Nathan G’s photo essay on a quirky film fandom that has come up on Chennai’s Marina Beach.


Photographer’s Note:


I think it was in the month of February, 2010. I love the sea. I would visit Chennai’s Marina Beach frequently and, being a photographer, my attention was naturally drawn towards the open photo studios on the beach. Open, because each ‘studio’ comprises a makeshift stall or booth and people are actually photographed outside these, on the sands of the beach. Though just shacks, their presence is a fixture of sorts on Marina Beach. Each of these ‘studios’ have cardboard cutouts of Tamil and Hindi film stars. These cutouts seem to wait for their fans by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. After minimal makeup, people—young boys and girls mostly—select their favourite stars and get photographed with the cutouts. In a few minutes, they receive a maxi printout of themselves— hugging, holding or simply grinning next to the star. Photographers charge Rs. 25 for a print, provided there is only one star in the picture. If a customer chooses to be photographed with two or more stars, the price goes up accordingly. The photographers try desperately to solicit clients during the weekdays, often calling out to random passersby. But during the weekends crowds throng these open studios and customers, photographers, and even the cardboard stars, seem to be wearing permanent smiles on their faces.

What especially struck me about these ‘studios’ was how eager people were to have their photographs clicked with these cutouts. It was almost as if they were sharing moments, inside their head, with the real stars. I thought I must capture these moments too.

Gripped by this idea, I began frequenting Marina Beach for this purpose alone. There are many studios at the beach. I would sometimes spend many days in one studio, looking for the best moments. Then, for some periods, I would spend every day in a different studio, to get a greater variety of photographs. Though I could have easily staged the pictures—as my subjects were posing for a camera anyway—I did not manipulate a single shot. Instead, my essay captures subjects posing for another camera. So, even though my subjects are seen posing, in many of the pictures, you can call these candid images in a way.

Though I usually interact a lot more with my subjects, in this case I kept a distance. I did not even ask them their names. I decided this essay would not be in the nature of a documentary, but rather a stringing together of a series of moments that so many different human beings have shared with what in fact are pieces of cardboard.

Having found my process the shoot was not difficult. The photo-stall owners were too busy soliciting and photographing their customers to bother with me. And my subjects were getting themselves clicked either way— so they didn’t mind an additional photographer on the spot.

But it took two and a half years, during which I kept returning to the beach, before I was satisfied that I had captured enough moments to be able to curate this essay. Then to choose the pictures that would comprise the essay I sifted through the lot, seeking out those that, to my mind, made for interesting moments and compositions. This, so far, has been my only photo-feature which is related to the ‘entertainment’ or TV and film industry, so to speak.

At one level this is a simple story of how people are fond of their favourite film stars, and how eager they are to be photographed with them. Yet, at another level, it also reminds you of what’s behind an actor’s stardom— the camera. The camera, controlled by the director and cinematographer, is what grants an actor his or her ‘limelight’. And maybe pieces of that limelight are what all those people getting photographs clicked with cardboard cutouts at Marina Beach are looking for too.


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Footprints on Sand

Photo Essay
September 2013
By Nathan G

A freelance photographer for the last 9 years, Nathan G is primarily interested in photographing social, political and cultural issues. His work has appeared in publications such as Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, New York Times, The Indian Express, The Hindu and Tehelka magazine.