Tonnit Thomas exhibits a selection of his travel photographs at BurJuman centre Dubai through Dec. 10. The photographs are insightful sketches of every day life, candid to the core. Rajeev Nair has the details
Tonnit Thomas dates his photographs. That is an organisational hangover from his art director vocation. He is a hobby-photographer, one who walks around with a small digital camera and clicks life, the way he sees it but from the vantage perspective of an artist.
Creative head of an advertising agency in Dubai, Tonnit, an Indian, regards photography as a diversionary outlet from the 24-hour commitment his job demands. Shooting pictures thus becomes a venting out of creative frustration wherein a constantly occupied mind bangs itself against the walls of creative briefs, layout options and client deadlines.
With his photographs, Tonnit becomes the client. His instinct gives the brief, his mind frames the layout and his aesthetics approves the result.
To put it without frills, there’s something about Tonnit’s photographs that awes you. Perhaps it is in the eclectic showcase of subjects — from weddings to rains and lions to sunsets. It could be the locations — from as nearby as Sharjah to the banks of the Pamba river in Kerala to Chapman’s Peak in Cape Town. It also ought to be the subjects he frames — a junk-metal vendor in Syria, an orthodox matriarch in Kerala, or well, a child, his daughter Olivia, who wakes up to a new morning and a feeding bottle of milk.
Quite obviously, Tonnit sees what most other eyes miss. He sees the sun firing red the trunk of coconut trees that frill a paddy field; he also sees a crow that rests on the wooden electricity pole nearby. He sees seriousness in the playful sport of children as they dive into the depths of river Pamba; he sees water-drops on a vehicle’s glass playing hide and seek with the every day stock of a grocery; he sees the magical rhythm and sense of harmony in a wedding dance in Jordan. Yes, in short, he sees life and the unspoken beauty of all things mundane.
And yet, photography will remain his hobby. In leaving it so, he gets his creative freedom to shoot with his digital camera rather discreetly, and never ever with the flashes on. He feels that the moment you pose the camera against the subject, you lose the spontaneity of the moment.
Photography could have been his profession. While he was a student of applied arts at the prestigious College of Fine Arts in Kerala, he was commissioned by an American company to do their calendar with wildlife photographs. He toured the forests of south India for a month.
But after completing his degree and an advanced course in animation from the National Institute of Design, he took up a job as trainee visualiser with an advertising agency in Bangalore, India. In Dubai, since the last three-and-a-half years, Tonnit has been pursuing his longtime hobby while he travelled to various countries mostly for work-related shoots.
His own passion for fine arts was ignited by his mentally challenged brother, who died at the age of 34 years. Encouragement also came from his father, who died while Tonnit was 17. And a third inspiration, especially his rain photographs, came from studying the photographs of an Indian photo-journalist Victor George, who had a passion for chasing the monsoon with his lens and died while on an assignment covering a landslide.
Self-taught in photography, Tonnit feels his art director’s eyes gives his photographs the difference. “I am an art director and I choose pictures for the layouts. I guess my photographs have an art director’s point of view; they are very instinctive in that sense,” he explains.
He studies photographs by international professionals and also finds a creative resonance to his hobby from the war movies and documentaries that he loves to watch. Involuntarily, these external insights make his photographs very live. “It is how you see the world around you,” he adds.
To be candid with his photographs, he has to be unseen with his camera. “I just walk around and shoot. Nobody knows I am shooting, and that gives a difference to the composition.”
Sure enough, Tonnit sees the same world we see, and yet shares with the rest of us a different perspective — which makes the works of a hobby-photographer relevant to our times.