A story on photowalking

(A version of this appeared in The Times Of India ages ago)

Twenty-six-year-old Chandrachoodan Gopalakrishnan is in a dilemma. The next Chennai Photowalk, which has been organised by him on the second Sunday of every month, falls on June 8, but Chandru has to be in Coorg for a shoot. So for the first time since November 2007, when he and a group of photowalkers went from Mylapore to Fort St George shooting everything and anything that they saw, he is rescheduling the monthly photowalk.

“Traditionally,” he says, as if underscoring a great tradition, “the photowalk has happened on the second Sunday. But this time, I have to reschedule,” Chandru, known as Ravages to his friends on flickr, the popular online photo management and sharing application, said.

Over the last few months, Chandru has announced the trails the group will cover, varying it each time to suit a theme. For the seventh photowalk, as many as 45 people showed up armed with cameras. Today, months later, their photos are some of the best available of the city online.

Photowalkers have certain hard-to-miss attributes. They exhibit a passion for photography, a rabid loyalty towards Chennai and are usually bloggers. “It is genetical,” explains Anand Krishnamoorthy, a film sound engineer and photowalker. “Somewhere, the photography gene, which is a much older gene, mutated into a blogging gene. Biologists ought to study this phenomenon,” he says. Amid giggles all around, Chandru helpfully adds, “This is a self-selecting group. In other words, the group selected itself. Photowalkers can only turn out to be this way,” he said.

It began a few days before November 11, 2007, when Chandru announced the first photowalk on his blog, selectiveamnesia.org. About 15 people arrived at the designated place with their digitals SLRs and point-to-shoot cameras. “We had the unfortunate experience of meeting the world’s worst curator at a museum here,” Chandru says. All through the photowalks, Chandru has repeatedly run into red tape. Officials are various historic sites have stopped him from photographing the monuments, something that has made him and other photography enthusiasts fume.

Among the group, Chandru’s passion for the city’s history is unparalleled. Sharanya Manivannan, a writer, showed up at the first photowalk with a Canon powershot, to explore the city and learn from Chandru. “It’s been a privilege to learn the history of the city from my fellow photowalkers,” she said. The group is particularly aware of the hectic, blinkered lifestyle that many people lead. “We pass through an area many times without simply noticing anything. While photowalking, we are all aware,” said Anand.

The photowalkers have a huge following of nostalgic NRIs. A shot of a street that they grew up on and can no longer visit often sends them into raptures. “You know, the sort that goes ‘That’s Kutcheri Street. That’s where I grew up on,’” Anand said.

The unrivalled popularity of flickr, where the group uploads its photos, is a vital link in photowalking. Dilip Muralidharan, a software engineer, speaks of flickr almost as a religion. “It is much more than a photo sharing device,” says Dilip, who spends a good part of his waking hours on flickr. “I have made friends on flickr. I have also learned about female infanticide,” he said, referring to the popular 50 Million Missing group.

Tushal bought his first camera after making enough money to buy one writing code. “When people say Banglore is better than Chennai, my blood boils. This is one way of showing them we are as good or better,” he said.

Shillika’s granddad was a photographer. A first-year visual communications student, Shillika owns a Nikon F70 and an iphone. Photowalking, which she did to hone her photography skills, has also led her to an unexpected internship.

One of the things photowalkers are determined to do in future is to geo-tag their photos. With the right camera, each photograph also records GPS details of the location it is shot in, helping viewers scrolling across maps to see them as pop-up windows. “Also a best photo of the walk feature is a great idea,” said Anand to vigorous nods from the rest of the gang.

For many in the group, photowalking has come with perks. “It is been interesting to meet so many people from different walks of life and from all ages,” Dilip said. Sharanya has started organising poetry reading sessions, an offspring, she admits, of photowalking. Are all of them friends at the end of the day? “Oh, yes. We are,” they answer in chorus.

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