Mumbai-based photographer Jay Weinstein’s craft unfolds into a riot of colours and textures that tells the unnoticed, wonted stories of the strangers he meets every day. Inspired by India, his lens captures the calm in the chaos, the madness of our gullies and the very essence of the country – its people. So I Asked Them To Smile, his ongoing project, began as a mere observation, but soon transformed into a striking photo series featuring two portraits of each person – one with a smile, and one without. It began on a railway station in Bikaner, Rajasthan, when Jay came across a tight-lipped man whom he really wanted to photograph. ‘The look in his eye and his stony, stern look intimidated me… I ended up avoiding him and photographing other subjects until I heard his jovial voice, ‘Take my picture too!’ ‘Smile,’ I called out. And he was transformed. His face radiated warmth, his eyes sparkled with a humor I had completely missed. Even his posture softened. I knew then what my next project would be.’
Like a few moments snatched from the mundanity of our lives, the images transcend the present moment and give us a glimpse into the true selves of his subject. A smile is not just a smile – it is an opportunity, and an invitation to momentarily step into someone else’s life. With the photo series slated for its first exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai, from 20th – 26th December, Design Fabric collaborated with Jay, as he came over to Sun Mill Compound, Lower Parel and lensed a few extraordinary smiles of ordinary people, lacing the images with his idiosyncratic style. Over a chai-fueled conversation, the Australia-born photographer takes us through the images, the intricacies of his craft and his evolution as an artist.
What lies at the core of your relationship with the lens?
I wonder at the power of the camera to enhance my life. It not only helps me see details I would ordinarily miss, but also to connect with the places, people and the world I inhabit. It gives me a creative outlet and sense of connection without which I would be far less happy.
Ever since you picked up the camera, how do you think you have evolved, both as an individual and an artist?
I think this device has taught me to practice being present in every environment. To be at peace with the world around me, to look, take notice and see faces, actions, colors, textures, shapes and all the little details that make each space unique. I am forced to face my insecurities, get out of my comfort zone and interact more than I want to. At it’s best, it is worship, surrender and meditation, and that helps me evolve, both as an artist and an individual.
An event from the past that has most influenced your craft?
Traveling with and observing the work of my good friend, and accomplice, photographer Lorin Fogel. The way he is constantly appreciating the world we live in, and how he fearlessly, but sweetly, interacts with his subjects made it clear to me that this craft is not just about creating a great image. There are enough great images. It can be much more than that. It can be profound and meaningful for the people we photograph, the photographer, and the viewers of the work.
Your series 'So I Asked Them to Smile' is going to be exhibited for the first time at Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. What are your expectations from the show? What do you hope the viewers take away from the experience?
I hope that viewers spend time with the images and watch their own assumptions shift with the smiles. Maybe they will see that we all have more similarities than differences. I am more curious to hear what they take away from the experience than wanting them to walk away with any set thoughts or feelings. This projects works on many levels and I love that.
Take me through your collaboration with Design Fabric and the images you created at the Sun Mill Compound. Who were your subjects for the day?
Sanket and I have been talking about a collaboration for a while. I have loved watching Design Fabric evolve and grow into the hive of creativity that it is today. We decided to choose the office compound as our creative meeting point. So one morning I wandered around the Sun Mill compound, a microcosm of this crazy beautiful city, and asked people to smile. It is a fascinating place to make images as all layers of society, from all parts of the country, are gathered in one place to laugh, drink chai, live and earn a living.
I met people doing so many different jobs, from security guards, cleaners, office workers, executives, cooks, chai wallas and creatives. I love those layers all coming together in a harmonious way. Visually, I loved the colors, textures, faces and shapes and I think I might sneak back in some day for another round. What always strikes me is how most people are genuinely friendly!
As an artist, you are constantly on the search, be it for the perfect subject, the right frame or the ideal tone of light. Does the search ever stop?
When it comes to searching purely for the purpose of making an image, I can turn that off quite easily. Its not always about making an image, to me it is more about seeing. That vision cannot evolve unless I can switch off, put the camera down, and be alive to the place I am in.