TOM PIETRASIK | Photographer

Posts Tagged ‘photography


leave a comment »

The opening spread to a feature I illustrated on the lives of Aravanis.
Caravan magazine, 2010

The dimly lit corridors of the Arcot Hotel are rank with the smell of sweat, cigarettes and stale beer. The hallways ring with loud chatter, raucous laughter and the occasional scream. The summer heat is sweltering. Half-open doors reveal grungy rooms crowded with large women in various stages of undress. Pink petticoats, padded bras, hair extensions, sequined saris, miniskirts – some on, some off. Out in the passageways, a few men hang about, hungrily eyeing the women who stride out of the rooms. One grabs at Kalki as she walks past, dressed in a modest salwaar-kameez, her glossy hair pulled back in a ponytail. She turns and speaks to him softly before she gently extricates herself and moves on. The man suddenly seems reduced, almost bashful. The hunter looks hunted. But this isn’t surprising. For Kalki Subramaniam isn’t quite who she seems. Out here, all definitions, all identities, are fluid. The only certainty is that in this packed hotel I’m the only naturally born woman. The rest are aravanis, kothis and panthis (transgenders, feminine homosexuals and their seemingly straight male clients).

This is Maureen Nandini Mitra‘s introduction to her fascinating story on the lives of south India’s transexual Aravani community, recently published alongside my photographs in Caravan magazine.

More of my photographs running alongside Maureen Nandini Mitra’s words on India’s Aravani community.
Caravan magazine, 2010

Defined by their sexual-orientation, Aravanis are rarely accepted by India’s largely conservative society. As a consequence, many are tormented by the disapproving gaze of others and suffer a lonely existence from which they seldom find solace. The transgender gathering I photographed in the Tamil town of Koovagam is one occasion when Aravanis are able to emerge and take centre-stage – if only for a few short days a year.

Unlike the wider Indian gay community I’ve written about here, I found the Aravanis I met in Koovagam and Chennai to be a rather self-absorbed lot. This may be the result of their being shunned by society and enduring the lonely stigma of rejection. I’m sure it doesn’t help that – like much of Indian society – many Aravanis lack the education or resources to properly articulate their concerns beyond an understandable desire to express individual anguish.

An Aravani sex-worker shares a cigarette with some boys while looking for clients in central Chennai. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravani’s are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So, while India’s wider gay community who have begun to confront discrimination with a collective campaign for rights and recognition, Aravanis continue to define their struggle in very personal terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is chat-show host Rose Venkatesan who describes herself as an transgender celebrity.

When Maureen and I approached Rose for an interview, she was being trailed by an American TV crew who were profiling her for a documentary series. Rose was brought up in an upper middle-class Tamil household and, having studied for a degree in the US, we had hoped that she might have offered us an informed and articulate perspective on the transgender experience in India.

Instead Rose insisted that her presence in our article would reap us financial reward for which she must be compensated. She demanded several hundred dollars. Suffice to say, we didn’t pay and ultimately neither her wit nor wisdom – nor her portrait – graced Caravan’s pages.

An Aravani takes a shower before venturing out onto the streets of Chennai to look for sex-work. Denied the opportunity to undertake regular jobs, many Aravanis are forced into selling sex to earn a living.
Chennai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009



leave a comment »

The Guardian Weekend Magazine feature on Divya Thakur’s Mumbai
apartment featuring my photographs. Published April 3th 2010

The Guardian Weekend Magazine recently commissioned me to photograph Divya Thakur’s beautiful apartment, housed in a 100 year-old colonial building in Mumbai’s Colaba neighbourhood. Thakur runs Design Temple, a graphics firm she established ten years ago.

Designer Divya Thakur on the balcony of her Mumbai apartment overlooking the famous Taj Mahal Hotel.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Thakur gave me free reign to photograph her home, a very pleasant task given the elegant decor and an abundance of natural light filtering in through shuttered windows. For the most part, this ambient light was enough but on occasion, for instance in the portrait of Divya above, I used a flash mounted on stand to balance out the light streaming in from outside.

One of the three bedrooms in Divya Thakur’s century-old Mumbai apartment.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

The apartment has three bedrooms on two floors and retains many original Victorian-era features. Not far away is the famous Taj Mahal Hotel and the Gateway of India with their views across the Arabian sea. You can read Hannah Booth’s words that accompanied my photographs on the Guardian website here.

The kitchen in Divya Thakur’s century-old Mumbai apartment and, behind it, a courtyard bathed in natural light.
Mumbai, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Written by Tom Pietrasik

April 19, 2010 at 9:07 pm


with 2 comments

Traders at a tea stall overlooking the Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the very beginning of the year, I saw an inspiring collection photographs from Cuba by by photography partners Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb at New York’s Ricco Maresca gallery. You can view a selection of these photographs on David Alan Harvey’s Burn site here. And Alex and Rebecca talk about their collaboration on their Two Looks blog here.

I am new to the images of Rebecca Norris Webb but I have long admired Alex Webb’s photographs for their ambiguity and sense of mystery. Webb’s attention to colour and composition is fundamental to his work. But for me, most impressive is his ability to capture those moments when elements outside his control converge and lend real resonance to a scene. In Two Looks, Alex and Rebecca identify this notion, describing it as serendipity or the lucky chance.

Of course good fortune falls only upon those photographers who are prepared to wait, to look and to recognise the significance of a moment. Interviewed by the Foto Tapeta website, Webb describes the process involved when he photographs,

“When I am working, then I really have to work… I really have to stay attuned… It is really about walking and feeling the situation. How do you enter the situation? Some situations you get comfortable just walking right in. Others you have to sort of dance around the edge and come in here… What I want to experience is this sudden moment of visual insight.”

The cover of Alex Webb’s book on Istanbul

And it was a moment of visual insight that clearly struck Webb when two mysterious figures entered this scene in Istanbul which later became the cover for his book, “City of a Hundred Names”.

What makes this kind of photography exciting for me is the notion that these moments happen all the time. As Elliot Erwitt, Webb’s colleague at Magnum Photos, says, “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.” Of course for the most part, these “pictures” pass the world by because no one was there to capture them. Fate has intervened and occasionally presented pictures to me. Significantly it has always been during those moments when I have been patient and willing to wait, to watch and to identify a moment.

A labourer passes the memorial building in Ambedkar Park. The park was conceived by Chief Minister Mayawati as a tribute to the architect of the Indian constitution. In reality, the park exploits Ambedkar’s image.
Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So it was that a man, wearing a green shirt wondered past this scene of a building site in Lucknow while I was working on a story about Chief Minister Mayawati and her Ambedkar Park for the Financial Times Magazine.

Members of the low caste Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS) employee about the failure to supply them with ration cards.Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Fate had a part to play when the elements of the picture above unfolded before me and it was only last week that I noticed the Varanasi tea-lady pictured at the top of this post adopting a posture that perfectly mirrored the statue of a deity standing above her. You can see more of my recent photographs of Varanasi, including the picture below, on my website here.

Hindu pilgrims dry their saris after bathing in the sacred Ganges river.
Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

Written by Tom Pietrasik

February 15, 2010 at 12:34 pm