N: Yes, the atmosphere you capture
is extremely interesting. Whether it is the
choice of the building, the place— all
of it suggests a previous inhabitance. Often
ironically this atmosphere appears linked toyou
know, your ‘history’ interest. Whether
it’s the Coffee House picture or some
of the conference room pictures—the ‘now’
of the picture moment is haunted by the ‘then’
of a previous long-passed moment. For a Calcuttan
like myself, the Coffee House is associated
with a certain ‘sound level’—
conversations, debate, chatter. You show me
a still Coffee House and I imagine the ‘other’
one, the one I know. The ‘quiet’
you capture resonates with what once was.
CT: The thing is that if you
visit a place, empty, you can be more receptive.
There’s no distraction. So you can drift
mentally into an imagined past.
NK: It’s just you, your equipment,
your sense of what you imagine the ‘history’
of that place to have been through your own
personal lens— or should one say ‘literature’?
Your imagined ‘stilling’ of time
CT: One of the problems is
that often I would not be allowed to be alone.
Once given permission to photograph a building,
I would usually be accompanied. In China it
had been quite different in that respect. I
had confined myself to a particular region,
the region around the yellow river where the
Chinese civilization is said to have started,
although this is a geographically large territory.
It has become a rather backward area, most of
the new development is taking place near the
coast. The places that interested me are fairly
rural, and small town. China is full of huge
cities which are difficult to escape. But those
small towns interested me more because you can
just walk out into the surrounding countryside,
and it was often in the borderland between town
and country that I would find things. Much is
dry and dusty, semi-desert. Just the place to
find yourself alone, and drift into a personal
reverie. In Calcutta, I would often have people
behind me waiting to go back to their desks,
so I had to shut myself off from that somehow.
It’s hard to explain. It is all about
a sort of resonance and that’s informed
by a multitude of things, sources such as those
that you were talking about. Literature, for
example. It’s a cumulative experience.
Often, it’s the very nature of what you
are searching for, something that you are trying
to understand about yourself.
NK: A lot of this is about yourself.
For someone who does not know you enough, like
myself, there’s a shyness to everything.
And on the other level, these are not shy photographs.
Say if I walk into a space particularly want
to photograph in which everything is against
me — people staring, watching. Now, I
am hugely awkward about being watched. So, I
quickly get up and capture whatever the hell
I sense I have to and then wait for the accidents
to happen and hope that some magic has been
‘made.’ In your pictures, there’s
a sense that you have somehow overcome that
kind of shyness. You’re there, the people
around you have been blocked out, imagined away,
even replaced by a ‘firmness’. There’s
firmness to these works, a purposefulness, if
CT: That’s very perceptive.
It’s true that I am shy and reserved,
if you like … and just to enter these
places I had to overcome that shyness. What
made the process easier is that people were
always very helpful. They would very rarely
refuse to listen… on the contray, in fact,
the whole process became part of the attraction
of the project. I met an enormous variety of
people, sometimes in quite powerful positions
who I would not ordinarily have the opportunity
to meet. I was surprised at how accessible they
were. In Europe, people in similar administrations
would not be so easy to meet. They wouldn’t
find the time to see people like me who just
turn up on their doorstep. Then there is the
security factor to consider.
NK: I think there’s a kind of
paranoia towards photographers—
CT: It’s amazing—people
target photographers in particular. Forgotten
buildings have to be protected against terrorism—there’s
no sense to it! I’ve been stopped several
times on the street by the police for taking
photographs, in India while anybody can walk
around with a mobile phone camera and do whatever
they want to.
NK: Yes, it happened to me in Paris.
I have this Russian horizon, the panoramic 120-degree
camera, the kind you can fire from through a
spell of sharp rain—heavy drops, loud—and
suddenly, the stairway from the Metro was flooding
over with toddlers! There were all literally
‘gushing’ out, like a flood. I just
clicked that ‘hailstorm’ of people
rushing towards me— it all happened in
a flash: the image, the thought, the act of
picture-taking from the hip. And this woman
just came up to me: ‘No, no! You can’t
do that!’ Sharp. Angry. And then again
in the same flash I noticed that she may have
a reason— each kid had a little something
around their neck, like a tag. Perhaps part
of some institution or something suggesting
a disability, but clearly not a visible one.
Deafness for example. I was so taken aback.
As I’d intruded where I never meant to.
As though taking their picture was incorrect
because of their affiliation to a particular
CT: There’s certainly a paranoia to which
there is no logic at all. Some people react
quite bizarrely. I guess the media is largely
to blame. I can think of several instances.
I tried to do something a little bit similar
in my hometown. A small town on the east coast
of England. I go there from time to time to
see my parents. Quite a strange place really
from an outsiders perspective. Essentially,
it’s it’s a coastal holiday resort
for industrial workers— a class of people
now largely disappeared from European society—
built about a hundred years ago. The town’s
name is Skegness, and it’s a smaller version
of Brighton or Blackpool.The town lives on in
that tradition and is still very popular. A
lot of day-trippers - like in the famous
I grew up there, and that’s where I started
to take photographs. I worked for a beach photography
company that employed a lot of young people
in the summer to stand on the street and photograph
the tourists who passed by.
Since many were day-trippers, we had to prepare
the photos the same day. We would photograph
pretty well anyone who passed by, and some would
be curious enough to collect the photograph
later from a kiosk on the seafront.
N: There’s a whole industry in
different tourist places now. It still happens—‘We’ll
take two pictures of you’—
CT: This business went back
the time to when most people didn’t own
NK: Your father was there? He started
his life there? Or he moved there?
C: He moved there. My father
was a solicitor. My grandfather worked for a
firm of solicitors . . . he had moved around
the country a fair bit and eventually found
employment in Skegness. My father studied at
law school after the war and became a solicitor
for the firm for which my grandfather worked.
So I guess my grandfather found my father a
NK: And you broke that tradition?
CT: Well, the tradition doesn’t
go back very far. Just two generations.
NK: You never studied law?
CT: No. I went to university
and studied zoology, and worked in research
for a little while afterwards. I don’t
think my father was that passionate about it
really. I think he is a romantic at heart. And
he had a lot of other interests—amateur
dramatics, painting, photography for a while.
Music too, which as well, which was an important
influence on me. My mother was a teacher. Quite
a curious place to grow up in. The winter population
was around 10,000 which increased 10 fold in
the summer. Day-trippers, huge caravan parks,
bed & breakfast guest houses, it got extremely
busy in the summer, and there were always seasonal
jobs to be found. And I found one of the better
jobs really. Working for this firm as a photographer
on the seafront, because the hours were relatively
short to accommodate the day-trippers, and we
were outdoors rather than being in a café
or fish & chip shop.
NK: Where did the camera come from?
CT: The firm supplied it.
I’d never taken pictures before, and no
real skill was required.
NK: So you just landed up?
CT: anybody I could do it.
The sites were specific, and you were required
to just stand in one place, basically, and snap
anyone who came by. Most people wouldn’t
want their photograph taken. So, you learnt
to be very quick. You bent down a bit, snap
a photograph and hand a ticket out all in the
same movement. The gesture was quite fast, and
the automatic reaction was to take the ticket.
NK: And what did the ticket say?
CT: That you can go to a kiosk
at a certain time and your photograph will be
NK: The photograph they may not have
wanted at all in the first place!
CT: No, but then some were
curious! We used to work in pairs from time
NK: Gosh . . . it sounds like benign
CT: One of us would be dressed
up in a costume. We had a gorilla costume. The
gorilla would be caged. Then, the gorilla would
rush out of the cage, grab someone and get in
NK: And the other one would shoot?
NK: Did you do the gorilla bit ever?
CT: A little bit—
NK: And then the other guy shot?
CT: Yes. We had various costumes,
a pink elephant, a bear, and some cartoon characters
from the television…
NK: It was like a daily wage?
CT: Mostly a commission. You
got a basic wage and then commission. That’s
how I started taking photographs.
NK: I think that’s amazing, because
it is completely outrageous!
CT: That was my photographic
training. I never actually thought that photography
might be used artistically, till somebody working
for this firm showed me some photographs that
had been taken on the beach. Black-and-white
images of patterns left by the tide in the sand.
NK: It’s quite amazing starting
off like that. Considering you ran away from
there . . . I seem to remember a random remark
which you made about not really wanting to be
part of a certain kind of commercial circuit
that the art and photography scene in England
appeared to have become. How that prompted the
choice to move from there to the outskirts of
Montpellier. Not settling in England. Tell me
CT: I’ve always enjoyed
the sensation of being a foreigner.
NK: What does that mean?
CT: It means not having particular
ties to the place where you are. There’s
a sense of freedom.
NK: Not having historical ties?
CT: Yeah, although I do seem
to have become a bit French now—
NK: What is that? What is a bit French?
CT: Changing my habits about
food, and perhaps a somewhat different sensibility
to certain cultural issues. The British do maintain
a certain island mentality of being apart from
NK: So here’s an Englishman settled
in Montpellier, taking photographs, married
to an Icelander: yours is a whole completely,
totally exotic pirate-like image—
CT: I must admit it shows
a certain attraction for the exotic. I’ve
been told this in the past as well.
I like to put myself a little apart when close
to my own roots, I have difficulty seeing beyond
that. The French word describes it better—‘L’etranger’,
like the title of a book by Camus—meaning
‘outsider’. The idea of maintaining
a distance, like stepping back Going back to
the subject of England. Other Europeans find
England exotic. When I lived there, I could´nt
imagine how anyone could find England exotic.
Now when I to go back, I can understand better
why they find certain things bizarre.