The Bengali term for carrier is “bahak”. No load seems too heavy or too large to be manhandled through the narrow, crowded streets of Kolkata. Whether their burdens are carried on their heads, or on a yoke over their shoulders, on two or three wheelers or on a hand-drawn rickshaw, all manner of goods and essentials—furniture, building materials, groceries, books and coal—are all humped, hauled or carted as they are shifted from one place to another.
Precisely placed and perfectly balanced, these artfully towering loads are often extremely heavy. Once on the way, every stop becomes a risky manoeuvre, as the carrier then needs to get his loaded vehicle going again. “Bahak” means a life as a day labourer living at the bottom of the social pile. Exploitation and drudgery for minimum pay; dicing with danger in a daily struggle with the Kolkata streets; little or no appreciation for vigorous physical effort, which can all end in total exhaustion. Nevertheless, in a mega-metropolis, whose streets are generally too full, too congested and too narrow to accommodate motorised vehicles to the extent required, the “bahak” play a vital role in keeping the gigantic flow of commodities moving!
German photographer Anja Bohnhof set up a makeshift studio along the edge of these streets for a few weeks and asked some of these carriers to pause for a moment so that they could be portrayed individually, detached from the constant commotion of the bustling crowd—an expression of astonished admiration at the visible artistry contained within the motion of things.
The photographic work “Bahak” is intended to make the viewer aware of the burden of things—far beyond the city limits of Kolkata.
Interview between Anja Bohnhof & Raimar Stange
What gave you the idea for your photo series “Bahak”?
A few years ago I completed a photographic project in Kolkata (Calcutta) covering the neighbourhood there that specialises in publishing and the book trade. When later on I reflected on this work and on my trip to Kolkata, I kept getting images in my head of the carriers I had encountered there, most of them heavily laden with books and paper. These carriers often made an appearance in the documentary photos I took for my project. They were simply there in my view, and then somehow this suddenly became my topic and I thought I definitely have to make a study of them. And because I have a great team in Kolkata, people I enjoy working with and I know will get the job done, even when it comes to complicated and elaborate projects, it was then just a question of finding the next possible date for making another trip there.
What exactly was it that interested you about the carriers – the “bahak”?
In India – and this is something we’re not used to at all in Europe – you see people transporting loads everywhere you look. In Kolkata the hand-drawn rickshaws also come with heavy wooden cartwheels. A pretty weird image. What interests me is the, for me, unbelievable skill with which the loads are stacked and secured on people’s heads, on two- and three-wheelers or on rickshaws, and then manoeuvred through a hectic metropolis heaving with millions of people and often with very narrow streets that are awash with water during monsoon season.
Besides that, there is also a well-known and moving book by Dominique Lapièrre, “The City of Joy”, which gives a poignant account of the gruelling and physically draining work of the rickshaw man. The hand-drawn rickshaws – a symbol of poverty and backwardness – were supposed to have been banned from the city a long time ago, as they already have been everywhere else, given that humans are not meant to pull carts in the same way that horses are. However, the rickshaw men have a strong union and have figured out ways of preventing this. What are they supposed to live from?
My main interest then was in the phenomenon of goods being transported this way but there is no way of looking at this in isolation without also seeing the poverty that necessarily goes together with doing this kind of job.
For the “bahak” the loads are a burden in the truest sense of the word – but without them they couldn’t really survive. Your pictures also show a never-ending stream of goods, of loads needing to be taken somewhere. Looked at in this way, are your images not also a symbol of the contradictions of our capitalist consumer society?
If you take a higher-level perspective, the pictures are certainly that – this was one of my main aims, at least, in putting this project together. The burden that needs to be borne by some poor person at the other end of the world has some bearing on us too – you can’t always perceive this directly and it’s usually not visible straight away, but there is an indirect connection anyway. And this has always been the case, not just since the era of globalisation. Everything is mutually dependent and as long as all the fine things, goods and services – to say nothing here of satisfying people’s basic needs – are available to only one portion of humanity, while another portion is left excluded, the pain, the torment and the hardship of others will cling to many of the things that keep us going, that give us pleasure and afford us a sense of luxury. It is the daily and never-ending insanity that surrounds us all. A criticism of capitalism? Sure. Actually, it goes beyond that. In the end, there’s no real way for your mind to understand why we live this way and put up with it. Nor why we accept the situation. And there’s absolutely no way at all for your heart to understand.
Do you believe in the power of art to change this kind of “unsocial” reality?
I don’t really have much faith in that. But I certainly do think that it has the power to make the reality visible and to reveal the essence of it. And to challenge it in a certain way, which can at least form the basis for the possibility of change.
I agree with you there. And in order to be powerful, art needs, in my opinion, to be formally coherent. It’s a question then of your aesthetic strategy: you photographed the “bahak” out on the streets but you used a light grey background, “isolating” them from their surroundings, as it were, to use a term from the world of graphic design. This artistic strategy could perhaps be called a hybrid of studio and street photography. What made you decide to take this artistic approach?
It was important for me to liberate the subjects of my pictures – in this case the carriers with their vehicles and loads that are often stacked and layered in incredibly artistic ways – from their original urban context, so as to focus on them completely. The context – that is, the actual, real environment – would have contained more information but would have mainly served as a distraction. This abstraction was important to me and was achieved by creating an “artificial” studio situation on the side of the road. It was a necessary step for me to be able to get to grips with the phenomenon I was tackling.
Did you have certain “models” for this? For me, for example, for all the difference in content, the pictures are reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests”.
I would tend to see my approach as a conventional device. It is actually rather simple, despite the organisational and practical complexities, to use a mobile studio background ‘on location’ – in this case on the streets of Kolkata. Other artists and photographers have done this before me: here, of course, Stefan Moses’ works “Deutsche” (Germans) and “Abschied und Anfang” (Parting and Beginning) are very well known. It’s a tried and tested tool then for dissipating and breaking up the context of a picture. I think it may be more a question of deciding and knowing if this method can be suitably applied for a photo series.
For this project I focused on the photography of August Sander as well as a number of other artists. I took a print of his portrait “Handlanger” (Bricklayer, 1928) with me to Kolkata. The man in the picture has an incredibly intense and unfeigned expression on his face, and this is what I wanted to achieve as best I could in my work.
In the photos for your book “Stadt der Bücher” (City of Books, 2012), which you spoke about at the beginning, you show pictures of a district in Kolkata, some containing people and some not. Can you briefly compare the different approaches you used in “City of Books” and “Bahak”?
The two projects are very different in terms of how the pictures were created. The work on the publishing and book-dealing area of the city chiefly addresses the architecture of the bookstalls. The photos are taken with a large-format camera and all the images are carefully composed. With “Bahak”, it was often necessary to work very fast and take advantage of the moment, to “live” the encounter with the person being photographed. Wolfgang Tillmans said something of real importance about this when he observed that photographers have to take just as much of a risk as their subjects. The photographer must be vulnerable, without acting as a psychological safety net. I think that’s the main thing for me.
My work on the bookstalls and the College Street neighbourhood also involved meetings and discussions, an “engagement” with the local people, but in a completely different way. Not with them in front of the camera, but rather in terms of getting their cooperation so as to actually be able to take the pictures, in which there were often no people to be seen.
Did you have certain criteria you used when choosing the “bahak”? And if so, what were they?
In the process of selection, the key thing was that I wanted to photograph as many ways of transporting loads as possible. Carrying goods on the head and on a yoke, along with the use of carts, bicycles, three-wheelers and hand-drawn rickshaws. Sometimes there were, of course, some very spectacular, and almost comical-looking, stacks of goods to be seen, but we found these purely by chance and did not pay particular attention to them or put any extra effort into seeking them out. The selections that were made were based more on wanting to present a picture that gets close to the actual reality of life there.
Were your “models” happy to work with you?
Yes, they were. The two assistants I had who were living in Kolkata essentially did all the communication. There was no other way of working in fact, as only a few of the carriers could speak English. They explained to them why we were doing what we were doing and asked for their cooperation.
The carriers were happy to get involved and it offered some momentary attention for them and their work, something that is far removed from their regular experience. Sometimes there was even a small queue of carriers waiting to take part and have their photos taken.
Anja Bohnhof, born in Hagen in 1974, trained as a photographer be- fore going on to study visual communication/photography at the Bauhaus Uni- versity in Weimar. Since 2004 she has been working freelance as a photog- rapher and visual artist. Since 2006 she has been a lecturer in photography/ editorial practices at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences. Her work has been exhibited internationally and she has been the recipient of numer- ous grants and awards. She has also published a number of books document- ing her photography.