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The Arts

Am I a Voyeur?: The Question That Confronts A Photographer on the Indian Street

Questions regarding privacy and privilege cannot be discarded, but the city, in this case Mumbai, opens up depending on the intention of the photographer.

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I only ever broached the question of whether my photographic practice was intrusive years after having vigorously explored the streets of my city. I had always considered myself a reasonably sensitive citizen while capturing life on the streets around me – learning about Mumbai, a city I had chosen to call home, and developing a sense of belonging, if you will.

The cover of The Opium of Time by Sunhil Sippy. Photo: Colston Julian

As my practice evolved, I noticed that when I walked with a camera, the world became a more comfortable place for me. The device became a protective shield – one that allowed me to steal moments, be furtive, go unnoticed. I believed that stealth was a good thing. What a skill – to disappear into the crowd and then capture life as it unfolded around me. 

Did that make me a voyeur? 

I never once considered that I might be doing something wrong. And I still don’t. But I think there are questions regarding privacy, the powerlessness of a camera’s subjects, and the most controversial one, regarding privilege, that I can no longer shove aside.

When one makes photographs here, the camera is trained on a large demographic, but one different to oneself. The choice to walk on the streets is a rarity among the city’s privileged and the decision to turn the streets into a canvas is a conscious and premeditated act; one that I have disconcertingly accepted as sometimes voyeuristic. 

When I walk the streets of London, where I grew up, or any developed metropolis, to get from A to B, or ride public transport to work or to dinner, the commuters beside me are from a broad cross section of society. But each time I scout the streets of Mumbai, my own place of privilege becomes overwhelmingly obvious. I truly become aware of my “gaze”.

One of my favourite times to shoot is late at night. At night, the streets of this city are filled with both rawness and romance. And peeking voyeuristically into this world is exciting, even if a little uncomfortable. When my subjects are powerless to either protest or acquiesce is when I’m most conflicted. I always feel they need to be aware of my presence, to participate (to some extent) in the making of the image. 

I have come to realise that the street – in any city – opens itself to you depending on your intention. But it takes no time at all to turn that intention into ‘exotica’. Its allure is simply how complex, unusual and captivating daily life can be. Access is easy and subjects are unlikely to object to the camera. As my practice developed, I noticed the city had begun to change, too. ‘Modernity’ crept in, and I might argue that ‘exotica’ has been replaced by the ‘grotesque’. My struggle was no longer restricted to balancing acceptability with appropriateness. I now had to find beauty in the aesthetics of a city in flux. 

Also read: In Photos: The Endangered Performance Art of the Circus

Above all, I realise that this is just what I do. I try to look into worlds that are both familiar and not. I look at life, all kinds of life, not to expose or exploit but to celebrate. If that makes me a voyeur, then perhaps it’s a tag one has to learn to live with. 

For images from the book:
©Sunhil Sippy
Images from The Opium of Time by Sunhil Sippy published by Pictor.

Sunhil Sippy is an ad film maker and photographer who moved to Mumbai from the UK in 1995 to explore a career in film and advertising. He is passionate about the streets of Mumbai which he has photographed for the last 15 years.