Thaipusam Documentary Photography

Inspired Eye
May 21 · 5 min read

Visithra Manikam is a part time female photographer from Kuala Lumpur with a focus on portrait photography. She started seriously taking up photography in 2005.

While I’m mostly self taught, knowledge sharing between photographers I met through Flickr and other photography forums, played a part in my growth. I like photographing people and mostly do travel portraits around Asia with a focus in different parts of India. I also work with a lot of dancers and have an on-going environment portrait series going on with a few dancers.

The underlining theme of my work is emotions, people, experience and happiness. A lot of times you will see laughter, interactions, curiosity and lots of colour in my photos. I don’t force people to be photographed nor do I pose them. Usually each photo has a story behind it, of my encounter with the subject or a memory to be precise. Some stories are longer than others, while some have no need for words.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

We always had a camera at home. My dad and I were always the ones behind the camera. So I was always exposed to photographs and movie stills. It was only years after seriously picking up photography that I realised that, some of the photos I had loved as a kid, were photos by iconic Tamil cinema photographer Stills Ravi. He had a signature style of backlit photos that still captivates me till today. I think subconsciously I had been inspired by his style and light even before I understood the way to manipulate light.

What inspires your photography?

People in general, their reactions and everyday interactions sometimes with others, sometimes with me. I enjoy watching people go about their daily lives and capture those moments. My inspiration on blog

What does it mean to you?

Photography has become very much a part of my life. Everytime I watch a movie or a performance, I end up analysing the light, the angle or how I would have shot it. Everyday scenes inspire me and I imagine the shot, even if I don’t have a camera with me.

How did the project start?

Thaipusam is the biggest festival in Malaysia. While I have been visiting it annually since I was a kid, I began photographing the festival in 2005 as I began seriously learning photography. In a way my photography has grown together with the festival and this was my 11th year photographing it.

Thaipusam is a hindu celebration in honour of Lord Muruga. Devotees fast weeks before they carry a kavadi (a decorated structure containing pots of milk, often 3–4 feet in height, weighing more than 7 kg) and pierce their bodies with hooks and spears in the form of the vel (weapon of choice of Lord Muruga). The kavadi bearers often enter into a trance before being pierced. Spurred by the chants of vel! vel! and the sounds of the drums called urumi melam, the kavadi bearers dance as they make their way to the steps of Batu Caves, where they will climb 272 steps to reach the temple in the caves.

Each year I look at different ways to tell the story of the festival. One of the things I wanted to show was the dancing and the music in my pictures. Eventually I developed a style that symbolises the exhilaration and the passion of the devotees at the festival.

How did you approach the subject matter?

It’s a festival that attracts over a million visitors. I have followed one Kavadi bearer or a group through their journey up the caves as well as just observing and documenting different kavadis. Most of the time the kavadi bearers are in a trance and may suddenly start dancing. So you really need to watch them to be prepared for a sudden swing so you don’t fall or get injured by the kavadi. I generally watch the family and friends accompanying the kavadi bearer to see if they are receptive to being photographed. Generally the smaller kavadi bearers do not like to be photographed, while the bigger ones are quite comfortable with cameras as long as the photographer is respectful to their rituals and prayers.

What cameras did you shoot with and why?

I will be sharing photos shot on the Canon 5d Mark 2.

Any anecdotes you can share?

This is an intense festival. Watching someone get pierced repeatedly can get scary for some people. So if you are visiting the festival for the first time, stand back and watch for a while. Enjoy the festival before you dive fully into it.

What are you looking for in street photography?

Interesting people, beauty in common scenarios or scenes, people with stories to tell or often in my case an experience of interacting with a stranger. Being a female photographer from Malaysia, Asians are often curious about me, which makes it easier for me to photograph people who are usually averse to photographers. While I was travelling in the tribal areas in Orissa, the tribal folk wanted to chat with me and were more than willing to be photographed. Quite opposite, to western travellers accounts of travelling there.

Any closing comments?

There is beauty in everyday life. If you sit back and watch, you will be amazed by what you see. And that is what photography is to me.

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