Lens Talk: Peeking Into the Photo Albums of Mumbai’s Homeless

Towering skyscrapers, zooming cars, thriving industries - Mumbai is the quintessential city of dreams. Millions come here every day in search of better fortunes. But not all find it.

Along with movie stars and the super-rich, Mumbai is also home to a nearly invisible population which dreams and lives without a legal roof over its head. The Bodyguard Lane Album, an exhibition that’s part of the third edition of FOCUS Photography Festival Mumbai, is bringing the focus on the city’s homeless people.

The Bodyguard Lane Album revolves around memories - in the form of photographs - of the homeless people living in a South Bombay street known as Bodyguard Lane. Some of them have been living there for generations. They are not only precious personal memories of a people who live in constant fear of eviction, but also a tangible historical record of the changing street itself. And they range from hand-painted portraits to pictures taken at fairs and weddings.

The exhibition is being presented by BIND, a collaborative of Indian photographers who interacted with the people in Bodyguard Lane, heard the stories behind their photographs, and decided to digitise them so as to preserve them.

(Photo courtesy: Anita Kharwa)

Philippe Calia, Photographer-filmmaker, BIND CollectiveTwo aspects drew us to this project. Firstly, the inter-generational aspect - as opposed to homeless people in the West for instance, a majority of ‘homeless’ people here have been living in the street for generations. Secondly, while street dwellers are often marginalised, stigmatised and not acknowledged (even as statistics), their contributions to the economy of Mumbai as well as their integration into the city’s networks are real. As photographers, we thought that the images which belonged to these families could offer an interesting perspective, different than our own. They showed the historical dimension and showed an insider’s point of view. The stories attached to these photographs were powerful because they were telling us stories related to their predicament of living in the street, but also because because they spoke of what people can project in these documents.  Andrea Fernandes, Photographer, BIND CollectiveIt’s very difficult for the families of Bodyguard Lane, and certainly many others, to freely move around the city now. First because they are constantly questioned by the authorities about their presence and secondly, the constant fear of evictions keeps at least one family member housebound. All of the photographs from the past 30 years of these families’ trips in the city - at monuments, fairs, the sea, firmly place them in the history of a city that does not fully acknowledge them yet.

Preserving the photographs is also very difficult for the residents, battle as they do with Mumbai’s crippling monsoons, evictions and life on the road. Sometimes kept in a plastic bag or within the folds of a blouse, it is chiefly the women who are custodians of these memories.

Philippe CaliaWe realised that these people, who are deprived of all the basic amenities (water, sanitation, electricity) also found their memories (photographs) crushed and washed away. Lots of the people we interviewed had lost their photographs because of evictions or monsoons… So the process of digitising these images ensures somehow that these memories are now safe. We can do as many prints as we want. 

Once the residents of Bodyguard Lane agreed to show their photographs to the seven members of the collective, it opened up a Pandora’s box.

Philippe CaliaThere were some beautiful moments were we would flip through their ‘albums’, while their owners would tell us the story, and more people would gather and start taking a look too. It’s like opening the family album at someone’s place, except that here the living room is on the footpath. 

(Photo courtesy: BIND Collective)
(Photo courtesy: BIND Collective)
(Photo courtesy: BIND Collective)

The pictures throw up countless poignant moments - from one reminding how an alcoholic brother tore up the photo of a couple - to the one which a sister uses to apply kum kum on a dead brother’s forehead.

(Photo courtesy: Anita Kharwa)

Andrea FernandesOne day, Madhu was explaining the images with the kum kum. She told us since her father and brother have died, she applies kum kum to their photograph. She said if her brother was alive during Raksha Bandhan, she would’ve tied rakhi to him but now a photograph has to do.  

(Photo courtesy: Anita Kharwa)
(Photo courtesy: BIND Collective)
(Photo courtesy: Anita Kharwa)
(Photo courtesy: Anita Kharwa)

BIND has also made a lovely pilot video in which residents share their memories of the photographs. Watch it here.

The project is in collaboration with Pehchan, with the support of the Institut Francais / French Embassy in India, Kala Ghoda Association and Alliance Francaise de Bombay. The exhibition is open in Kala Ghoda till March 23.