Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Unexpected Photo Shoot

"I have arrived. You can start for the airport."

"Oh, you have arrived at Columbus airport, have you? Your flight will take another hour or so I guess? I'll be there when you reach."

"Dude, I have arrived at Washington Dulles airport. From Columbus. I'm expecting you to be here now to pick me up."

"What? I thought your flight arrives at nine!"

"I messaged you on WhatsApp when I started. Didn't you see?"

"Sorry Boss. Actually a friend arrived from India suddenly on a surprise visit and we were showing her around DC. Can you wait until nine? We'll come directly to the airport from here to pick you up."

I looked at my watch. It was ten minutes past eight. If I wanted to get a cab it would not be possible before another ten minutes, so if I waited for my friend Shreevallabh, I would have to wait only about forty minutes or so. Besides, there wasn't much to do at home tonight, and tomorrow was a Sunday.

"OK. Take your time. I'm waiting."

I walked out of the plane, waited for my baggage, and then walked to the nearest exit. I was returning from a conference in Columbus, Ohio. As I settled down into a bench, my phone beeped. It was a message from Shree.

"We are on our way. You can Google for Poonam Kaur to pass the time if you are bored."

Poonam Kaur was an inside joke between me and Shree. She was a model and actress who had been in school with Shree and his wife Snehal. She had just been crowned Miss Andhra in 2005 when I and Shree both worked together in Hyderabad. At that time, he had shown me Poonam's photos and had proudly announced his childhood acquaintance with her, although he had to accept that they were out of touch for many years now. The girl was very pretty, and I had seen her photos all over the Internet over the years that followed.  I knew she was an actress now but I had not seen any of her movies because I did not understand any of the south Indian languages. And over the years, I often asked Shree about his beautiful friend. But why was Shree telling me about Poonam now? Had he forgotten that I already knew about her?

"I have Googled her much more than you have since 2005." I replied, and went back to my 2048 game.

A little after 9 o'clock, Shree's car arrived at the airport. As I climbed into the passenger seat next to Shree, I noticed there were two people sitting in the rear seat along with Snehal. "This is our school friend Suraj," said Shree, pointing to the man, "and of course, you know who she is," he said pointing to the woman, who smiled shyly at me.

Of course I knew. I should have known why Shree was asking me to Google Poonam Kaur out of the blue. I should have known when... my train of thought was interrupted by Suraj as he extended his hand to shake mine. "Shree has told us a lot about you, and we also saw your message." I wanted to sink into the ground.

All of us were hungry, so we went to an Indian place and had biryani. There, when Poonam and Snehal were fooling around at the table, taking weird selfies, I offered to click their photo with my phone. That's when Shree and Snehal told Poonam that I was a very good photographer.

Modesty is not one of my virtues, and although I still consider myself an amateur photographer, I usually make no secret of the fact that I know a little more about photography now than the average Joe with a camera. Here, however, the situation was different. Shree and Snehal were advertising my photography to a real-life model and actress who works with real photographers everyday. Photographers with full frame camera bodies and prime lenses and studio lights. "Can't they see," I thought, "how embarrassing it is even to mention my photography skills to the Poonam Kaur?"

But Poonam seemed genuinely interested. "Do you do photo shoots? What lenses do you have?" she asked. I admitted that I had done a few photo shoots with some friends, and I normally used a 50mm and a 70-300mm for portraits. "That's good enough." she said. And then, I don't remember who proposed the idea first, but the outcome was "Sugata will do a photo shoot for Poonam."

Everybody was smiling. Everybody seemed happy. Nobody saw the panic behind my smile. I felt I was about to be exposed. I was just another guy with a DSLR and some old lenses, and I was going to blow the best opportunity to come to me as a photographer.

We came back home around eleven. First we had decided to do the shoot the next morning, but then, Poonam said she was not much of a morning person, and besides, she had a flight to catch the next morning. So she asked me if I was too tired to do the shoot that night. I said I wasn't. We shot a few pictures at Shree's apartment, and then drove to the Georgetown waterfront.

That was at 1:00 a.m. For the next two hours, I was doing one of the most difficult photo shoots of my life. On one hand, Poonam is an amazingly down-to-earth person and she was very encouraging. Actually she was so comfortable with posing that she practically directed the shoot, which was a relief. On the other hand, I only had street lights and shop-window lights to shoot by, and the one thing my 2009 camera is not good at is low-light photography. Shree, Snehal and Suraj helped as much as they could, holding cellphone lights and reflectors, but in the end it was often too dark to focus with my manual lens. Since that manual lens is the only f/1.4 lens I have, I did not have any option but to use it in such low light.

Photo by Snehal
We tried different poses, different backgrounds, different outfits, and even got inside a fountain for some unusual shots. At some point during the shoot, my panic disappeared and I forgot I was photographing an actress. I was ordering her around, suggesting poses, just as  I would do to a friend. She was open to ideas, and all of us had a lot of fun the whole time.

We came home after 3:30. I wanted to look at the photos right away, but was too tired that night. I cleaned them up over the next few days and mailed them to Poonam. A lot of the photos were too blurry or too grainy. Some had shadows at weird places. Still, some had come out well, and Poonam said she wished we had more time to do a proper shoot. I felt the same way.

But whatever the quality of the photos, when I look at that folder on my laptop, I still cannot believe this really happened. I had no idea that I could ever do a photo shoot with a real actress even one hour before it happened. And as a photographer, the thing that I like most about this experience is the thought that maybe in future, when people Google for Poonam Kaur, some of the photos they find would have been taken by me.

Photo by Shreevallabh


  1. @Aurindam: I was actually reading your comments on a very, very old post on this blog when I got the notification of this comment being posted. Welcome back! How have you been? :)

  2. মডেল না মডেলের ছবি, কোনটা বেশি সুন্দর বুঝতে পারছি না। খুব ভালো হয়েছে, সুগত। অটোগ্রাফ নেওয়ার সুযোগ হয়েছিল?

  3. @Kuntala: Autograph newa hoyni... kothayi ba nebo, ar tachhara ektu lojjao korlo. Tarpor bhablam photo to thakchhei...