How the beautiful people project started
The two portraits that I took in the Juhu district of Mumbai on the short trip to India that I made with my grandpa in November 1999 became the catalyst for the beautiful people project.
It was only minutes after our plane from Heathrow had landed in Mumbai that grandpa said “let’s go to Juhu, it’s the best beach in Bombay you’ll like it there”. I do remember being a bit surprised by his comment, they seemed to come from a younger mans head and because my immediate thoughts after landing were, I have to look after him he is an old man and he looked knackered and I knew that he had alzheimer’s and he also had a heart problem AND he had just had a long flight so I said no, let’s go directly to our hotel off load our luggage and then we should rest a while. I can remember grandpa being disappointed by my reaction when I asked “can we just go to our hotel?” He passively and reluctantly allowed me to take the lead. I handed the name and address of our hotel to the lady behind the pre-paid taxi counter, she handed me the slip of paper and we went out side in to the heat to find our driver and taxi.
As we stepped out of the taxi after my first frenzied drive through Mumbai’s crazy traffic grandpa and me made eye contact out side the hotel we had just arrived at. He raised one eye brow at me, as he sometimes did and there was also a faint hint of a smile. The large sign in front of the equally large double glass doors read. Welcome to Centaur hotel, Juhu beach.
We went to our rooms and we put down our bags and we were both outside with our cameras within twenty minutes. No time for rest.
We walked down to the beach and both started to take photographs; I think it is ingrained in our genetic code to take photographs. To record things, capturing small moments in time, for ever preserving our memory. I grew up surrounded by the family photograph albums. These albums were brought out at any opportunity by my Grandpa and he was constantly adding to his collection by taking more photographs.
The photographs inside the sleeves of the albums that were eventually left to me after my grandpa’s death in 2003 seemed a world away from my life in England but they helped serve as portal for me allowing my imagination to travel back in time with them. They enabled the viewer to gaze back on life that is so far removed from our own and into a country and time that is a world away from India today but a world which I knew my family played a part in.
The small black and white photographs inside the albums showed my Great Grandfather, my Great, great-grandfather and were taken at the bungalow in Bangalore where Grandpa grew up. There were images of my Grandpa on scout trips as a boy into what seemed to me like the very wilds of India. There were photographs of day trips to the beach, this very beach in the 1930’s; there were photographs of old friends and girlfriends and photographs of my grandmother as a young woman and also photographs of my mother as a child. Then there were the photographs of soldiers in Burma during world war two, that seem to me to have an almost cinematic quality to them and finally the photographs of my grandparents leaving India for the UK on board the MV Varsova. A family’s entire history glued to the sleeves inside a few small books.
I took many rolls of film in the two weeks that I spent in India with my Grandpa back in 1999 but it was two portraits in particular that seemed to capture my feelings about India during that first trip. I took one portrait of a young man on the beach, in fact he asked me to take his photograph. The portrait is relaxed and informal, capturing the full glory of youth, happy and healthy.
I took a very different portrait the very next day. It is of an old man who we saw standing in the middle of the road and who was begging from passing cars that had become stuck in traffic. He was covered from head to toe, tumours were protruding all over his upper body. At first glance his plight looked and seemed desperate but when we spoke with him he seemed accepting and content.
I had never really been too interested in the India that I saw on the television. Television images never felt like MY India. My unique view of India was formed by stories that were trapped inside old photographs and these stories were occasionally set free when our family’s treasured family photo-albums were opened by my grandpa at the weekends. I think that is why I was in so much shock when I first arrived in Mumbai. I just wasn’t expecting what I got. I had never seen or heard any thing like this before. The medium of television had not adequately prepare my western senses for the onslaught of sights, smells and noise that emanate from an Indian mega-city..
All around the world there are different levels of human existence and all over the globe these levels are always extreme but only in India do these extreme levels of the rich and poor exist side by side where they breathe the same air and they smell the same smells and they co-exist in a seemingly impossible symbiotic relationship.