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Nora Bibel on being inspired by communities on the cusp of change

Berlin-based photographer Nora Bibel’s eye shuffles between that of a quiet bystander to an engaged documentarian. She lets us in on her relationship with India through two absorbing photo series.

By Ritupriya Basu on 22 May

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An empty street in Chala Bazaar, Trivandrum

Nora Bibel’s romance with India began in 2014, with her project Family Comes First that takes a look at joint families peppered across Bangalore. The Berlin-based photographer was intrigued by the interconnections amongst the members and their shared spaces, where meals are often dished out of a single kitchen.

A few years later, Nora found herself in the winding lanes of Chala Bazaar in Trivandrum, documenting the age-old wholesale market and the slow death of some family-run shops and businesses. The experience led to Freezing Frames of Chala, a testament to a place stuck in the ruts of the past and its attempt to keep up with the world outside its bylanes that’s changing at warp-speed. Her images of deserted restaurants and men guarding empty shops are sure to leave the viewer with a strange taste of nostalgia.

Nora joined us for a conversation from her studio in Berlin, and told us about her tryst with photography and her unstoppable urge to document the lives of people and societies on the brink of monumental change.

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A desolate restaurant in Chala Bazaar

When was the first time you picked up the camera?

When I was around seventeen, there was a photography class in my school in Munich. We did fun exercises and the photos I took still hang on the walls of my Mom’s home. We eventually started developing the images in the darkroom and when I saw the pictures appearing out of nothing in the chemical bath, I finally fell in love with the subject. When I was finishing school, I decided to search for a university where I could study photography.

It was a happy match: me and the camera. I´m a very visual person and I’ve always liked to observe the world. It’s been an absolutely fulfilling experience and I can’t imagine doing something else. Observing the world through my viewfinder never fails to inspire me, no matter what stands in front of my camera.

Growing up in Germany, what were the early creative influences in your life?

To be honest, there weren’t many creative influences growing up. It was my time at the University of Applied Science Bielefeld that really defined my journey in photography. The work of the professors and other students was really exciting and the whole atmosphere was creatively charged. I studied in a small town in Germany called Bielefeld where everybody stuck together - we worked together, spent nights in the darkroom of the university and partied together, always taking photos of everything. It was an intense time, and looking back, I realise it was the perfect playground for all our ideas and fantasies. It was that sense of freedom and unfettered exploration that always stayed with me.

  • Chalai© Bibel 149873
  • Chalai© Bibel 146919
  • Chalai© Bibel 147008
  • Chalai© Bibel 150002

Freezing Frames of Chala is a testament to a place stuck in the ruts of the past and its attempt to keep up with the world outside its bylanes that’s changing at warp-speed

In your photo series Freezing Frames of Chala, you documented the slow disappearance of Chala, Trivandrum’s centuries-old wholesale market. What stories did you uncover exploring the corners of the bazaar and the lives of the people there?

Oh, there were so many stories, but there’s one that comes to mind. If you go through Chala, you pass several shops where you cannot see any items any more. The whole shop is empty because the customers have dwindled. But the owners still come and sit in their desolate shops every morning. In one of these empty shops, I talked to an old man who was reading the newspaper. He told me it's not worthwhile for him to sell jewellery any more because there were hardly any customers left. All his children live abroad, so he feels better coming to his shop every day, looking at passers-by and reading the newspaper rather than staying at home alone. That sounds very sad, but he somehow was a happy guy.

As you walk around Chala, you come across a flower market where a group of women sit and weave beautiful garlands. The day I chanced upon this place, it was buzzing with conversation. When I walked to the back of the market, I noticed a woman sitting alone, hard at work making garlands. She later told me about her life - living with a disabled son since her husband passed away. Chala was her only source of income, and she told me about her worries of the market shutting down. I want to go back to Trivandrum soon to continue the series, find the lady and ask her how she’s doing. We spent over three weeks in Chala and by the end of it, I knew almost every person around the block.

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Family Comes First, a photo series of joint families by Nora Bibel

What led you to document joint families in South India in the series Family Comes First? Was it challenging to capture the nuanced dynamics of the families in a single frame?

The concept of joint families was a novel idea to me as a German. Back home, we live in smaller, nuclear families, so this project was driven by my interest to understand the dynamics of these families. I learned that in a joint family, all members share one kitchen and sometimes even a bank account. I wanted to have a more intimate view on the subject, so I decided to do a project about it during my bangaloREsidency, conceived by the Goethe Institute/Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore. The idea was to create a collection of images of different families in their living rooms similar to old family portraits. Through the arrangement of the families and the interiors of the house, I tried to lens a snippet of their lives in a single image. The most challenging aspect was working with over 20 unknown Indian people who had to be very stiff and silent when I took the photograph.

Is there a certain reason you chose to make posed portraits of the families instead of capturing candid, fleeting moments of their daily lives?

I´m intrigued by staged photography because of the influence I have on the picture and the situation. The possibility of bringing in my personal interpretation increases through this exercise of staging the image. In my last projects Freezing Frames of Chala, Myanmar’s Driving Force and Heimat - Que Huong, I worked on minimising the gap between the staged and the candid moment, sort of tiptoeing on the edge of both. The idea is to have complete control over the setting, the frame and the light and yet capture the subject in their element.

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The Panduranga family in Bangalore

As a documentarian of people, how important is it to connect to your subjects to bring out their true selves? How do you form that connect?

It depends on the project and the importance of capturing one’s personal character. In some projects, people are representative of an idea or something I want to communicate through the image. For Family Comes First, the personal connect wasn’t of utmost importance. The protagonists are more like models or actors in a movie. In other projects, understanding the personality of the subject through the image is crucial, like in my series Nic — The Monster, for which I traced a social project in Romania that seeks to rehabilitate young Germans with disruptive behaviour disorders.

I’m a very curious person and peoples’ stories always fascinate me, so in the beginning, I try to build a rapport. I also love to go to other peoples' houses and learn about them by looking at the things they surround themselves with.

What inspires you about the shifting relationship between people, time and space?

I love movement and contrast. It can be dramatic social movements but also very small changes in personalities. Why and when are social systems changing? How does it influence everyone’s lives? How do they re-align themselves with the new situation?

I want to master the art of capturing these inner changes in pictures. There are so many questions to ask and I think it’s the shifting energy which comes up when things are moving that attracts me. My mind always tries to be one step further than the present.

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Nora returns to Trivandrum in August, 2018 to continue the Freezing Frames of Chala series

What kind of themes do you find yourself gravitating towards these days?

I want to branch out into different disciplines like anthropology and sociology. I have plans to explore investigative photography. I have lately been absorbed in studying publications and would definitely want to make more photo books. Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation by Mathieu Asselin is a bright example of the kind of work I’d like to make.

Give us a peek into the projects you are currently working on.

Freezing Frames of Chala is an ongoing project; I’m planning to go back to Trivandrum in August for a Part Two of the series. I´m doing research about Nayar women and families in Kerala, and work is underway for a series of photographs about their lives today.

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