Avijit at the Wheel
I saw Zana and Ross accept their Oscars before I ever saw their film. Then, I ran out and did the latter. I watched, as these herokids were introduced to us with touch and grace. The year was 2004, and the Academy Award winning film was Born into Brothels. And one of those kids stood out. The one with mischievous eyes and laser wit. Or was it laser eyes and...whatever.. Avijit Halder was that out-stander, and yes, he did so because of an infectious curiosity. But he did so mainly because of those damn great photos he took. Kid with Camera indeed. Zana Briski introduced him to the form. Avi did the rest. Not a kid anymore, Avijit Halder brings it even better and badder today...
Tell me about your art. What is keeping you busy these days?
...Since I graduated, I do a lot of independent work. I’m still working doing music videos. I also do feature films on a much bigger scale. I’m learning while making a living.
In terms of my artwork I’m really most interested in street photography.
What are you shooting on your own and when are you going out to shoot?
I’m very interested in the fleeting moments in life and things that are not very steady. The times like dusk and dawn or right after the rain when there is that specific kind of light. Things that are uncommon… You see certain people, certain characters that you wouldn’t normally see. and the narrative that comes out of it. I love photographing that.. I really like going out at night because where I am from I’m not used to following traffic laws, so I walk really fast and discover things. you really get to see the city. I live in Jackson Heights Queens, in really one of the most diverse areas in the world, I believe. So even in the middle of the night, there is a lot of life... I [also] love photographing in the light of the sun as it’s about to rise.
How are the people - the subjects - different in those marginal hours?
The daily life of people here is very busy and they are sort of unaware of what's going on around them. So people are most real around that time early in the morning, and interesting things happen.
Does anyone ever feel like its invasive?
Yeah absolutely. [laughs]. I have a different sense of morality when it comes to photographing on the street. I just photograph and if someone complains, I deal with it then and there. But I don’t really have a strategy. I actually like when people interact with me, and I like to photograph afterwards, like I might not take a photograph of someone, but if they look at me with this weird expression or this sense of surprise, confusion or anger, I have to capture it. And once I've captured it, if there is a problem, then I deal with it haha. I have gotten into trouble a couple times but I enjoy it, and I think people get used to seeing me.
This is what I'm passionate about but there are other projects I’m working on. [One such project] will go on for 10 years. Every year I go back home to Sonagachi and shoot in black and white film there, and document the changes that have happened since I left. I’ve already accumulated hundreds of negatives. I love shooting with film…
In another collaborative project I’m working on, my friend and I are shooting large format film in the streets of Kolkata in the brothel. This project is called The God Within Us. In the Hindu mythology, there are many gods and goddesses, and they represent many different things. We are using the most worshiped gods. Even in the brothels, we shot people [in] scenes of everyday things. Inspired by the idea of a calendar. For example we connected the story of the god Yama, who is the god of death, with the image of a cop with a dead body in the brothel. Anytime there is a dead body the cop comes to investigate it. So we would have the cop in his uniform from the neck down but his face would be manipulated to look like the face of the god Yama with the crown and makeup. So the idea is that all the stories of god that we hear all come from everyday things, and that even here, we all have the aspects of God within us…
Twelve years ago the film Born into Brothels came out. As a child, what was your first impression of this strange woman, Zana Briski, coming and taking your photograph?
[She] wasn't the first person to come and photograph... although no one was quite like Zana.
How was she different?
She was closer to us than others. Maybe because of how Zana is and her personality the more she came the more familiar she became and that started to make her more invisible and then she was able to bring out the camera.
When did she first bring the idea to you children that she was going to show you how to shoot photographs?
What she told me was she went in ‘96 or ‘97 to Kolkata with a friend and they visited a brothel and she felt a connection like she had to be there and do something. Zana did start to live there and really started growing a sense of kinship and friendship with us. She realized that we were really interested in her camera, it was like a big toy to us.
You were excited, but were you also curious about photography?
I was excited, yes but I also remember feeling very nervous about having something so expensive. Back then, the way we were used to photography is that you would go to a studio and spend a lot of money to take a family photograph, but here Zana was and she gave us four rolls of film for a week. I remember thinking that it was so expensive and such a valuable thing.
What was it like when she first processed what you guys were shooting and when you saw images you had taken?
The first image of mine was a picture of a dog. Everyone else in the class took pictures of their family and friends but I was always too shy and embarrassed about doing that. I was already painting back then a lot, so that really influenced how I set up compositions and stuff like that. I used to photograph of lot of people in the street and trash. I didn’t know then what photography was, but these were things that I thought you never see in photographs.
When did you start painting?
When I was about six.
Wow, so this was just another medium for you.
Yeah it was another medium to me. It was exciting. I was actually more into painting than photography. There is a scene in Born into Brothels where my grandmother is showing some of the awards that I had won for painting. My mom took me to an after school art class. She was one of the people who really advocated education in that house. Despite me being there and growing up there I went to a good school. I had to be on a scholarship and rank well to keep my scholarship. My mom actually didn’t use my real address, she gave a fake address. In the midst of all this Zana came and my mom also died [during the making of the film]. So Zana then sort of became my mother in a way.
So you became closer to Zana when your mother passed?
Yes, yes of course. The funny thing is that my mom and Zana never really met although my mom was still alive when I started interacting with Zana, but they never actually met. But my mom was really advocating for education.
That says a lot about your drive and motivation.
Yes, a lot of that did come from my mother.
At that young age, was painting a way for you to process the death of your mother?
No, I didn’t paint because of that. Painting to me was honestly [more of an] an ego boost. I was getting a voice and winning prizes. It felt like I was getting recognition in outside society already and it was more instant gratification than my photography. Zana loved… my photography and she was telling me that I was good, but there was no prospect. She never told me that I could go abroad and study Photography. So I didn’t see the point of pursuing it. The thing I did wrong was that I stopped going to school altogether because I just wanted to do competitions and paint. In a way I, was dealing with my mother’s death through that - by leaving school and not caring about anyone or anything.
So there was a time that was really tough for me, and I was in complete denial about my mother’s death. Also I had a weird relationship with my mom and it comes with a lot of guilt that when my mother was alive I was not fond of her. She was very tough on me. So there was this guilt in the back of my mind like maybe she passed away because of me... because I disliked her so much... and because when she did pass I felt this sort of relief...
Its very complicated, but I think that the fact that I can be honest and talk about is most important. I like expressing it whenever I can, because I have kept it inside of me for a long long time...
Did you ever get to a point in your life where you were struck by the journey your life has taken and how art is a way of capturing that?
Yeah I think of that every day, to be honest. I also think what if Zana ended up in another place or another building even. I wouldn’t even know what art is or be able to express. I wouldn’t have any of that.
I have the sense you would have found your way to it somehow. It would have been a different way but that you would have indeed found your own way.
I think so. Not maybe in the same platform. But I did always have the drive and that was really due to my mother. Even coming here, I came here when I was sixteen on my own and there was really no one to take care of me. I went to high school and college - to White Mountain School in New Hampshire first.
What was that like? Here you are in the U.S. and it’s totally different.
Its an interesting story. I went to Amsterdam - that was in the film. someone came to me and said that if I wanted to study abroad they could help me. I said that I wanted to go now, but [it proved too soon for them], so I started looking for school myself. I had always been in very large schools [without] much interaction with the teacher, so I wanted to go to a small school like a prep school where you could dress interesting and stuff you know. I wanted everything opposite of Kolkata... so I applied in New Hampshire and got full scholarship and I think it was fun for like a month. Then I was like “Okay, I’m done with the nature” I remember it was super cold but I bought a fan and I turned it towards the wall so it was loud enough that I could sleep. I only spent one year there. After that I went to Utah. I enjoyed it…[but] there was no city life, so it was tough to an extent.
Were you photographing while you were a teenager at these High Schools?
I did photograph at White Mountain School for a little while, but no, I didn’t photograph much at that time. I never wanted to be a photographer. I don’t think even today I [really] am. It’s always been a passionate thing and selling it is difficult. It’s just tougher because you love something and people [who are paying you] then want you to work on it and then it becomes Work and is difficult.
I wanted to study medicine actually, so I was in a huge dilemma applying to NYU and that happened for a lot of different reasons. When I first came to the U.S. I went to New York City and I lived with Ross and Zana there. So NYC to me was America and I knew this is where I wanted to be. I also saw NYU there and I told Ross that this was the college I wanted to go to.
In my Junior year [in high school], NYU was having a summer program for students who wanted to apply. So I did the program, and I applied for both medicine and film... like a double major so I could become a doctor too. But I dropped my science score in the first semester, and I thought, okay that’s it. It was so hard to do anything else other than film. It didn’t feel like studying. It felt like fun.
A large part of your life was having been in this Academy Award winning film that was made and now you were in film school. How did it feel going in the direction of this influence?
I came from painting, then was introduced to photography and when I got to motion pictures I had not watched many movies. When I got to film school, half the time I didn’t even know what my classmates were referring to. I started to feel really insecure and did not really participate or talk to anyone. It was really difficult. It was also very difficult to know what in film I wanted to do. Everyone wants to be a director but the director also has to be something else, a writer at least, or something.
It was in my third year that I picked up photography again. I did some photography before that, but it wasn’t passionately. I was [now] in a class where I had to write about a photographer or an artist, so I chose to write about Sebastião Salgado who’s a Brazilian photographer. His work is photojournalistic, but also very well composed and beautiful. He says that he doesn’t like assignments, he would rather go and spend a long amount of time with people to live in their shoes. This way, he gets to take a lot of photographs and learn more then eventually he gets the images of the story that he wants to tell. So this is his philosophy for photography. I was inspired by his work, and as I was writing the essay, I thought “I don’t know what I’m doing. This is messed up.” So I went to the Dean and said I wanted to take a semester off - I want to go photograph. I went back to India and that’s when I started the photography I’m doing now. From then on, I realized what in film I wanted to do, and I fell in love with cinematography. I was like “How did I not know this was my thing?”
Coming from an improbable upbringing into a school with a lot of more privileged kids, you seem to have kept ahead of letting your background disrupt you.
Yeah but even today it’s a struggle. One thing I want to achieve by myself is that I don’t want to be known as the Born into Brothels kid. I mean it's great that it's there and [can] push me, and it’s good to know my history and remember where I’m from, but it's always been most important to me not to use that by any means. If someone has a question and wants to ask about it that’s great, but I want to be able to create my own identity. So in that, I’m still a struggling artist, I want to get more work, and I know that I have it in me to really get somewhere.
It’s clear to me that so much of this was in place with your mother and just your personality that when Zana came in, she influenced a personality with drive and creativity that was already there.
Even from the beginning with Zana, when I was like eight or nine I would talk with her about composition and perspective. When we were on the way to the beach, that is in the movie, we were sitting by the car door and talking about motion and motion blur in photography. She was interested that I was interested. Whereas the rest of the kids were with Ross, I was always with her.
Are you still in touch regularly?
Yeah, she just came back a few days ago. I will see her soon and look forward to talking to her.
What I love about her is that she never looked down upon me. She always gave a certain amount of respect, like somehow whatever I was saying it made sense to her and she wanted to hear more - [that] whatever I was doing... it mattered.
How often do you go back to Kolkata?
I try to go every year... I was there last year for five months working on a film that I wrote. I’m still working on that, it was originally a short but I think we are going to make it a feature. ...and more and more I’m wanting to get into photojournalism. A lot of people are asking me to publish my work but I [am looking for the] right platform.
There have to be those moments where you think “Damn, look where I’ve come from and where I am now.”
Yeah it does happen. I worked on this film just last month called Catfight with Sandra Oh and Alicia Silverstone.
Throughout the film I didn’t tell anyone. And at the end of the film we were hanging out and they asked me how I ended up at NYU, and if my family was here. So then I had to talk about it. Everyone was really amazed and luckily everyone was respectful. I hear a lot of things, [and] it's really crazy. A lot of people will say “Oh, I’m really glad you’re okay now.” And it really does piss me off sometimes - when people sort of assume because you were born there you had a miserable life. If I could look at a graph of my life, I would see how up and down it has been, but I think that’s exciting. Seeing where I come from to where I am, and knowing I can always go back to sleep on the ground as much as I can sleep in a luxurious place. To be honest, I could not imagine a better life then I’ve had.
You can follow Avijit on Instagram.