Documenting the vanishing urban trades

Documenting the vanishing urban trades

For Posterity : Clare’s photographs of a tea merchant shop in Kolkata

Bangalore-based photographer Clare Arni’s eyes light up everytime she talks about her pet project, a series of photographs titled ‘Disappearing Professions in Urban India’. With malls springing up in every corner and chain stores spreading like a wild rash, craftsmen and skilled labourers seem to be getting increasingly marginalised. Mass produced goods have caught the fancy of today’s urban consumer, leaving very little room for specialised skills to thrive. Thematically, this is what Clare has set out to document. She is also exploring how often such trades have tried to find ways to adapt in order to survive.
Creatively collaborating with her sister Oriole Henry who does the research work, Clare began by looking at trades that were historically and traditionally associated with a city.

Her voice tinged with excitement, she says, “It is an interesting way to understand a city... what makes it tick, what makes it grow. The trigger for me was an exhibition last year on urban changes. I documented the silk industry here in Bangalore, one of the oldest trades that’s struggling to survive. I’ve been here for 20 years now, and I wondered suddenly, where are all those guys who mend buckets, who fluff mattresses?

For posterity Clare’s photographs of Kolkata Coffee House.For this project she clicked in four Indian cities — Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata. Her solo exhibition which travelled across India, consisting of 70 photographs of various disappearing professions, is already sold out. “I’m not doing this for nostalgia you know. I’m all for progress, like anyone else. But the people who are involved in these professions, they are passionate about their work, struggling against all odds,” says Clare.

She usually doesn’t take her camera out in the beginning. She indulges in a lot of conversation, understands the nature of their work, gets acquainted and then asks them if they mind being clicked. “I take quite a bit of time to shoot and I don’t want to be intrusive. Of course, photographers are intrusive, but still...”

People everywhere always seem to be asking themselves and those around them whether chasing passion and turning it into a career option is a smart plan, or is it being a bit too unrealistic?  “I had no cunning plan. I sort of stumbled onto photography. For a long time, I was scared that this giant foot would come and say ‘Get a job!” Fortunately for her, ever since she took up photography as a career, there’s been no looking back.
Although Clare’s initial years were spent doing fashion photography, she soon realised that her heart lay elsewhere. “There are two types of photography, one of which is studio-based. It’s a glamourous one, in the comforts of an air-conditioned room. But I chose to trudge around dusty streets in my rubber chappals. What’s brilliant about India is that I can shoot here till the end of my life and there would still be enough material for me to shoot. Also, you meet so many fabulous people.”

Having grown up in Peru, India and England where her roots can be traced to, Clare says she feels more at home in India than anywhere else. “As a child, I spent nine years in Madurai where my father worked,” she says. In fact, work took her back to Madurai recently where she shot the Madurai Meenakshi wedding festival.

In the next few months, she is planning to travel to work on a book that focuses on the culture of South Canara region. “I’ve realised that I don’t want to just shoot buildings, sculptures and various historical sites. I want to put people in it.” So this time around, she intends to look into how they lead their lives, more in depth, and record them living and breathing cultural heritage.