The storage cupboard in Shahzad Bhiwandiwala’s terrace apartment in Mumbai is packed with action figures and Lego sets. Some of them are from his childhood — he’s painstakingly painted over faded Lego, leaving the rest to touch-ups — while a larger chunk is pristine and new. There’s a super cool Spartan Batman collectible, a number of Star Wars figurines, Lord of the Rings characters and more. The detailing on the face of a 12-inch Obi Wan Kenobi is the most intricate and realistic I’ve ever seen.
“I’m going to have to figure out where to keep the new ones; it’s a pretty good problem to have,” grins the 24-year-old HR professional, who photographs toys as a hobby; what stemmed from a childhood passion for toys, combined with a need to have a creative outlet as an adult, is something Bhiwandiwala didn’t foresee.
“I experimented with wildlife and landscape photography before coming across these amazing Star Wars pictures on Instagram — turns out they were all created using toys,” he says, explaining that at that point, he hadn’t studied photography and had only his childhood toys to experiment with. Bhiwandiwala started photographing his limited collection, his lack of technical knowledge meaning that multiple tweaks in settings would lead to the desired image.
A two-month course in the basics of photography and several experiments later, he’s finally figured out how to create top-of-the-line imagery using his favourite characters. Apart from engaging with fellow toy photographers on Facebook, Instagram, blogs and webzines, Bhiwandiwala has managed to catch the eye of toymakers as well. “None of the brands making these toys sell them in India because of a lack of demand. So buying them online is expensive. A 12-inch figure can sometimes cost around Rs 25,000,” he says.
Bhiwandiwala immediately started writing to these brands, and — only too happy to explore a way to bridge the gap — they agreed to send him a steady supply of the coolest figures they came up with. “I post the images on Indian photography collectives to promote this as an art form. Plus, brands post the images I shoot on their pages, and that’s how it has snowballed,” he explains, adding, “I started off with just two table lamps and a black backdrop, superimposing figures onto backgrounds I would create on Photoshop.” Now, he shoots outdoors on his terrace, using plants and sticks to create trees and forests, sparking small, controlled fires where possible. Not all experiments yield the results he hopes for, though. “Last Diwali, I tried using a sutli bomb to get a sparkling effect and it went off in my face,” he laughs.
He might be one of India’s only photographers dabbling in this genre, but Bhiwandiwala is one among a sea of professional toy photographers in the US, UK, Japan, Singapore and other countries, so he makes an effort to engage with them, and in a way, represent India. He says, “It’s a pretty strong movement abroad, so why not bring it here? Lots of my friends enjoy pop culture, but there isn’t much exposure here. This is a small start.” It helps that his parents are supportive, and don’t cringe at wads of money being spent on a rare action figure either.
From Flickr uploads that had a lukewarm response to Instagram and Facebook pages that have met with considerably more success, Bhiwandiwala’s journey has been slow but sure-footed. He regularly contributes as a guest blogger to independent publications, like the toy photography magazine Exclu Collective and popular blog Stuck In Plastic. A couple of his pictures also made it to an exhibition at Mumbai’s National Institute of Photography last year, and he now wants to have a solo show in the near future.