Bip Mistry the Photographer
Self-taught portrait / documentary photographer and filmmaker… rambling
One of the first photographs I shot in colour, early 1980′s
My father came to England via Africa (working as a carpenter) in the late 1950′s. He worked in the textile mills of Bradford, as a bus conductor and later become a self-employed shopkeeper. The first shop was a disaster (baliffs and tears), and the last one was also a disaster (all work and no profit). My mother helped in the shops but was mostly at home cooking delicious food, unstoppable. Except during the first instance of domestic violence when she packed her suitcase and left home to go and stay with her brother. She did leave a large pot of food though. can’t remember how long it lasted but I do remember my father cooking chicken curry whilst she was away.
I was born one snowy day at home in Archibald Street, Bradford on the 5th of January 1963.
All Saints Infant school was great fun. I was good at making things, and mathematics. I hated drinking cold milk, preferring my mums hot milk brewed with grated pistachio, almonds and a spoonful of sugar! I was proud of my father when he turned up at school on open days. My father rarely said a good thing when he received my school reports, often criticising the teachers’ handwriting.
I had a lot of friends but spent a great deal of time on my own. My fathers aggressive behaviour drew me closer to my mother. We lived in a big Victorian terrace house. I spent a lot of nights in the light of the open fire in the kitchen with my mother. Memories of hearing my father beat my mother at night haunt me to this day. My relationship with my father was a difficult one. It’s 2009 now, and he’s dying of bone cancer… Eight months later, 28 August 2009, he dies. The unspoken thoughts remain.
During quiet moments I think about the long journey with my father. I see fault in a great many things that I did where I once felt he was to blame (for just about everything). It is a tricky relationship to analyse. There is a darkness born of those early days that are present in some of my photography.
The domestic violence affected many aspects of my life. I spent a lot of time alone. I don’t think anybody knew at school, I don’t recollect talking about it. The next door neighbours knew. It’s impossible not to hear the sounds.
Happier days included a black and white Bush television, our Caribbean lodgers watching Muhammed Ali ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in our living room eating Bombay mix and drinking sweet cider, my mum and I making meatballs on the open fire, my mum walking me to school because I thought the owl near the church looking me in the eye would make me go blind, being a pinball wizard, philosophical conversations with Michael on trips to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, wearing old suits from Oxfam, sitting in cafes watching people go by…
I grew up multilingual. Being able to speak Gujerati played a key part in my experience of and attachment to India. Teachers at school referred to English as my ‘second language’.
My Indian roots go back to a small rural village in Gujerat, India called Degam. My fathers birthplace. I first went to India in 1988 (after reading V S Naipaul’s ‘An Area of Darkness’. Perhaps, not the best idea!). It was a search for cultural identity. I visited my father’s childhood home for the first time. Everything was for the first time!
Long train rides with micro-worlds of India in every train carriage. Reading, feeling the breeze, making friends, sharing dreams, taking photographs.
Photo notebook from my first visit to India, 1988
VARANASI (BENARES), UTTAR PRADESH
I was befuddled by Varanasi, the oldest city in India. The city runs along the mystical River Ganges. Rites and rituals are played out along the banks of the river. Got involved in hippy stuff in Varanasi (Benares). Americans, Europeans, Japanese, curfews, talk of CIA operatives, religious and political tensions. Bhang chai and classical music. Boat trips and endless idle conversation.
The city was full of Westerners learning the sitar, tablas, classical singing and Sanskrit. I stayed in the King’s sons palace on Asi Ghat, overlooking the Ganga. Drank tea at the small tea stall. Made contacts and then I made photographs. Varanasi was the a perplexing place. The magical mist rising in the morning over the river. You couldn’t not be a part of it, the overriding spiritualism.
Hours spent drinking tea watching the world go by (again!). Thousands of pilgrims cleansing their souls in the holy river, where nasty bacteria could not survive the day. Music recitals by Indian and foreign students from around the world. Varanasi was a magnet for students of Indian classical music, Sanskrit and all things Hinduism.
Teaboys on Asi Ghat
I traveled randomly through India: Agra, Allahabad, Bombay, Calcutta, Degam, Delhi, Goa, Kerala, Navasari, Madras, Madurai, Mahabalipuram, Porbander… It was a perplexing experience leaving me more confused about my identity. Speaking Gujerati and conversing in Hindi helped me get closer to people. I enjoyed the people, the expanse of the country as well as its congested cities, and photography.
My first visit to Degam, India in 1988
First major exhibition of India photographs at the National Museum of Photography, (now National Media Museum) Bradford in 1990. One image of a Rajasthani man in a golden yellow turban won an Ilford Cibachrome of the Month award, one of the judges was from Saatchi & Saatchi.
Bip Mistry at his exhibition, National Museum of Photography, Bradford, 1990
PAHARGANJ, OLD DELHI
On one trip to India, whilst in the notorious Pahar Ganj in Delhi, I was told that I could have an opportunity to photograph a guy sleeping on/lying on a slab of ice, the place was near a mosque. I really fell for that one. He wasn’t pushy. I’ll call him Mr A.
We set off from Pahar Ganj on his scooter. Ten minutes later he stopped at a shop to get some cigarettes. When he came out he introduced me to a policeman. The policeman removed his badge. I was told to accompany them to Mr A’s home. If I protested the policeman would arrest me. I was in an unfamiliar neighbourhood so I thought best to go along with them.
There were many witnesses as we walked down the busy narrow street to his house. People looked at me. But they weren’t about to say anything.I was led up a narrow flight of stairs to the top floor. There he took my Pentax LX with 50mm f1.4 lens off me, telling me that the policeman said it had to be confiscated because I had not declared it in my passport. He wrapped it in a cloth and left with the policeman. I was sat wondering what to do next. I heard a voice! No, seriously I heard a voice, looked up, a woman’s head appeared in the frame of a small window. She said that her husband was a petty thief. She would find out where he’s taken the camera and let me know. Well, what can I say!
She disappeared. She reappeared, ‘The camera is in the compartment of her husband’s scooter.’
He returned minus the policeman. Telling me that I’d get my camera back when blah blah blah. He said I can go now. I said you are the only person who can get my camera back so I need your help! I don’t really know where I am so give me a lift on your scooter back to the hotel! Amazingly enough, he agreed to give me a ride to where I could pick up a motor rickshaw. So, down we go, onto his scooter, people staring, very hot day, and I keep telling him what a good friend he is.
He stops near a pile of motor rickshaws. I plead with him to take me to the hotel. I need him as a friend. He’s the only one who can get my camera back! More amazingness, he agrees to take me to the hotel in Pahar Ganj! I’m feeling like, I’m gonna get my camera back!
He pulls up several times and suggests I walk from there. I keep saying to him that he’s the only one who can help me… It’s late afternoon. He pulls up outside my hotel in Pahar ganj. I insist he have a cup of tea! The reception of the hotel opens onto the street. I can see the usual guys on reception and the luckily the owner is there too.
He takes off his helmet and walks over to the reception. When he’s safely inside, I grab the key from him and tell the guys in reception that he’s stolen my camera and that it’s in his compartment. He stands to argue. The owner tells him to stay sat down. I walk over to the scooter with the owner, he opens the compartment on the scooter. And there’s my camera, a Pentax LX i think it was, wrapped in a towel. (All the people working at the hotel were aware that I was a photographer).
The owner told the guy to beat it. Then he told me off for trusting people on the street.
Later that evening he had a call from the conman threatening him with government contacts!
(One other story I must drop in here… I was robbed at Delhi railway station on arriving from Calcutta. Was it all planned in advance when my travel time was changed by the travel agent!? They got away with all my cameras, some unexposed film, cash and things I’ve long forgotten about, except a small silver frog)
In London I went to previews at the Photographers’ Gallery, South Bank, Barbican. I contributed to exhibitions at Photofusion in Brixton, Open Space in Reading and small community based shows. I worked in education delivering media and photography based projects in primary schools. I met John Campling, extraordinary headmaster of a primary school in Sydenham where I did my most fulfilling media project, a magazine by and for the children using an Apple Mac and a photocopying machine. I also did a school magazine based on multicultural issues in another school. In Bradford I had done numerous multicultural projects alongside other artists.
I did several trips to India taking photographs for book publishers, mostly childrens books. A book on the city of Varanasi by Evans Brothers. One trip to Amritsar for a book on Sikhism was unbearably humid during the monsoon season. I worked on books for Heinemann, Walker Brothers, Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Wayland… then (and it felt like one day) all that work dried up for me as stock libraries started to take over.
LIVING WITH DYING
I started a series of portraits of two men with terminal illness which I later entitled Living with Dying. Duncan was HIV (I have lost track of him). Arthur had cancer (he died some months after I met him). I visited Duncan numerous times over a few years photographing him as I found him. He drank a lot, talked in circles, was on a lot of medication, was in and out of the hospice, and talked about dying.
Living with Dying, Duncan at home
Duncan said he was the youngest football coach in Scotland. He said a lot of things. He said he was infected with HIV from a needle which caught his hand when he was working for a charity in London. He said he had children but had not seen them for a long time. Characters passed through Duncan’s apartment.
On one occasion I found him moved to another place when his flat had been all but destroyed by a fire. He was in a really bad way. It’s not easy to be detached from people you photograph, especially under these circumstances.
(PUT IMAGE HERE OF DUNCAN AFTER THE FIRE)
Arthur was completely a different character. He worked as a blacksmith. He was physically well built with a strong upper body. His doctor had told him to take is easy. There was no stopping Arthur. He was a worker. When I first met him he raised his top to how the sweeping incision across his chest which he’d got from his latest operation removing cancerous growths. A week or so later I visited him at his workshop and asked if I may photograph him. He agreed.
NEW YORK CITY (October 2001)
I went to New York City in November 2001. Two months after 9/11 New Yorkers were still in a state of shock. I stayed for 6 weeks at Eric Shuttleworth’s apartment on Horatio Street. I met Eric in India where he spent time with my father and I. He said that if I was into photography then I had to visit NYC. So, there I was. Thank you Eric.
I visited over 50 photography galleries. All were welcoming and inspirational. I saw beautifully crafted prints. (TO BE CONTINUED)
In New York City after 9/11. Circle Line on the Hudson.
GAZA STRIP, PALESTINE (2004)
My photography in the Gaza Strip, Palastine was my most difficult work, mentally, physically and practically. Entering Israel is a headache. Entering the Gaza Strip is a nightmare. I was exploring the affect of the occupation on childrens mental health. The images portray many aspects of life in the Gaza Strip and are a commentary on the issues of Israeli occupation of Palestine: A stripping away of culture, memory and personal history. Stopping time and taking a land to the dark ages. A failure of leadership, local, regional and global politics.
I am not a war photographer. I became very interested in the stalemate situation in the Middle East between the Palestinians and Israel. I considered the affect of the military occupation on the mental health of children in the Gaza Strip. I started raising money to go to Gaza. I contacted the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme and they were happy to receive me and offer support. They have supported many photographers in the past. I did lots of research, located a few people to contact in Gaza, created a support structure best I could.
There remains an escalating human trauma in Gaza. Alongside the trauma is resilience, especially in the children. At what point do the parents tell their children that they are living in a war zone? For many it’s a lifetime of conflict. Lost childhood. Lost direction. It was very scary on the first night in Gaza. After the sunny mediterranean day I was lying on my bed, in the pitch black, listening to the distant artillery fire. The streets were deserted earlier in the evening.
Time, and the future has been brought to a standstill by the Israeli occupation. During the time I was there the Strip was split in 3 by checkpoints. Weary concrete interjections with snipers, tanks, cctv and hidden soldiers. It was an oppressive atmosphere. Not much room for good things to happen. (TO BE CONTINUED)
I had logistical support from the UN, Save the Children and Médicines sans Frontiéres, from Palestinian NGO’s and individual support workers. The key facilitator was the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme.
I’d like to publish a book.
(WEST BANK) to do…
CIRCUS, Brighton (2007)
In 2007, I photographed backstage at Zippo’s circus. Many of my images centered around Said and his family of acrobats. Said is Morroccan and his wife is Australian. They have travelled the world with their routines.
The available light photographs inside the tent were all shot on 35mm black and white film, giving the images a grainy earthy edge. Circus life is demanding and nomadic, dsiciplined and routine. Everyone helps to keep the show on the road, sharing duties, multi-tasking! Zippo’s changes its acts every year. Other examples at Circus.
I enjoy photographing people, and I prefer people to be in my photographs. I attempt to bring a natural feel to the images. Whether documentary or commercial I try and find a connection with people, it makes taking photographs easier.
My commercial photography includes photographing interiors, some product photography and portraiture. I prefer to work with available light when possible.
Michael, hairdresser, once said that I never called myself a photographer!
My first photographs were taken on a Ricoh KR10, once the European Camera of the Year. I had a pile of Amateur Photographer magazines in the living room. There was Bill Brandt, Snowdon, David Bailey, Magnum, Don McCullin… There was no digital!
I spent a lot of weekends photographing people. One portrait session with Jill was shot in Salts Mill in Saltaire. The mill had just been aquired from Bradford Council by Jonathan Silver. He let me take photographs on one of the undeveloped floors. It was the size of a football pitch.
I like old cameras. I like new cameras. I do digital and film. Photography is a challenging medium. Everyone can take a photograph, it’s democratic, but it’s not easy to make a powerful image! Definitions of and for photographers have become blurred. Documentary, corporate, commercial, travel, fashion, advertising… there is a lot of crossover in the business. It continues to be redefined by the changes in technology, academics, the art world and photographers themselves. Digital technology has made the photography business more complex for professionals.
I use a digital Canon 5D DSLR, 35mm film cameras, Mamiya C330f medium format film camera, mostly with a standard 80mm lens, Horseman 5×4 film camera, sometimes with a 6×9 film back. I prefer to work with available light, reflectors, and also use studio lights; Bowens Quad and Prolites. I write a page on the Mamiya C330.
There will be discussions about the disposal of broken/unused/unrepairable digital cameras. The pixel race will continue then switch to gadgets and gimmicks. The moving image may consume the still image. Film will rise in popularity but will there be any labs to process the film, except The Vault of course..
Interviewed Paul Hartley, UK’s number one jewellery and watch photographer, December 2008, article published in Professional Photographer magazine Feb 2009. I did numerous articles for Professional Photographer magazine in the 1990′s under the editorship of Jon Tarrant and later Steve Hynes.
Lived in Bradford, south London and currently in Brighton. 49 years passed by. A lot of photography still to do! And now it’s time to make some films.
So close to the capital city I operate as a London photographer whilst attempting to generate work locally as a hometown Brighton photographer. I am a portrait photographer with documentary attached. I enjoy working with people, and the tranquility of working with still life objects as well.
More portrait photography: www.bipmistry.com
Bip, in the old days! With Sean and Murco.
Someone asked me, ‘Bip, is that your real name?’ ‘No, I said, ‘I just made it up!
My name is Bipinchandra J Mistry. At home I was called Bipin.
The variations are as follows: B, Chandra, Bipu, Bipi, Bipper, B.I.P. Bipuda, Bipmeister. Bipster, Bipus, Bipino, Mr B.
The surname hasn’t helped! Mistry to Minstry, Misty, Mystery and Bipino Mistrano.
Once upon a time I worked in a factory where they called me Tom!
© Bip Mistry Photographer 2010-2012