167 Suraj Bhamra

Born Windsor, ON, 1989 / BA, MA, PhD (Electrical Engineering), Oakland University / Lives in Pontiac, MI

It’s easy, in the age of deepfakes, algorithm-driven advertising, and compulsive, desensitized scrolling, to wonder if photography is dead. Or perhaps the right word is undead, as in drained of life, reanimated, and enlisted in the daily struggle for the priceless commodity of our attention.

But if the situation looks grim through the smudged screens of our mobile devices, all it takes is a real-world encounter with photographs like Suraj Bhamra’s to remember that the 200-year-old art form is not only alive and well, it’s doing essential work in our troubled times. Bhamra’s output is a refreshing reminder that at its best, photography can help counteract the dissociative effects of contemporary experience by bringing viewers closer to life as it’s actually lived.

For Bhamra, a self-taught street photographer, life is lived (mostly) in Hamtramck, the dense, two-square-mile enclave of Detroit that is Michigan’s most diverse city and a haven for immigrants, artists, and working class people. Bhamra thinks of Hamtramck as a “perfect microcosm of America.” His project is at once a documentary record of everyday life there and a prism-like refraction of his own experience as an American and an immigrant. He channels these energies into “The Look,” a monthly column published in the print Hamtramck Review, where, amid ads, crime notices, and reports on city government, he circulates new photos, accompanied by brief, diaristic texts about his process and perspective.

When he’s out shooting, Bhamra says he’s watching for the juxtaposition of the “organic shape” of human figures “against the lines of the street, the sidewalk, and the buildings.” Man and woman hugging… (2022), for instance, depicts two slumped figures huddled together amid the strong, glassy verticals of a bus stop. This image speaks movingly of both despair and predatory capitalism (note the pack of cigarettes and beer can beside the figures), at the same time it encapsulates one of Bhamra’s primary themes: the essential “softness” of the human form amid hard, man-made landscapes.

In Mother and children walking on Caniff Ave. (2022), the softness belongs to a woman’s billowing chador as a young boy, grasping her hand, turns to gaze at the photographer and his camera. For Bhamra, a scene like this one points to the magnetic appeal of Hamtramck, a place where he is insistently drawn. The son of working class Indian immigrants, Bhamra grew up in what he describes as a “gray area” between his parents and his Western peers, and he is carefully attuned to the dynamics of immigrant families and the tenuous position occupied by “others” in America. In Hamtramck’s streets, he bears witness to the fullness and vitality of immigrant and working class lives at the same time he traces aspects of his own identity and family story.

Bhamra generally renders this connection between self and subject so subtly that it is almost imperceptible to the viewer, but he does occasionally make it clearer by placing himself in his compositions. Even then, his presentations are oblique, as in Self portrait (2021), which depicts the artist as a detached observer, with one eye wittily obscured by his vintage camera’s viewfinder. More often he is visible only in fragments, like the blurry hand that helps frame the streetscape of Hand shielding sun on Clairmount Ave. (2022), and which lends the image its resonant relatability.

Hand shielding sun…, shot from inside Bhamra’s car, is part of his larger interest in documenting the ways people move through the concrete landscape of Hamtramck and the surrounding Motor City. In photographs like Bus at night, downtown Detroit (2022), he almost seems content simply to revel in his ability to dramatize the physics of mass in motion, but a deeper unease permeates Bicycle accident on Joseph Campau (2022), as well as an ongoing series depicting crashed cars on area freeways.

Bhamra’s concern here seems to be with the misalignment between the small softness of our bodies and the sheer velocity with which we are accustomed to hurtling through our unforgiving environment. But he is also alert to the social damage that occurs when the inherently private and isolating experience of driving erodes the connective tissue of street life, which by its nature is shared. What is lost behind the wheel, Bhamra posits, is nothing less than the possibility of real, person-to-person contact across the differences that divide us. “If you could just get a glimpse past the windshield,” he entreats readers of the November 18, 2022 issue of the Hamtramck Review, “I think you would see that I’m a lot like you.”

Matthew Piper, May 2023

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