Pon Prabakaran: Fly on the Wall


Pon Prabakaran talks to Conchita Fernandes about the ups and downs of being a documenter of weddings, in today’s milieu.

Thanjavur, 2017.

Prior to the rapid proliferation of photography in India, there was a certain formality that was extended to the craft, both by the photographer and the individuals wanting to get their pictures made. In the case of the latter, it was a decision that had to be planned well in advance, and was treated as a momentous occasion; Not everyone could afford to get their pictures made often. So, the portrait, whether it was with the family, or of oneself, or with the significant other (on the day of the wedding), was treated as a serious affair, sometimes serious enough that the stiffness was palpable in the body posture, as well as in the facial expression of the sitter. It was almost as if the eye of the camera demanded a certain reverence.

How this has changed today. It’s not just awareness, but also the extent to which photography has been made to feel second nature. There’s another side to this, a certain preparedness that has manifested in our external demeanour today. It’s not stiffness, but the absolute certainty in our mind of how we would like to be projected.
This has led to crude, staged images that are passed off as candid photography. The word is used so frivolously that it has come to symbolise its complete opposite. What do wedding photographers, who employ a documentary approach, do to navigate around this?

For Pon Prabakaran, a photographer who has become synonymous for his ability to unearth the unexpected, from the layers of superficial fabrication that encompass Indian weddings, it has been an uphill task. “It’s up to you to show your client the value in your approach. If they’re not completely invested in your vision, compromises will have to be made, always at your cost,” he says.

Bhavani, 2017.

The State of Indian Wedding Photography
Photographing in the documentary tradition has been slow to catch on in the Indian wedding photography scenario. Every decision is based on monetary value, and families want the photographic equivalent for the amount they have spent. However, Pon feels that this is slowly changing. “People are beginning to see the triviality in pictures of grandeur, or ones that give the impression of a larger than life experience,” he says.

Weddings in India are also fraught with issues pertaining to caste and the proclamation of one’s economic status. He mentioned an incident at a wedding he had photographed, where the priest delivered a lengthy monologue on how people from different castes should refrain from getting married. “Although I was only present at the event in the capacity of a photographer, I couldn’t help but feel frustration over such a declaration. It is exasperating to see how much emphasis people continue to place on external beauty and status,” he says.

Ooty, 2017.

Being Unapologetically Himself
Despite the deep-rooted societal pitfalls, Pon’s knack for recognising the eccentricities that make up Indian weddings, is striking. Having grown up in Chennai, he is well versed with the local culture. As it so happens, most of his assignments come from the south—Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Most of the weddings he’s shot are not grand on the scale that a lot of us are used to seeing. But they make up for this by being resplendent with unvarnished moments, that may not typically be considered worthy to be in a wedding album. For instance, take a look at the photograph he shot of the fake, attachable plait that was left lying on a chair, or the one where two women are absorbed in the task of getting the groom ready, while another relative has just about got himself into his kurta. Now, look at other pictures that are touted as being clandestine. You’ll find that they still imbibe a sense of perfection around them. For Pon though, there is no distinction—the good, the bad, and the ugly—must all come together.

When asked how he navigates around requests that pointedly divert from his style, Pon said, “It was a struggle in the beginning, but I didn’t want to turn down assignments. But today, when I am hired by the couple or the family, they know exactly what they’re asking for—complete freedom to shoot as I like. Having said this, I make it a point to hire a second photographer to photograph the traditional pictures.”

Srirangam, 2016.

Being Visibly Invisible
His photographs are expansive, while being intimate (Pon largely uses a 16–35mm and 24–70mm lens). They are layered and dramatised further with the right balance of colour. There are no frills associated with artificial lighting or bokeh, only his reaction to what’s going on around him. “I always go unprepared. I want to be surprised,” he says. What’s also quite remarkable is how he brings together various characters, who are almost always found doing something distinct and interesting. His subjects, sometimes, exist on the periphery of the frame, just about entering or exiting it. This intentional inclusion feels authentic and honest.

But more than this, Pon’s ingenuity lies in his ability in not making his presence felt in his photographs, a feat that not too many photographers manage. “I am an introvert by nature. But I knew this had to change when I took up wedding photography. I am still quite shy, but now I don’t mind it as much. On the day of the event, I spend as much time with the couple, interacting with them. The idea is to have them get used to my presence, to a point where they stop seeing me or my camera.

Honavar, 2018.

Where it All Started…
Pon, however, did not always photograph in this manner. But before we delve into this aspect, let’s look at what or rather where his love for the craft emanated from.
It all began at home. Pon’s father was a photographer himself, and had converted a portion of their home into a studio, where he made portraits. He also photographed local events, for which Pon would often accompany him. His dad noticed his enthusiasm, but made it clear, early on, that he didn’t want him taking up photography as a profession. “Even back then, it was tough. The money wasn’t great, but he did what he had to do, to support the family,” he said.

Years later (after his dad had passed away), Pon took up a part-time job at a photography studio, while he was still in college. Here, he would help print and edit pictures. Soon enough, he began assisting the studio’s photographers in covering various event-related assignments, including weddings. This was when things began to change. Eventually, he purchased a camera, and taught himself photography, based on YouTube videos.

Karaikudi, 2018.

Introduction to Documentary Photography
The real turning point though, took place in 2012, when he enrolled himself in a workshop conducted by Senthil Kumaran and Selvaprakash Lakshmanan, two photographers strongly rooted in the documentary tradition. The workshop was called ‘Ways of Seeing’, and was the first time that he was introduced to stalwarts like Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh, Elliott Erwitt and Alex Webb.

“During the course of the workshop, I remember Selvaprakash asking me why I photograph weddings, and the photographers whose work I liked. I was inexperienced and drew a complete blank. In fact, I told him what kind of pictures I liked shooting, which when I recall now, involved your typical beauty shots with shallow depth and bokeh, which were (still) popular then. To this, Senthil responded, “I want you to think about this… Are these photographs going to have meaning or illicit emotions, decades later?” That was all the push I needed,” he said.

Where today wedding photography has become all about fulfilling one’s fantasies, where it’s equated with cinematic depictions of lives and relationships that are otherwise ordinary, it makes one wonder if there’s any honesty left. The pictures are flush with extravagant setups and props that only serve as distractions. In fact, Elliott Erwitt, whose use of subtle humour has inspired Pon’s imagery, had said, “All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.” That’s where Pon’s strength resides… His innate ability to notice things that go beyond manufactured facades.

Pon Prabakaran completed his B.Sc in Physics before pursuing a career in wedding photography. In 2017, he won the Emerging Photographer of the Year award, courtesy of WeddingSutra; and was a category winner (Photoseries on a Single Wedding) of Sony BP WPOY 2018-19. You can see his work on Instagram @ponprabakaran.

This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of Better Photography.