In age of selfie, Holly ace gifts every face a frame

Mad Men cameraman and Bengali wife photograph people in city who have never had a family album

By Ramona Sen
  • Published 13.01.16

Chris Manley, the Emmy-nominated cinematographer of the international TV hit Mad Men, spent the year-end in Calcutta pursuing with his Bengali wife a pet project to photograph those who do not have a picture to call their own.

Manley, who also directed four episodes in seven seasons of Mad Men, has been visiting the city since 1999, when he married Bipasha Shom, whom he had met during their college days at a non-profit theatre in Philadelphia where he was a projectionist and she the usher.

Since then, Manley, 47, has been behind the lens for popular TV shows like Prison Break and CSI: New York, while Bipasha, 46, forged a career as a film editor.

Manley's work as cinematographer for Mad Men, a period drama set against the backdrop of American advertising in the 60s, has been nominated for the Emmy four times.

This December, Manley was in Calcutta to attend yet another wedding, this time his brother-in-law's. He and his wife utilised their month-long stay in the city to launch a project they had been contemplating for eight months.

GivePhotos was born of a realisation that many Indians do not have photos of themselves, barring those in their ID cards. The realisation was reinforced during regular trips that Bipasha, who grew up in New Jersey, makes to Calcutta to visit relatives. She was struck by how neither the maid nor the driver at one of her relatives' home had any family photograph.

"There was this whole process where I would set a date and they would arrive all dressed up and then I would develop the pictures later. It was long-drawn," she recounted.

Another inspiration behind the project was Siddharth, a 2013 Hindi film by Richie Mehta. In the film, a man who makes a living by mending chains sends his son to work at a factory. When the child goes missing, the man has no photograph to show the police.

GivePhotos took off on December 11 and can be found on the Instagram address "For the project, FujiFilm donated four cameras and 1,000 prints, which enables me to give people their photographs immediately," said Bipasha, who has been clicking all the stills for the project.

Manley has accompanied her to places in and around the city like Mullickghat, Chougram, Subhasgram, Sonarpur and Ruby Jhil Palli, and even to Puri, capturing the progress of their project on video.

The couple found their happiest subjects in people suffering from leprosy and children at fairs. "There was a lot of yelling and jostling for photographs but as soon as I lifted the camera to take a photo, there was an instant hush. Like there was magic happening," said Bipasha.

The only place their camera was unwelcome was in New Market, where offers to be photographed were met by the hostile faces of the hawkers and their vociferous refusal. In other places, they were faced with suspicion and Chris was mistaken for a Christian priest.

But in most areas, Sonarpur for instance, Ayan Ali Mullah was pleased to have his first family photograph, as was Sapna Bor's mother, who hadn't yet photographed her five-month-old.

"We are spreading a little bit of joy. We have taken about 800 photos on this trip. We want to take GivePhotos to other countries as well. Language may be a barrier there but photography is a universal language," said Manley.

The award-winning cinematographer is also trying to direct more TV shows. "I am really lucky that my first directing experience was with Mad Men. Even if I wasn't working on the show, it would be my favourite show."

Manley, in fact, was surprised at how easily he could relinquish his place behind the camera to direct episodes of Mad Men. "I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to give up the photography because it is so much a part of me and I have been doing it for so long, but that turned out to be the easiest thing to give up! I was so consumed by the script and getting the subtext right and how to communicate best with the actors."

He is also a Satyajit Ray fan. The last time Manley was here, he visited all the video shops he could, collecting Ray movies that weren't available in the US. "I copied them and gave them to Matthew Weiner (the creator of Mad Men), who is also quite the Ray fan," he said.

And has he noticed any change in the city he keeps visiting? "Less pollution and more malls," he grinned. "And I like the look of those pull-rickshaws even though I know there was an issue about them."