FF12: Into the atmosphere

Night view of the EM Bypass towards the south of the city from the east tower of Kolkata’s Forum Atmosphere, one of the most daring new residential buildings to rise up on the city’s skyline. [Buy a print]

It started with a late call the night before. ‘We had a photographer turn up at 12 o’clock this afternoon… for a sunrise shoot. Can you help us out?’

I’m a terrible landscape photographer, but the following day I found myself standing at the bottom of one of the latest ‘super-luxury condominium projects’ rising up on the Kolkata horizon.

Still a building site, Atmosphere’s two 39-storey towers have now been constructed, along with the project’s unique selling point — a cloud-like sky bridge that links the two buildings together.

I’d explained, over our short phone call, that a sunrise shoot meant leaving the house at 4:30 a.m. This seemed like a bad idea to both of us, so we decided that sunset would do. The new plan would be to capture the dusky view over the city from 500 feet above the ground.

Earlier that day, the plume air report rated pollution levels at 200 on its scale (London was about 19 that day). According to the index, 200 signifies ‘extreme pollution’. The little symbol by the rating showed a cloud with a downturned smile, two X marks for eyes.

Aside from the obvious risk to the lungs, this would make for a hazy sunset and a pretty dismal view. I was going to need to pull something else out of the bag to get a half-decent image from this shoot.

As I entered the building site, I was warned that it wouldn’t be quite up to Western standards, just as a flood of water came pouring down through the concrete stairwell above. Ducking under this shower, I began my tour of the building.

Stairs have been built in the two towers, but the workforce mainly get up and down via two service lifts strapped to the side of the building, riding up and down a thin metal rail. Now, I’m sure these things are safe, but the orange plastic grill, which formed the walls of the lift, left little to the imagination during the breezy journey up to floor seven.

The operator lifted up the door and pushed over a metal ramp connecting the lift to the tower. We can’t have been more than 30 metres up, but my stomach dived as I stepped into the shell of the building, trying to ignore the drop on either side.

We moved up and up through the vertical building site, ducking and treading carefully to avoid a trip over the exposed edges and shafts all around. As sunset approached, we headed up to the 39th floor and the roof of the first tower. I concentrated intently on the landscape, selecting the right lens, concentrating on settings–anything to distract me from the fact that the only thing separating me from the dizzying plunge were the few stray ends of steel cable that stuck out of the concrete at the roof’s edge.

Feeling quite pleased with myself on the way down, the job seemingly done, my guide turned to me in the stairwell, ‘now we cross the bridge’.

The sky bridge or Deya (a transliteration of the Bengali word for cloud), is an impressive addition to the project, and I suspect the main reason why National Geographic is currently filming its construction as part of the ‘Megastructures’ series. It will ultimately house a cinema, swimming pools, a basketball court, a gym, a spa, an amphitheatre, party deck and putting green; all suspended 100 m above the ground. Lifting the structure into place took ten hours and it is expected to weigh around 7500 tonnes when complete. At the moment, however, it’s a skeleton clad with thickened corrugated steel, which I was about to step onto.

‘Would you like to go by the edge?’

I glanced at the rickety-looking scaffold barrier and said, ‘uh, I’ll stick to the middle I think.’ Forcing my legs into action, I placed my feet where I imagined the steel to be thickest and avoided looking at the joints and gaps in the metal sheeting.

‘Take a picture, take a picture, take a picture.’ I repeated as a feverish mantra.

‘Okay, okay, we’ll see the navel now.’ He led me over to a hole in the middle of the bridge, covered with thin netting. I peered over and pretended to be elsewhere.

Passing under a shower of sparks from a welder above, we finally got to the other side. Inside the second tower, I congratulated myself on what could only be described as an impressive feat of bravery, and set off down the stairs.

‘No, no! We go up now!’ a call came from behind me. I groaned inside.

Emerging from the second stairwell was an achievement in itself. By now it was dark and we’d had to climb through scaffolding by the light of a smartphone, stepping only on a small central section of the half-finished steps.

On top, the roof was littered with construction detritus and, most unnervingly, iron loops which looked perfect for catching a foot. I pep-talked myself into getting a grip, set my tripod up, soothingly attached filters to the end of my lens and got to work. As the city lit up below–the noise of the horns and traffic dulled, the steady clack of the camera mirror flapping up to let the scene flood in, trails of light burning onto the sensor–it almost felt calm.

Twenty minutes later, the lift opened to release its last load of the day. As panels of glass marched past, I chatted as best I could to the construction workers. I told them they were very brave. They smiled at the notion and I showed them pictures of Scotland on my phone, the most recent images I had of home.

Finally, the lift was ready to descend, and the five or so of us waiting got in. Then a few more. Still, we waited. When there were ten of us, I thought to myself, ‘quite a few of us in this lift.’

We continued to wait. Men emerged from the darkness of the 37th floor, stepping out over the void and into our hovering carriage. I nervously looked around and said to the operator, how many people can fit into this lift?

‘Oh plenty, plenty. Very strong! Twenty people.’

Soon there were, in fact, twenty men in this small lift. We began to descend. Ten floors down, the doors opened again.

‘How strange, I wonder why anyone would want to get off here at this time’ I thought, naively.

More men climbed into the lift. One, two, three… soon ten more squashed in. I turned to look at the lift’s safety information sign: ‘Capacity 20 people’ it read. My hands trapped, I used eye signals to attract the lift official’s attention. With my eyebrows I tried to say, ‘I’ve seen the sign. You’ve seen me see the sign. Let’s not make a fuss about this.’ Something unspoken passed between us, a tacit deal was struck, and we soon resumed our descent. On the way down, shouts from workers on other levels could be heard calling for the lift to stop. We pressed on.

Our landing was smooth and even graceful. I gave the lift man a congratulatory nod and stepped back onto the earth. Kissing the ground is a cliche and unhygienic, but I directed my most loving thoughts toward the soil and felt grateful that I’d survived an afternoon in the smoggy Atmosphere. And I’d even got the picture to prove it.


Sign up for my Fifty Frames newsletter