She waited more than a month to get the perfect shot. Almost every day, photographer Dimpy Bhalotia would make her way to the Tate Modern in London and stand at a particular spot that overlooked the building’s cavernous hall as the sunshine beamed through its distinctive windows.
“There’s this place where the sun passes through the windows and [sunlight] falls directly on the floor for 20 to 30 minutes a day. London is grey all the time, so this only happens in the summer,” she says.
Her visits became so frequent that the security guard started recognising her. “He would say, ‘Oh, girl. You’re back again. I don’t even want to check your bag any more’,” she laughs.
Bhalotia, who grew up in Mumbai and now lives in London, recalls that she didn’t know what picture she wanted to take; she was just fascinated by the light. On a sunny day in July, she got her chance. “The sun was bright and crisp and sharp, but there were no people,” she says. It was closing time, and the same security guard who had become her friend was trying to get her to leave. “Five minutes,” she pleaded.
Then, she saw them – a man and woman greeting each other in the middle of the hall. With her smartphone, she captured their silhouettes cutting across the sunlight. It was, as Henri Cartier-Bresson might call it, the “decisive moment”, where a fleeting event is immortalised into imagery.
Bhalotia has an eye for such moments, as evident in her high contrast, at times overexposed, black and white photographs, all shot with her smartphone. There’s a boy running by the side of a lake, a street puddle reflection of a dancer in Madrid, a man balancing himself on wooden scaffolding.
She doesn't always have to wait weeks to take the right photograph. Her image Flying Boys – the one that earned her the grand prize at this year's iPhone Photography Awards, announced earlier this month – was taken, she says, in five seconds. Shot during a sweltering summer in Varanasi, the photo shows three boys jumping from a man-made cliff into the Ganges River to cool off.
It’s a common subject for photographers in India, but Bhalotia’s composition is exquisite. The water is nowhere in the frame, and the building’s ledge takes up only a corner of the image. The focus, instead, is on the three children seemingly in flight, limbs full of energy, leaping with the freedom and carelessness of youth.
Throughout her work, Bhalotia usually obscures the faces of her subjects. Rather, her style is defined by silhouettes and bursts of movement. “I want my viewer to feel the moment and not study the origins of the people in my photographs. It could be anyone in the photo,” she explains, adding that her chosen palette is a way to emphasise shapes and lines. “Black and white has the potential to capture the movement in its truest form,” she says.
Trained in fashion design technology, she discovered a love for image-making during her travels. She was growing disillusioned with her chosen career, seeing fashion as “plastic”, just a way to “show off”. “I felt that I was missing something in life,” she says. “When I had my phone in my hand and was taking photos, I felt more connected to it.”
She left the fashion industry and has been working solely with phone photography for the last nine years. Though she has used cyanotypes and film cameras before, she is most comfortable shooting with a smartphone. “When I was shooting with a film camera, I was so engrossed with looking through the viewfinder that I missed looking at the landscape. With the phone, my concentration is on the ground, on the subject in front of me. It’s easier to be more present in the moment,” she explains.
Bhalotia is an example of how phone photographers are carving out their own place in the field. Tech companies have played a major role in developing this new form of photography, with smartphone makers continually adding camera features to their models. Social media has helped, too, making it easier for photographers to share their images with the world.
It’s not a medium that is often taken seriously by more traditional practitioners, though Bhalotia says that phone photographers follow much of the same principles as they do. They consider composition, lighting, craft and subject. They come to understand the limitations of their devices, too. Bhalotia acknowledges that she can’t shoot after sunset, because phone cameras can’t handle low light and, at times, the lenses can’t achieve the appropriate focal length.
For her, however, being a good photographer comes with self-reflection and authenticity. “It becomes very common for phone photographers to start imitating others on social media when making photos. But you have to think of your subject and why you are choosing to show it. You have to understand yourself first.”
Currently, Bhalotia is waiting out the pandemic in India with her family, though she may return to the UK in the next two months. Winning the title of Photographer of the Year, she says, is helping bring more attention to her work, though the coronavirus may bring about complications when she continues her street photography.
“It’s a strange time. I don’t think we will be able to shoot the way we were able to … Someone might think you’re taking a photo because they’re not following the rules,” she says.
Her biggest plan for her photographs is take them out of the screen and into the street. Bhalotia says she wants to create life-size sculptures based on her photos and install them in the places where she initially took the images. “I want to turn my photographs into a material that you can touch. I want someone to walk around my photos,” she says. “I’m capturing something from the street, and I want to bring it back to the street."
She imagines installing a large framed print of Flying Boys in Varanasi, on the same ledge that the subjects used as a diving point. "I want people to see it and say, 'Wow, I missed that. I didn't notice those boys jumping. Even I want to jump into the river, too.' I want them to see life."