‘Muddiest Lanes’

Photographer Visithra Manikam tells the story behind one of her favorite pictures from Chennai.

By / May 2012

The New Year in Chennai burst with light. No longer did the skies toss and turn with clouds, wind, and water. The Thane cyclone took its rage farther inland into India. I had arrived two days before, during the worst of the rains, so I was eager to visit the city free of soppy clothes and muddy shoes.

In particular, I wanted to see Parry’s Corner, one of the city’s central business districts not far from the port, and decided I should head there and stroll around until the sun got too hot for walking and pictures. It was early in the morning when I arrived. Tall buildings rose over narrow streets. Wooden carts and cycle rickshaws rested at every corner. The fruit wholesalers stood behind colorful mounds of produce. Textile and rice merchants readied their tables.

Everyone seemed busy but in a slightly laid back way. It was the vibe you would expect in a small town, not a metropolitan city of more than four million. But, then again, it was New Year’s Day, so most of the shops stayed closed and many of the workers just sat around and enjoyed a day off.

Freelance photographer Visithra Manikam, 33, lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The people on the streets were a friendly and curious bunch. When the banana wholesalers saw a lady photographer, they got excited and wanted to pose for the camera. It took me trudging through one of the muddiest lanes in the area to oblige them. A little later, I struck up a conversation with a lady selling some fruits. She insisted that I try a tiny red berry. As I expected, I didn’t like it.

But muddy shoes or sour tastes weren’t about to dampen my day. I loved the chance to be with people and take portraits. Like the quiet guy I stumbled into as I turned to leave the lady’s table. I saw him sitting on a wooden cart and daydreaming. I took a quick shot. In response, he adjusted his position, which told me the unexpected attention made him a little self-conscious. He didn’t ask to see the photo or ask me where I was from, and I moved on with one of my favorite photos from that walk.

Chennai holds a special a place in my heart. My love affair began in 1994 when I was 14. We spent three months in the city while my father recovered from a kidney transplant. Every day we would visit my dad in the hospital and then travel to different parts of the city. We spent a lot of time at the beach and made friends with some of the shopkeepers.

I’ve always enjoyed traveling. Each trip is a new adventure, meeting people, seeing new places, learning new cultures, and, if there’s a festival there, I love joining in the excitement. Locally, I try to go to a different place every month. It could be a small town or even an area that I pass by every other day.

When you walk around these places you are bound to find interesting things that you wouldn’t find driving past.

I like to frame my pictures with a slight angle, and, if you look closely at the backgrounds of these photos, you’ll notice that there are lines and patterns that enhance the shot. I also like pictures that overflow with colors. I seldom turn my photos into black and white. When I see a colored wall, I’ll stand there for ages until the right person or cyclists passes by. It’s an obsession really.

The underlining theme of my work is happiness. I steer away from shooting gloomy photos. I think too many people do that. I want to portray joyful emotions among the people and experiences I find, believing the resulting image will put a smile on my face and many others.


— as told to Brandon Hoops