On a dark street near a textile mill in the Bombay of the ’80s, two men were loitering with intent. One was a poor mill-hand waiting for his jobber to pay him his month’s wages. The other man, a little more desperate, was waiting near the gate to jump on him. There was a scuffle; a shirt was torn, a purse snatched, a dagger flashed, and a man dead on the asphalt. The cops when called, sought out eye-witnesses and took their notes, as they waited for their colleague, the photographer. Amol Athnikar, reaching the spot, lifted his boxy camera, the H 16 Reflex, and trained it towards the surrounding scene and then the ground where the blood was drying, to expose in a photograph what would rather stay hidden.
Cities are linear by design. And people seem sorted only in appearance. In some shadowy corner, someone is biting their nails, someone needs help, someone is being pushed over the edge this very minute. “You never know who is going to pull a trigger, who is going to snap under what pressure,” says Athnikar, who retired in 2016 having joined the Mumbai police in the ’80s.
A quiet pride carried this man of stocky build and searching eyes through that intense decade. “In those days the officer had to wait for the photographer to arrive. Now with the smartphone everyone has a camera in his pocket,” he says with a shrug. Athnikar shot the momentous Bombay textile mills strike, and the city police’s final war on the mob. In the riots following the Babri Masjid demolition [1992-93], he shot 80 corpses a day. It took a toll, he says. The pain in those photographs created a commotion in his head. His senior, Dattaram Kathe, another police photographer, who taught him the ropes, ‘shot’ Manya Surve, the graduate-turned-gangster (played by John Abraham in a Bollywood film) who made his first foray into crime by planning a bank heist following the plot of a James Hadley Chase novel he had read in jail. Surve died in a police encounter. Kathe shot the crime scene. In this incident what was the crime and who were the criminals Athnikar would rather not say. It was not done on his beat, after all.
“Faltu dimak nahi laganey ka,” (Not going to work my brain over nothing) he says. But there is always an official reality and a photographer, the supporting staff of the police, has to be at hand, to provide evidence as proof.
Photo as Evidence
“Under Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act, the Photograph is a Document and a Photographer is an ‘Expert’ just as much as a shoemaker is also an expert if he made the shoe found at the scene of crime,” explains veteran investigator VM Pandit, formerly with the Central Bureau of Investigation. “Because he has shot the crime scene he is called in as witness.” A police photographer, after his photograph has been presented in court as evidence of crime, rarely changes the narrative. There is only one side he can take and only one story he can repeat – the police’s.
“Suppose a murder has happened, but its case comes up after three years,” says a photographer. “By then, I have shot 300 more corpses, stood before different storeyed buildings, wooden doors, grilled doors, broken windows, exit and entry points of hundreds of houses. So I will repeat whatever the officer briefs me before the court proceedings, won’t I?”
Yes and no. It takes a good judge to pick holes in a police theory. And it also takes a photographer. A police photograph can also inadvertently weaken the prosecution’s case.“In Punjab, many militant deaths were proven to be cases of fake encounters. The police said they had been ambushed but had it been so, it would have been natural to crouch on the ground and fire back. The bullet can hit the militant’s stomach or head. But why were the photos of bullet marks found towards the top of a tree? Because there had been no ambush at all, people were taken randomly to forest areas and fired on,’ says Pandit.
In 2003, Amitabh Singh of the Lucknow police shot a picture that killed attempts to prove that the murder of Madhumita, a woman in relationship with minister Amarmani Tripathi, was due to a house break-in. “I had shot her body at close range. The stomach was at least six inches up from her navel…. The post-mortem showed that she was four months pregnant,” says Singh. The photos eventually led to a probe that linked Tripathi with the murder as Madhumita was carrying his child. Singh has shot 1,50,000 corpses till date. Madhumita is one of them.
Singh has also “not taken leave for 25 years.” His marriage survives because Mrs Singh had been prepped before marriage that any plans for vacation would be nipped in the bud. Had he, for any reason, stayed home on the day of the murder, May 9, 2003, Tripathi may not have been serving a life sentence.
“The dead should at least get justice,” says the photographer.
Police and the public
If law is the codification of acceptable behaviour, crime is its opposite. “Crime is abnormal, but criminals are normal people. And anyone can turn to crime,” says Sanket Rathod, a young Mumbai policeman who accompanies us the day a theft has been reported from a juice shop in Bhendi Bazaar. The traffic moves slowly. The area is clotted with cars, scooters and cycles. Horns are honked as if honking is going out of fashion. “You are not to ask any questions,” Rathod cautions as we enter the juice-shop. It might make the shopkeeper ask him about the progress in investigations he is not in a position to reveal. Rathod captures the crime scene in four shots. He takes a photo of the finger prints that have been detected on the shop’s safe-box. Job done, he leaves.
How is Mumbai doing as a city? Which crimes are more, or less? “Murders are down…. Just housebreaking every two to three days…. Nine lakh was stolen from [photographer] Atul Kasbekar’s house this March. The case was solved, it was an insider’s job. Mumbai otherwise,” he says sincerely, “is a very peaceful city.” A police photographer is not just Ceasar’s wife who has to be above suspicion. There is a fair deal of watching one’s tongue, but once in a while it can run away.
Police photographers also wear no peaked cap, or uniform. A certain facelessness goes with the territory. “We go on call usually with the fingerprint expert and return to the police station and just file our photos,” says Sanjeev Kumar of the Delhi police.
“We are not executives,” says Amarpal Palwe, a senior police photographer with the Mumbai police at our meeting. “We have no uniform, we are the support staff.” Rathod and he belong to the same police station. Unlike Palwe, who joined as a photographer, Rathod was first a constable. On becoming an assistant police photographer, he deposited his uniform at the police headquarters.A police photographer, of course, has more pressing matters to see to than rue the loss of a uniform.
Face-saving and other secrets
A police photographer cannot take sides but he has to be abreast of local politics. According to Vijay Raj Singh of the Meerut police, student leader Atul Pradhan has made his mark as a local menace over the past five years. His face has been mostly caught by Singh’s camera when the former was either acting tough, sloganeering at the university gate, or storming the police station. Singh even tried to wear a beard – pointy and French – to escape Pradhan’s eye and avoid obstacles to his work.
Police photography, says special superintendent of police, J Ravinder Goud, also helps to “warn and train police officials.”
Vijay Singh says it is also part of his job to know on which streets to take out his camera.
“Vijay is a good name for a cop,” one ventures to say with Amitabh Bachchan very much on mind.
“Yes to which Raaz (mystery) has been added,” he quips punning on his middle name Raj.
Much of what passes between police officials and photographers indeed lie in this zone. A prerequisite of this profession is knowing how to keep secrets. That this will be the terms of employment is accepted even by photographers who work with the police but not for them. Some of Mumbai’s best families have sat for portraits for brothers Anil, Sanjay and Rajesh Chaddha of Indian Art Studio, an establishment from the pre-Independence era run by its fourth generation. “And so may have the city’s criminals in my father and grandfather’s time,” says Rajesh. Constables certainly walked criminals down the 100-year-old wooden staircase to their basement for their side profiles. “We are not on police payroll, in our photos we also anticipate what the courts might want to see,” says Sanjay. “In the 90s, the police were monitoring Naxal movements in the city. There was a social gathering which they felt might be attended by them. Father was commissioned to take photos and video from the opposite building….”
What about their own commissions? “An inspector once took me to a site where a huge iron sheet roll had fallen off a crane on a man on the ground and crushed him. My photograph was attached with his report,” adds Anil.
But what was behind the photo? What had actually happened?
Not their job to know, says Sanjay. “We don’t check with officers if our photos have led to new openings in a case either,” says Sanjay.
“What about basic human curiosity?”
“Maybe we don’t have any.”