For some people, looking into their cellphones is a way to distract themselves from their surroundings. For others, like Vatsala Manan, a cellphone is a window into the lives of those who surround her.
Whenever she travels on the Delhi Metro, Manan does not listen to music or tune out. Instead, she photographs the passengers in the ladies’ compartment (mostly women, but also some #LonelyBoys) and shares the images on Instagram in a series.
The series, which began nearly a year ago, shows her subjects staring into their phones, reading books or lost in thought while waiting patiently for their station.
“It’s the best thing about the Metro,” Manan said. “There are all these working women who dress up in different ways. I like to think about how their day has been or what they do. Once I photographed a group of girls wearing chef’s coats. They were students of a culinary institute. For me, what women wear to work is endlessly interesting.”
A writer and photographer, Manan and her twin sister Vartika (along with their best friend) regularly conceptualise, shoot and star in photo features for online art magazines, including Tavi Gavinson’s Rookie Mag. Manan said she and her sister have always thought of the camera and photography as extensions of their lives, not something they consciously decided to do.
One time, Manan noticed three young women returning from a game of cricket held on the grounds of Gargi College. “They kept moving around,” she recalled. “I was not being able to take a picture and I really wanted to, so I went up to them and talked to them. They were very interested in the Instagram images and started following me too.”
“I try to never intrude into people’s personal space,” said Manan, referring to her subjects. “Sometimes I do think I’m being voyeuristic and that maybe I should ask them before taking their picture. If they do notice me taking their pictures, then I tell them what my Instagram handle is about and ask them if they would be alright with having their picture uploaded on social media. Most are quite happy to let me.”
Manan said her primary fascination is with women’s clothes, but the photographs convey more than just the pattern on a pair of tights or the twirl of a skirt. In most pictures, Manan’s subjects are immersed in their phones, oblivious to the rest of the world. She said this behaviour was not something she intended to document, but unwittingly, the series tells a story about the ways in which women occupy (and close themselves off from) public spaces in the city.
Inspired by the Instagram accounts of photographers David Luraschi and Ed Templeton, Manan said she would like to migrate her Metro series to its own Instagram handle soon – right now, she posts them under her own handle.
“Luraschi’s Instagram is all about photographing people on the streets of Paris and his shots are always taken from behind,” she said. “His handle is really quirky. Ed Templeton, on the other hand, posts a picture almost daily from the Huntington Beach Pier with the #DailyHBPierPhoto.”
The response Manan has received from her followers has been positive. “I have people messaging me that on their visit to Delhi, travelling in the Metro was another experience altogether because they have been following me on Instagram and have been seeing the metro in images,” she said.
Apart from the daily Metro series, Manan also shares gifs on a handle called Stars_From_Another_Sky, which is dedicated to women in Indian cinema.