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Being at home has changed the lives of many, but some have been quick to adapt. One such creative mind is that of Sephi Bergerson – a Goa-based documentary photographer and author. When he couldn’t venture out to the world to get the perfect frame, he came up with the novel idea of capturing people from around the world using FaceTime. We get in touch with him to learn more about this out-of-the-box project, and how photography has changed for him since the lockdown. By Bayar Jain; Photographs by Sephi Bergerson
1. How did you come up with the idea of shooting photographs using FaceTime?
From always being on-the-go to and from airports, I am suddenly at home all the time. This soon became a good time to touch base with friends and family from around the world. Everyone has time on their hands, and technology enables us to see each other on a video call. I’ve been toying with using screenshots as a photography product for a while, even before the lockdown, but now seemed like a good time to experiment with technology more.
For this project, I looked at other possible solutions but chose to work with FaceTime because it’s very different from the other chat apps. During the video call, I take a Live Photo to capture the moment, which is then remotely transferred to my iPhone. By doing this, the little window on the top-right corner showing my face does not appear in the final photo.
2. Take us through the process of a typical virtual shoot.
We [Bergerson and his subjects] usually start with a video call, and I ask people to show me their homes. We explore the location options together and aim to shoot when the light is good. In case we don’t have good light, we play around with whatever is available and make adjustments accordingly.
Sometimes, I ask for photographs of the house beforehand and request them to show me all the areas with light – windows, balconies, sitting areas. Then, I revert with scribbles on the photos and questions about the direction of the light or the hour it was taken. Once I have the composition in my head, we schedule the actual shoot for a time when the light would be good. This sometimes means that I need to stay up late at night or wake up at a super early hour to match the time zone of the country where my subject is residing.
On the day of the shoot, setting up the camera in its final position can take about 10-15 minutes. The actual shoot is very quick. In fact, I usually feel I have the shot within the first minute or two!
3. You’ve been a photographer for many years. How has the current situation changed your work?
If there is one thing that is strikingly different in this project compared to most of my other work, it is the final quality of the image. As a professional photographer, I have been trained to strive for the best quality image possible. Since these images are only a screenshot of the video call, it is a super low-fi image at a very low resolution. Having said that, I forgive myself for the grainy images and have even learned to like them. In a way, they are very nostalgic and look like an old high ISO film.
4. As a photojournalist, your work would largely entail you to go out on the streets and capture moments. How has adjusting to this change been like for you?
Working on a remote photo shoot means that I have to rely on the subject’s collaboration to a higher degree than I would have if I was physically present. Plus, it takes time to set up the camera, after which the frame is fixed. If I was physically there at the shoot, I might have been able to explore more angles. On the other hand, in normal times, a project like this would have taken a lifetime to complete. Even the cost of travel would be a lot. Now, I can jump from Cuba to Tokyo on the same day with zero expenses and zero-emission. If it wasn’t for the lockdown, I would not have been able to create this new portfolio.
5. How do you think this period will change the lives of photographers?
Even if the lockdown is lifted today, it would still take months before assignments come back to normal – if at all. Many people who found photography to be an exciting profession earlier might reconsider and look for other ways of making a living. This will be a forest fire for the industry and only the tall trees will survive. Those who will have the stamina and ability to stick around will have to adjust to a completely new world. I believe that remote photography – something we have all discovered right now – will not go away even when the world opens up. It will be easy, cheap, and require no prior planning. This is only one of the many new avenues that will open up for photographers.
6. Photographers are known for their keen sense of observation and finding beauty even in the most mundane aspects of life. Any tips you would like to give to people to help practice the same in their isolated lives?
These days, I see many photographers around the world exploring the light in their homes. People can suddenly see light in places they never paid any attention to earlier. I think this is a tremendous lesson, and I believe we will all be seeing light better when this whole thing is over.
7. You’ve lived in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, New York City, San Francisco, Paris, New Delhi and now, Goa. Which of these would you consider has the most thriving community of photographers, and why?
I was 21 when I lived in New York. Then, the city was very different from what it is today, and being a photographer took more commitment at the time. Today, everyone is a photographer. We all hold a super sophisticated camera in our pocket and more photos are being taken and uploaded on social media every day than in the entire history of photography. We are also not limited by the place we live in. The community of photographers is more global today than it has ever been.
8. Once the quarantine period ends and travel bans are lifted, what would be the first place you go to for your next project?
I feel that one of the most beautiful things we can learn right now is that the greatest subject is right where we are. These days, I also love taking photos of my family, and I find that more interesting and important than many things I have done in the past. Wherever I go next, I want my family with me.
9. Your top places in Goa for photography?
I feel interesting photos hide in the mundane and the obvious. Goa has a reputation of beaches and parties, but living here is a different experience altogether. We spend time in the forest behind my house, we go for a swim in the flooded quarry in the monsoon, and explore the tributaries and mangroves on a canoe. The best place to take photos in Goa is right where you are when you are here. There are great photo ops everywhere.