All Figured Out

 

Now That’s Tentacular!: The sinister Dr Octopus (Spiderman’s arch nemesis) reaches out to grab hold of some ice-cream from Parsi Dairy Farm, Dhobi Talao. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

Now That’s Tentacular!: The sinister Dr Octopus (Spiderman’s arch nemesis) reaches out to grab hold of some ice-cream from Parsi Dairy Farm, Dhobi Talao. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

Utsav Chakraborty takes his collection of action figures around many of Mumbai’s landmarks, to create surreal stills right out of action comic books!

My Assignment

  • Description: To shoot action figures strategically placed around trademark places in Mumbai
  • Duration: Two days of travelling around the city
  • Notes: Include popular culture references in your frame when shooting figurines, since they do not have any emotions. Play with their ‘apparent’ sizes to create humour.

Comic book-based action figures have always fascinated me, which is probably the reason why I decided to photograph them. This assignment came about when I had to shoot for a college project. The theme given to us was ‘Sacred Mumbai’. While other students chose to shoot temples, mosques and churches, I thought I should represent my very own version of ‘idol worship’ through images!

My Perspective
The action-figure culture has not developed in India as much as it has in the western countries. Collecting them, let alone playing with them as a child, is thought of as playing with ‘dolls’.

Cleaning Up the Dirt: Standing against a ‘Clean-Up Mumbai’ trash compactor, The Abomination looks surprised at a rare instance of cleanliness in Mumbai city. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

Cleaning Up the Dirt: Standing against a ‘Clean-Up Mumbai’ trash compactor, The Abomination looks surprised at a rare instance of cleanliness in Mumbai city. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

What people do not realise is that each of these action figures comes with a story, a virtue or just plain propaganda. For instance, G I Joes never really stood for war; but in fact, they teach you about working together as a team and making a choice between good and evil. We learn from Spiderman that even superheroes can have human vulnerabilities. To adhere to the theme of ‘Sacred Mumbai’, I decided to shoot these action figures against Mumbai’s prominent landmarks like the Nehru Science Centre, the Gateway of India, Siddhivinayak temple and even inside a local train.

The Process
My aim was to make the figurines look life-like, as if they had landed to save (or even take over) the city. I would hold out the action figure in one hand, carefully observe the LCD until I felt that the figure merged well with the background, and then click. My subject and the background were more or less structurally stable, so it was only a matter of how I placed one against the other.

I’m Just Like You: Venom (Spiderman’s doppelganger) tries to blend in with the crowd at Elphinstone road. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

I’m Just Like You: Venom (Spiderman’s doppelganger) tries to blend in with the crowd at Elphinstone road. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

I wanted each photograph to have a touch of humour and irony. For instance, I placed one figurine near a road divider so that it looked as if it were walking on a Mumbai street. I also gave emphasis to colours; for instance, the Batman figurine (with his trademark black suit) was placed before a backdrop of Mumbai’s ubiquitous pavement divider and taxi cab.

I mostly used the macro mode, so that the backdrop did not overwhelm the subject. It also allowed me to capture the fine details in the action figures while keeping them in sharp focus. I shot during the day, as night light would have made it rather difficult to balance the light falling on the figurine and that in the background. Once I was done shooting, I simply collated the photographs and presented them one after the other. The true success of the series began to sink in, when it was chosen for an inter-collegiate photography exhibition that showcased the best projects by students.

An Iconic Descent: I chose the loud backdrop of Dadar, Mumbai to show a mysterious superhero who is just about to land from a self-spurred flight. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

An Iconic Descent: I chose the loud backdrop of Dadar, Mumbai to show a mysterious superhero who is just about to land from a self-spurred flight. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

My Equipment: I shot 25-plus action figures with the handy Canon IXUS 8015. For an assignment like this, you will need a camera with good macro capabilities since you will be focusing from really close.

Perceptive Laughter: The Joker (from the Batman movie Dark Knight) scans the city while he stands in front of Nehru Science Centre, Worli. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

Perceptive Laughter: The Joker (from the Batman movie Dark Knight) scans the city while he stands in front of Nehru Science Centre, Worli. Photograph/Utsav Chakraborty

If You Wish to Attempt a Similar Idea

  • Choosing a good locale is key. It should serve as an uncluttered backdrop for the action figures.
  • Let your imagination run scot-free. You need not have only action figures. It can be anything—be it a hand with a brush at the corner of a picturesque locale (to give it the ethereal effect of a painting), or a game controller against a busy road with a moving car in front of you (to make the picture look like the viewer is sitting in front of a video game).
  • You can also post-process these images innovatively, depending on the theme you are representing.
  • Yours and your camera’s safety come first. Holster your camera properly around your wrist or neck while clicking pictures. Then go out and have fun!
Tags: action figures, May 2009, On Assignment, still life, utsav chakraborty