On assignment for an Indian news magazine to photograph a story about one of the country’s cleanest brothels, Ritesh Uttamchandani did the unexpected: He imagined himself in the prone position of the sex workers at work, and made a series of photographs of their bedroom ceilings. They show the drying cloths, movie posters and other personal effects that help transport the prostitutes beyond the indignities of their work, and humanize them to viewers.
Uttamchandani says he came up with the idea after his local contact for the story offered to facilitate pictures of the prostitutes serving clients. “He said, ‘That’s usually what foreign photographers want.’ I said that someone in a sexual act was of no consequence to the story,” the photographer recalls. He adds, “I was hard-pressed to think of something else a little more sensitive, and something that also demands a little bit more of the viewer, and that’s when I thought of [photographing] the ceilings.”
He drew inspiration from his own personal experience, lying in bed for months after a bike accident, staring at his own bedroom ceiling while he convalesced. During that time, Uttamchandani explains, “I was thinking about the past, about regrets. All sorts of different emotions would pop up because I was immobile. There’s a similar kind of immobility [if you’re a prostitute] with a client on top of you. I thought: I needed to take a tangential view of what the scenario is.”
Once he finished the assignment, the ceiling images sat unpublished for several years. Uttamchandani says he didn’t expect the magazine to publish them. They wanted a story about the brothel and the women who worked there, so he also shot another set of photos, using a more traditional documentary approach. Those photos were published, but Uttamchandani avoided anything obvious or shocking in those photos, too.
“My approach for the published photos was, since it doesn’t look like a brothel, I shouldn’t even try hard to make it look like one,” he says. “It should just look like a day in the life of an ordinary slum settlement or like ordinary people.”
The published photos reflected the daily lives of the women, who lived under strict house rules. Pictures showed them joking around, playing with their kids under a tree, studying their school lessons. “The madam encourages the women to study, the madam encourages the women to ensure that their children don’t get into the trade,” Uttamchandani explains.
He got no more explicit than a photo of a man cruising while hiding his face, and another photo of three women slapping a man with a slipper. “That could pass as an ordinary fight or ordinary scene in an Indian slum,” the photographers says. There’s also a photograph of a trash can full of used condoms, which served the story, he explains, “because the madam insists that no clients be served without a condom.”
Uttamchandani says he is restrained less by taboos against sex—which are stronger in India then in the U.S. or Europe—than by his unwillingness to exploit his subjects. “There are certain lines I don’t want to cross,” he says. “Images with shock value, and an exotic oh-my-god look—I find those images to be easy and demeaning. I don’t see those images promoting any understanding or empathy of people who are there.”
He attributes his self-imposed boundaries to his upbringing. “I was raised by three women: a mother and two sisters,” he says. But his approach is also informed by the Indian literature and films he devoured while growing up, the mentorship of photographers Shirish Barodia and A. Srinivas, and his realization along the way that photographers can do injustice to subjects.
“I’ll be blunt and honest: There is a certain Western gaze [on] India. When Indians see that kind of work—Steve McCurry being celebrated across the world, for instance—we think maybe this is the way [photography should be done],” Uttamchandani says. “Subjectively, it makes me feel like I’m in a circus and people are looking at me [and] my fellow Indians in a way which is probably just skin deep.”
A better approach, he explains, is to spend time with subjects, converse with them, and provide context to viewers in the form of captions and text. “Just making a photograph is not where it stops,” he says. His approach requires more effort on the part of both photographer and viewer. “A little bit of difficulty thrown at people is alright,” he says. “If I’m going to be doing the same thing that everybody else is doing, [and] my brain is going to function at only 30 percent, then I’d rather get an MBA and make a lot more money.”
After Uttamchandani’s story about the clean brothel was published, he tried to find outlets for his “Ceilings” project. He pitched it to a photo festival, proposing to print the images big, and instead of mounting them on a wall, mounting them above a bed or a cushion so viewers could lie down and experience the images the way the prostitutes look at the actual ceilings.
That proposal was rejected, but the news magazine that commissioned the brothel story ended up publishing the “Ceilings” project several years later. “They did a story about personal histories of people on the job,” Uttamchandani says. Accompanying a story about a prostitute, the “Ceilings” photographs eschewed the obvious sensationalism, and respected subject and viewers alike.
Note: This article is part of a three-part series about photographers portraying trauma without adding to it. Click here to find additional articles from this series.