In his new book, The Opium of Time: Photographs of Mumbai 2010-2020, film-maker and photographer Sunhil Sippy provides an unvarnished glimpse of the city through its marginalised people and places
The Opium of Time, the intriguing title of Sunhil Sippy’s brilliant new book of photographs of Mumbai, sets the tone for what unfolds over its 200 or so lavishly printed pages. The title is part of German-British author W G Sebald’s quote (On every new thing there lies already the shadow of annihilation. There is no antidote to the opium of time), from his book The Rings of Saturn, about the inevitability of annihilation that looms over everything in life. The smell of decay and the feeling of imminent gentrification pervades through large parts of the book. Though Sippy says he came upon the title only recently, a majority of the pictures, either by design or by the accident of curation, are a visual manifestation of Sebald’s gloomy prediction.
The book is a powerful monochromatic album that documents people and ways of life in the city, much of which we know will vanish sooner or later as gentrification marches on — the crowded chawls, the local trains, the barbershops, the wrestling akhadas, the slums, the government office still without computers, the mathadis, the single screen theatres, the fairgrounds, the fisherwomen and the fisherman’s villages, the shipbreakers, the salt pan workers, the photographers at Gateway of India, the shoeshine boy, the ageing bettors at the racecourse, the ageing Parsis by the window. Even the intermittent pictures of the city landscapes have a haunting quality about them. The skyscrapers are always at a distance, while the foreground is filled with the detritus of urbanisation, the pylons, industrial chimneys, sagging electricity cables, boat pieces, sea garbage, construction cranes, excavators, etc.
Sippy is the grandson of the legendary film producer GP Sippy, and a well-respected ad film-maker in his own right. Street photography is a passion for him. It has been an antidote, he says, to his regimented, claustrophobic life inside the studio walls as a director of advertising commercials.
Street photography took on an added importance in 2012 when he had a bad accident, and exploring the city became part of the ‘healing’ process. Taking these pictures was like a ‘prayer’ and ‘meditative’. He says he had no agenda in mind when he set out to take the images, and that it was probably his subconscious that provided the photos with their power and rawness. “It was about building a portrait of a city that I was seeing with my heart,” he says.
Mumbai has been captured in dozens of picture books over the decades, but Sippy’s images stand out for two crucial reasons. First, they capture parts of the city that photographers have seldom explored. More importantly, the pictures, most of which were shot at night time, dawn or in overcast, fading-light conditions, stand out for their unfiltered, unvarnished, and granular starkness, rendered even more searing by the use of matte paper in their printing.
Many of the images have a quality reminiscent of the work of Sebastião Salgado, the legendary Brazilian photographer who documented the plight of the marginalised people across the world, very often in an aesthetical grandiosity that sometimes felt biblical. Sippy, though, eschews compositional prettiness, capturing the moment’s action in the manner of the street photographer that he is. And in doing so, he serves what Susan Sontag said is the purpose of photography: “In a modern society, images made by cameras are the principal access to realities of which we have no direct experience. Photographs are particularly admired if they reveal hidden truths about themselves or less than fully reported social conflicts in societies both near and far from where the viewer lives.”
Sippy spoke to MW about the book and his photography:
MW: Tell us the origins of this book. Did you have a book in mind when you started taking pictures in 2010?
Sunhil Sippy: I began the practice many years earlier but with no particular goal in mind. I started creating an archive of images from 2010, but it wasn’t until 2012 that my practice became serious. Having said that, there was absolutely no agenda, other than a desire to walk, explore, and experience the city completely differently to the way I had throughout my life. There was certainly no book in mind at this stage of my practice.
MW: Why 2010, specifically? Is that when you started taking photography seriously? Why did it take you 10 years to put it together?
SS: 2010 was when I started to maintain a formal archive, but the serious streetwalking began in 2012 after a very serious accident. The city became a healing ground for me in many ways. I became obsessed with exploring Mumbai and experiencing it in ways that I never had before, uncovering layers through repeated visits to the same places. This was all happening with no agenda whatsoever. It was personal and meditative. The journey of the book began in 2018, and took four years to pull together, while the photography continued. In 2020, right before the pandemic, I travelled to Mexico to do a workshop with colour master Alex Webb, with a view to evolve my practice and move away from the comfort of monochrome. Once the pandemic hit, I had the time and headspace to finalise the structure and make a final edit. So perhaps the journey was bookmarked by the origins of the archive and the global lockdown. It conveniently fell between a 10-year period.
MW: What is it about Mumbai that you wanted to capture through these images? What is the story you are trying to convey through these images?
SS: It’s hard to explain because the images are really a result of my subconscious at work. I didn’t approach my practice in a studied way; however, I will say that I was perhaps trying to build some order out of chaos. I wouldn’t say that Mumbai is more chaotic than any other city, especially from a perspective of photography. I think the chaos I’m talking about is life itself as it unfolds, and I think the act of making photographs in a city is an attempt to bring some order to that chaos. For me, it’s a practice that is broadly speaking meditative. It was never with the end goal of a show or a book; it was always to satisfy some deep questions within myself. Questions like Where am I? How do I fit in? I do believe that in any city, it’s easy to remain reasonably oblivious to one’s surroundings, to live a blinkered existence. So, for me, it was about opening my senses to the many layers of the city. Having said that, if one examines the title, The Opium of Time – which incidentally only arrived at the very last stage of the book, I realised my edit was subconsciously attempting to create a kind temporal haze, not being able to detect evolution or development from one image to the next. It was about building a portrait of a city that I was seeing with my heart.
MW: How did you keep your eye on the ball, so to speak, for 10 years in taking similar photographs?
SS: As I said, it was a form of meditation. I had undergone a violent trauma, and this practice, in many ways, was a form of prayer. It both centred and grounded me, and helped me to heal both physically and spiritually. There is an extraordinary quieting of the mind when one walks the street. No matter how crowded or bustling it is. And so, my practice in many ways was a form of prayer that gave me tremendous comfort through a hugely challenging period of my life.
MW: You come from a privileged background. You spent a large part of your growing years abroad. Your day job is that of an ad film-maker. You are constantly surrounded by glamour. These pictures are mostly antithetical to that life. Why and how did you choose this subject?
SS: I’ve always had a deep emotional connection with Mumbai, even though I didn’t live here until I was in my 20s. While I wouldn’t say I’m constantly surrounded by glamour, I’ve worked in the beauty side of advertising for more than 15 years, and have refined that particular skill as a technician. It was in fact the claustrophobia I felt within the studio walls, creating glamorous imagery, that provoked me onto the streets. I needed to make imagery that I was never being hired or permitted to make in my professional life. And so, the street became a place for me to satisfy that part of my aesthetic yearning.
Is my perspective privileged? Yes, sure. Perhaps you might even say that it’s a privilege to be able to walk the streets the way I have been — not as a commuter, but exploring and responding to my curious mind. I am also acutely aware that in a city like Mumbai, one is likely to be photographing a different stratum of society on the streets, which is a function of the climate, the state of footpaths, and the general geographical layout of the city. The rather small, privileged segment of the city don’t really need to engage with the city on these terms.
MW: What was your photography routine when you were taking these images? How did you choose the places and people who you shot?
SS: I would typically shoot extensively when my professional commitments were minimal. But my practice even during busy periods was almost daily. Making photographs was important to keep my emotional stability and spiritual balance. I would typically explore the areas closest to me, but my gravitational pull was into what I call the heart of the city — Khetwadi, Byculla, Bhendi Bazaar — and I had a particular obsession with the eastern seaboard from Sewri to Wadala and all the way up to Deonar and Mankhurd, serendipitously discovering astonishing beauty in Bhandup. I found the landscape and atmosphere around me arresting and captivating. I would also shoot extensively at night, usually as a result of insomnia. This was fascinating. I realised I had to be very careful. But not for safety issues. The city reveals herself easily at night, and to be judicious and sensitive with the camera was very important to me. I would occasionally slip into unwarranted voyeurism, but I tried to keep that to a minimum whilst editing.
MW: Why did you elect to use the black & white medium?
SS: It’s a hard question to answer. I think at that stage of my journey, I was heavily influenced by many of the original masters: Robert Frank, Daido Moriyama, William Klein, and I think I wanted to belong to a kind of a club, so to speak. But it went deeper. I felt a romantic sense of the city that was in my heart. And I was trying to cling on to a city that was disappearing from sight. In some ways, monochrome helped me keep the city that I wanted to see very much alive. Earlier, I used the phrase “the comfort of monochrome”, and dare I say with the kind of motley and ever-changing landscape, it helped me to create a kind of binding factor, if you will.
MW: The images give the impression of being shot either at dawn, at night or in overcast conditions. Of course, it is also possible that some of the images were developed and printed to give that impression. What was the idea behind taking this route?
SS: As I said, there was no real agenda to my practice other than to feel peace within myself, and make images that I believed to be beautiful. Morning restlessness drove me to make photographs at break of light, insomnia pushed me onto the streets at night, and boredom would have taken me on to the street any other time.
MW: Photography, I understand, was just one part of the process in creating this book. You also spent a considerable amount of time getting the perfect photo prints done, and then getting the book printed to your specs. Describe this process to us and how long did it take?
SS: As for the tonal quality of the images in the book, this was deliberate and painstaking. To achieve a tonal balance across the images and keep a flow that felt organic was immensely challenging. I had made several failed attempts to process the files in a balanced fashion. Eventually, a series of decisions led to an uncoated paper that absorbed a lot of ink resulting in a low contrast, newspaper-like quality that I felt worked beautifully with the moody content of the photographs. This, married with an organic linen cover, helped to unify all the elements bringing a completely holistic feel to the project. There were immense challenges in getting this balance correct, but I think we did achieve it in the end. The entire process of endless failure and re-attempts took place over a four year period from 2018 to 2022, with the cover itself taking three months to get right.
MW: What drew you to photography. Who are the photographers you admire? Were these images inspired by any photographer you admired?
SS: I think as a film-maker, I was charged with the task of creating a universe for my stories to unfold, and for my characters to live in. I loved every minute of it, especially when I built very detailed sets, often period art deco spaces that worked for many of the narratives I was telling in my advertising life. However, while I believed myself to be working in an uncertain environment, that wasn’t the case at all. Endless pre-production meetings and detailed deliberations with heads of department would result in very detailed executional plans to ensure we stuck to the budget and time schedules. That sense of uncertainty was missing. And I think photography gave me that. I was responding to the world around me, not creating it. And so, when a special/decisive moment happens, the kind of happiness one experiences is indescribable. As my practice changed, so have the influences and the photographers I look up to. I began with the monochrome masters and as I moved towards colour, portraiture, working in analog in both medium and large format, my influences and heroes changed dramatically. Today I am heavily inspired by artists such as Alec Soth, Gillian Laub, Todd Hido, and Gregory Halpern, whose work is all much less ‘street’ oriented.
MW: Are you done with this series of images? What is your next project? SS: I think my journey of capturing the city on the street in monochrome is somewhat over, which doesn’t mean I won’t wander out and do it. It still balances and centres me when I’m uneasy or restless. I’m working on a long-term project, still very much oriented around the city, but from the inside looking out, perhaps exploring my perspective of privilege in a more authentic and organic way — seeing through the lens that this particular class also sees the city through. Deeply intimate, and somewhat detached from the hurly-burly of the street.
All photographs © Sunhil Sippy, from The Opium of Time by Sunhil Sippy. Published by Pictor
Book available for sale at www.sunhilsippy.com