The Longest Night: 26/11
Photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani revisits the Mumbai terror attacks of 2008.
By Chintan Girish Modi
Ritesh Uttamchandani is a Mumbai-based photographer, who is curating a moving series of photo stories on Instagram using the hash tag #thelongestnight to commemorate the seventh anniversary of the terror attacks that jolted Mumbai on 26th November, 2008. The photographs are from his own coverage of the terror attacks, and the accompanying text is some amazingly rich, anecdote-filled commentary about what he experienced at the time, including serious critique of how the tragedy was covered by the media. These Instagram posts are excerpts from a long piece he originally wrote for www.galli.in in November 2014. He is now experimenting with a new format to tell the same stories.
Why do you think it is important to remember?
In today’s time with layers of information being piled on us via not just conventional forms of media, some of us tend to forget. While it’s important to forgive, forget and move on, the core reason why some stories need to be retold by different characters is that there are lessons to be learnt, and, of course, to generate empathy. A straightforward news report may or may not generate the same impact on the heart of the reader as several features that tell the story through the eyes of different participants. I owe thanks to Manu Joseph who encouraged me to write. Judging by my personal responses (as a mere consumer) to some pieces that other photographers too have done on other topics, I love the imperfection that they tend to bring in. It’s almost like two friends having a conversation that is rather placid on the surface but is quite deep in nature. Not every retelling or version of a story has to aspire to any prescribed standards.
When you now walk those streets that were smeared with blood on the night of November 26, 2008, how do your mind and body respond?
There is just an odd sense of – “Hey, I was here when the man fell in front of me!” or “We fell asleep here,” and so on. I am not unsettled much. And for the record, the streets weren’t smeared with blood. It’s easy to romanticize tragedies, much like grand love stories but I consciously try and stay away from it because that’s a trap. It happened, I saw, I did my job, and it’s over. But all photographers, at least the many that I know (me too) have a very vivid visual memory, so details are fresh. I remember the light blue checked shirt that Duncan Grant was wearing, I remember who called me at what time, or for that matter what I was wearing, and all that apart from the gross details of the tragedy itself.
I had tears in my eyes as I read your personal account of what you call ‘the longest night’. One of the most moving descriptions was that of you picking up a few packets of biscuits from an abandoned paan shop, and tucking away a hundred rupee note under the owner’s chair cushion. Do you sometimes feel surprised that you survived that night?
Not really. In hindsight, I just feel I could have performed better. A second faster, and some images could have been better; a wider lens instead of a tele, two steps to the left and such. Funny, and kind of morbid that one is thinking of aesthetics and composition and light while in the midst of it. Hell, besides being a journo I was also just another guy on the periphery, and I twice came close to being yet another statistic. So did a lot of my friends. But I come from a family of story tellers, and I am fascinated by photos, and we all know a bad picture will not move anyone. So it’s important, and comes naturally to survive, go an extra mile, stay careful.
But also, I must thank my seniors. They threw me into the deep end right at the beginning. I remember during my internship being slapped by some people who ran an illegal parking lot, and I called up my mentor and he was like, “Don’t be direct, be smart, approach a place sideways, etc.” I had also read a fair amount of books – Inside Photojournalism by Howard Chapnick, and lots of docus on Reza Deghaty and James Nachtwey. One of my teachers back in college – Sumedha Raikar – had told us in class about the need to construct mind maps when going about town, which is a really great exercise.
Of course, we humans have a fantastic inbuilt survival mechanism, which, coupled with instinct, rises to any occasion. Plus, family! It takes a while for every photographer’s family to gauge the scale of what they do. Most of the time we do shit Bollywood profiles and such but when things of a certain magnitude happen, and your folks get it, it’s bliss! The lesser the worry on a photographer’s head, the more focused one is on keeping oneself safe and active. Of what use is an injured or mentally strung out photographer after all?
In what ways, if any, did that night alter your relationship with your camera, and with photography?
I don’t really know how to answer that. I just think that the process of looking back at those images after a certain passage of time was helpful. I hadn’t touched that folder in seven years because there was no need, and only once I saw it for that piece was I able to pick some of the subtler, better images which I hadn’t done so in my first edit of 2008. As I said before, I just wish I had performed better than I did.
You have been critical of the appalling way in which many television journalists went about seeking subjects to be interviewed, trying to outdo each other in terms of being early birds pouncing on any new material that would potentially qualify as exclusive. Have you seen similar patterns in the way recent terror attacks in Beirut, Paris and Baghdad have been reported, or have you sensed a substantial difference?
I have stayed away from TV news since a year now. In fact, I didn’t even know till two months ago that the TV in my room had conked off. Even after repairing it, I haven’t switched it on yet. I consume news in the written word, and it’s a lot better. It helps my process of image making since one is free to construct one’s own version of say, a peeling yellow wall that a writer may describe.
Since you experienced the terror attacks in Mumbai at such close quarters, how do you feel about what has happened or not happened since 2008 with those identified as having planned and executed those attacks?
I am no one to comment on that.
The relationship between India and Pakistan has soured considerably since 2008, and one of the big reasons behind this is the fact that Hafiz Saeed, who is considered to be the mastermind behind these attacks, roams about freely in Pakistan. How do you feel about this as an artist based in Mumbai – a city that has recently been in the limelight for hostility towards artists from Pakistan, and also as someone from the Sindhi community that was displaced in 1947 at the time of the Partition?
Firstly, I am not an artist. If an image is perceived as a piece of art by a viewer or a critic, it’s great but I wouldn’t term myself an artist. Ever.
Also, I am so charmed by the Sindhi community’s resilience and forward approach. They got kicked out, or left, or were forced to leave but at no point did they form a militant group and go all out to reclaim the land. They just went into restart mode. And even in our home, I never heard my father or mother utter a word about partition, which is bad in some ways too but we turned out all right.
This hostility towards Pakistan is merely a political game. People are stupid to fall for it. The process of enquiry into anything is so stunted it beats me how some people make it past fourth grade, let alone get an MBA from some American university and a few crores-a-month salaries.
What are the various kinds of photography projects that you are now looking to do? What do you love most about this medium?
Well, I am a fairly distracted person, so I am often wandering aimlessly on Bombay streets. I can’t call it street photography because then you have like some hajaar references and rules, and masters who come into play. I like to observe and react. And so I do small-small projects, like I took lots of static images of pop-up street shrines and such.
I love everything about the medium and the new avenues, like Instagram. What I hate though is two things – the new crop of photographers sitting on their high horse, dismissing mainstream media. Let’s face it – mainstream ‘anything’ functions on the lowest common denominator principle most of the time. Look at Bollywood. And a newspaper or a famous TV channel employs hajaar other people whose mouths are to be fed. Some random blurry piece of art won’t do that. To feed the masses employed in your office, you have to get money from the masses outside it. Media houses have pressures and compulsions, and financiers who need to be satisfied too. And we have newer pressures now besides individual political leanings. We are at a time when an ad agency designs an entire newspaper, drafts and controls the edit policy, and sells it as a concept to a publishing house.
The mainstream media is also the only major source of information for people. I would love to see how some of the cribbers fare if mainstream news outlets were to go a month long vacation. And if one really wants to change a few things in the mainstream, you can’t do it by standing outside the muck. Get in. Get dirty. And begin the clean up.
Lastly, I hate sitting in front of the computer for more than 15 minutes. Post processing on a digital device really bores me at times. I wish there were a better way of working on one’s photographs, or I wish I was rich enough to have a photo-correcting minion at my disposal!
Note: All photographs courtesy https://www.instagram.com/riteshuttamchandani/