Prathik Panchamia holds his first photography exhibition in the city with his pictures that capture human expressions up close and personal

It’s a sea of faces. Some glare, some stare, others dare you to hold their gaze longer. Shot as tight close-ups, in Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Ladakh, these faces are India as seen through photographer Prathik Panchamia’s eyes. At his exhibition ‘Faces from an expressive country’ in Contemplate Art Gallery, Prathik has put together his impressions of India’s landscapes, children, women and men gathered from two years of travelling the country.

Prathik’s journey with the camera began as a student of visual communications at PSG College of Arts and Science. After two years at a Chennai advertising agency and a short stint as a food and travel photographer with Mumbai’s Mid Day, he took off on freelance work projects. “Once the official assignments were done, I’d spend time with the people at every village, town and city that I was in,” says Prathik. “It’s the only way to capture the soul of a place.”

The result is a rather unusual take on the stereotypical images associated with popular tourist spots. For instance, his Ladakh showcases not just the standard beauty of sprawling mountains with water bodies nestled within them, but also the simplicity of endless barley fields planted there. Prathik’s Rajasthan too isn’t a dry desert scattered with lonely camels. “I went to the greenest part of the state, with full rivers flowing and trees all around,” he says. It was on this journey that he captured some of the most striking images on display at the exhibition — full-length portraits of Rajasthani tribal women with white plastic bangles from shoulder to wrist. They stare into the camera, with backs arched and hands on hips. “They could burn any woman down with their poise and the kind of attitude their eyes held,” says Prathik.

Each one of Prathik’s subjects knows they’ve been photographed he insists. “When I began this project, I knew I wanted close-ups of people’s expressions. You can’t get those with shoot-and-run photography. While talking to people, I’d mentally frame the particular mannerism I’d want to capture and I’d manage to get that three or four shots into the conversation,” he says. His subjects’ comfort with his presence is particularly evident in the head-on shots of women of the Maharashtria Warli tribe.

“But sometimes, people give you the unexpected,” says Prathik. And the unexpected has led to some delightful shots. Once, at a deserted fort by a river in Rajasthan, Prathik was about to leave when a lady showed up with her child in tow for his bath. The resultant shot shows a young boy peeking sneakily out from between the pleats of his mother’s sari. Another photograph in the children’s section of the exhibition features a small happy boy dressed in a banian and playing with a bandana by his yellow doorpost. This, like several others on display, was shot in Mumbai’s slums. You wouldn’t know that unless told though.

For all the diversity of culture that Prathik has experienced through his travels, there’s the similarity of human expression in his photographs. The idea is best expressed in his picture of a Rajasthani girl with deep brown eyes, hauntingly similar to, and modelled on, the National Geographic’s ‘The Afghan Girl’. It also helps that many of Prathik’s photographs are shot completely in sepia, the viewer thus un-distracted by colour and drawn directly into the facial expression.

“It’s an uncommon practice and something I’d like to keep working on,” says Prathik. Also on the cards are several exhibitions in the year ahead and eventually, a permanent return to Coimbatore from Mumbai. As a photographer, where does he see himself in future? “I see myself busy!”

‘Faces from an expressive country’ (exhibition cum sale) is on at Contemplate Art Gallery, Avanashi Road till 6 p.m. today.