance Floue, a group of 12 independent photographers. Currently he is based in Delhi. The ‘subjects' of the photographs belong to India, Morocco, the U.S., the U.K., Nigeria and Mexico. In India, the ‘viewers' are from Kochi, from areas as diverse as Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam. Whether it is a middle aged couple watching television or kids or teenagers, Olivier has managed to get the ‘atmosphere' as it were. The atmosphere comprises more than the visual aspects. There are the markers of culture, religion and even the politics of power within the family. After all he or she who wields the remote control exercises power in the context of television viewing.

One of the subjects of his Kochi-leg of photographs pointed the fact out to Olivier. “He asked me, ‘Olivier do you see something else?' I couldn't understand what he was getting at till he asked, ‘do you see I have the remote, which means I have the power!' That is when even I noticed that tiny aspect,” he remembers. The other details around the picture too, therefore, become important. He shot the pictures in Kochi five years back, and getting the exhibition together has taken him five years and he ‘had to get it to Kochi'. He lived in Vypeen, and with the help of a local, Joseph, he went around looking for his subjects. At times, finding subjects came down to walking down the road, and if they heard the sound of television, knocking on the door and requesting a shoot.

The shoots were never easy, in any part of the world. If access was easy in some parts of the world, in places such as Morocco it was tough. Access is not the only issue, there is the willingness to be photographed. “Moroccans don't like to be photographed,” Olivier says. The difficulty therefore was compounded. But some of his best shots are from there.

Moroccan shots

When Olivier finally got invited into a Moroccan home, he got the pride of place in the living room, in front of the television. “That was the one place that I did not want,” he laughs. Conversely in places such as the U.S. it was easy for folks there told him what time to drop in as they would be watching their favourite shows. Ditto in India where there is a culture of being photographed. Back home in France however, people are reserved about being photographed, he says, ‘as it is as if a part of them is being taken with the photographs.'

Setting up the shoot was another problem. After all he was a stranger armed with a camera, a foreigner too, in someone else's very personal space and taking pictures of them watching television. Olivier confesses it was never easy. In fact, the first hour is tough because ‘understandably people tend to get conscious and it takes that much time for them to ease up.' Initially he would set his camera on the tripod and wait for the ‘candid moment'.

Till he realised, “if I don't start taking pictures within the first half hour, they start wondering if something is wrong, if they are doing something wrong…so I just start shooting to put them at ease.” He used the traditional analog camera (medium format). He would shoot around three to four rolls till he was satisfied.

One look at the photographs and you know what Olivier means, the people in his photographs seem to have forgotten his presence, they are un-self conscious and vulnerable too. It is as if an invisible photographer took the photographs.

Common experience

Irrespective of the country where he has exhibited, Olivier says there is the commonality of human experience; people from divergent cultures come to identify with the experiences of others. At the end of the exhibition one can't help but conclude that television is a great unifier!

The photo exhibition concludes on October 15.