The Forgotten Ones
Abeer Khan evocatively depicts the invisible, intimate day-to-day moments around us. Nilofer Khan speaks to her about her experiences.
Mumbai is considered to be a fast-paced, exhilarating, idyllic, or even a romantic city. The rising concrete facades, ebullient parties, twinkling cityscape, and exuberant art festivals have contributed to this image. However, beneath this shiny exterior resides a world that is almost hidden away, invisible in its plainness. Interwoven within this fabric are its people and pockets of cultures that have always made up cities like Mumbai. Unfortunately, their contribution to the identity of the city remains unnoticed, even when they go missing. Occasionally, when they do come in the limelight, it is often a negative portrayal. Abeer Khan began noticing the loss of these communities even as the city changed in its development. She decided to render a honest depiction of these silent, lesser-known communities.
A Humble Beginning
In the first few years of her career, Abeer took up every assignment that came her way, from assisting directors to creating portfolios of young models, shooting weddings, and working with costumes for feature films. It was all about survival. “Back then, Instagram and WhatsApp had not been introduced. Since I did not have a proper computer setup at home, I spent hours emailing my photographs from a local cyber cafe to various publications. But to no avail, and the rejection kept piling up. It was only when I was 25 that I had my first real photographic assignment for an Australian media company. They had commissioned me to capture the essence of Pune, and later, Mumbai, as well as other cities,” she states.
As her experience and portfolio began to grow, Abeer had an epiphany. Although the assignments kept coming, she noticed that she was inevitably drawn to people and their narratives. “I found all the genres extremely intriguing but street and documentary captivated me. I saw the boundary between work and passion dissolve,” she says. Her love for street photography saw her start a blog on Tumblr, which she treated as a personal diary. Her words and images invoke a sense of nostalgia, even with those who haven’t visited the place before. “I would walk 8 to 10 kilometres every other day to make photographs, and I would put them up on Tumblr. Over time, I started getting a positive response. People started sending me fan mails, and that kept me at it,” she says. During this time, Abeer also began to experience the city differently.
Living at Cadell Road in Mahim, her locality was surrounded by smaller houses such and chawls. Each house has its own individuality. Some had clothes hung out, and others had embellished their balconies with fairy lights. But over the years, the number of these tiny facades has dwindled to a handful, across the city. “There is an endless desire to construct in Mumbai. In the transition from Bombay to Mumbai, there is the death of Bombay’s imagery. Seeing this, I decided to understand my city before it became something else with the onset of development,” she explains.
Always an Inquisitive Mind
Photography was an integral part of Abeer’s childhood. Her father, Rafeeq Mohd. Khan, a musician and an educator, loved the arts. When Abeer began to show interest in the medium, he decided to teach her the basics. Later, these lessons focused more on the larger aspects of life. “My Dad once showed me a photograph of a ship appearing as minuscule as a dot against a massive glacier. He pointed to the ship and said, ‘Look, how insignificant we are.’ That was the beginning of my first class on how to read a photograph,” she recalls.
These little instances made her even more curious about photography. During high school, Abeer would spend a large amount of time looking through various publications, just like her father. One of the magazines that she often purchased was Better Photography. She would cut out the images of her liking. These photographs had a unique use in her house—to cover the cracks and peeling paint on her walls. “Over a period of time, I spent hours looking at those images. The cars passing down the road would project the shimmer of their headlights on the photographs. It was almost like a dance, the light would make the images glow in the dark. It was an enchanting performance, and a dear memory,” she explains.
Years later, in 2009, Abeer met a person who finally propelled her to pursue photography. While studying Mass Media at National College, Bandra, Abeer met the Chief Editor of Better Photography, K Madhavan Pillai. It was during his lectures that she made her first photographs. “He gave us a theme titled the ‘Invisible Obvious’. These two words were so elusive to me. I remember understanding the meaning for a while and then it would slip off, leaving me dazed and confused,” she recalls. For this project, she boarded a train to Karjat, without any idea of what she wanted to shoot. In the midst of the crowded bogie, she saw an elderly lady sitting on the floor near the door, looking at Abeer. “The colour palette caught my eye and then the poise with which she was seated, her gaze affixed. This assignment helped me to learn the art of talking to strangers, which surely has paid off,” she adds.
Simultaneously, she also began to make her own films. “I made a horrible film for my group project, but I had decided to be a filmmaker,” she explains. On days when she was not photographing, Abeer spent her evenings at Gaiety Galaxy (now G7Multiplex), a movie theatre in Bandra. This became another classroom. “Through this medium, I started looking at people as characters, with internal and external wants and wounds. I began seeing the sentience of character development,” she adds.
Medium is Not the King
Abeer’s inquisitiveness is reflected as much in her films as it does in her photographs. Sometimes, she combines these two mediums to complete a narrative coherently. In 2014, while working on a documentary titled Basera-e-Tabassum—based on the lives of young girls in Kashmir—she decided to create a photo series as well. Known as Homes of Smiles, the images give you a glimpse into the lives of the girls residing in orphanages. You can see their eyes sparkle with hope, and you instantly begin to imagine their untapped potential. But when you see the film, you are faced with the hideous reality, and the uncertainty of their future. Speaking about how she weaved this narrative, Abeer says, “When it comes to making a film or a photo series, it is the subjects’ expanse that dictates the medium. When you look at the series, you will notice how the succession of images have become a statement in itself,” she explains.
Such emotionally charged stories eventually began to take a toll on Abeer. “How does one work with complete impartiality? Finding objectivity in a subjective medium is extremely difficult. There is also a demand to find drama where there is none. The presence of a camera has its own power on people too. In such times, I remind myself of a quote by John Stuart, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.’ So, I do my research, and on the field, I take a walk and speak to kids to gather points from both the sides,” she explains.
With various challenges, and the opportunity to work with diverse groups of people has helped Abeer to become more perceptive towards her subjects. “These experiences add up and come out as ideas and stories, and have made me a better human being. Interacting with people from various cultures, sharing meals with them, understanding their livelihood, and respecting their norms have developed my character,” she says.
Inside-out and Everything in Between
Throughout her singles and series, one recognises how Abeer has layered her images with various visual cues. Some in plain sight, while others, hidden away. “My compositions are nothing but fleeting moments. If I over-compose, the moment is lost. When a scene unfolds in front of me, I can predict it a couple of seconds before, and that’s when I have to compose the shot. I like to photograph my subject in relation to its space, and hence, my subjects can appear at a distance,” she says.
Besides her compositions, one notices how often her imagery sways between exciting and quieter moments. In these photographs, you almost sense her introspecting. “About ninety percent of my work is instinctive. For me, every photograph has its own quieter side. When I am taking a picture, the sound muffles, and the vision is narrowed within a frame. The ephemeral nature of the moment has a gravitational pull, almost hypnotic.”
Getting Back Up Again
Her years of experience and training has helped Abeer to navigate well from sticky situations. However, there have been times when this training is not enough. “I was on an assignment for a well-known publication. We had travelled to a remote destination. Around 2 am, the motel’s waiter tried to barge in my room with an iron rod. Luckily, the producer and the driver came to my rescue. Such instances affect your work as your mind is left shaken. Due to safety concerns, a lot of risky jobs are passed on to other photographers. One looses a lot of work because of all this,” she says.
Despite all of this, Abeer has come out stronger. She has an unwavering resolve towards her photography. She sees her subjects for who they are, without judgment. Her work has a certain character and intimacy that makes viewers realise the beauty of some of the things that are being lost. The quote by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince is perfectly apt for Abeer’s work. “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched, they are felt with the heart.”
Abeer Khan is a self-taught photographer and filmmaker, based in Mumbai. In the last decade, she has worked with renowned clients such as Dutch Consulate, The Sound HQ, England, UNESCO, and Urban Development Research Institute. Her work has also been published in Scroll, Homegrown, Platform, and the National Geographic. You can see other works on her website www.abeerkhan.com or on her Instagram @and_abeer.
This article originally appeared in the November 2020 issue of Better Photography.