The conference room at The Hindu headquarters in Chennai echoes to the sound of Noel Bowler’s rich Irish brogue. The 41-year-old from England has spent nearly a decade hearing his voice echo in uninhabited rooms around the world. The lecturer in Photography at University Campus Suffolk trains his camera on an unusual subject — dormant spaces that until a few hours ago were alive with conversation and creativity.
“Spaces with no people — that’s the kind of photography I’m interested in. I like the idea that when someone looks at the picture of an empty room, they imagine the people. Every person brings his own ideals and prejudices to it. If you have a person seated at the desk, I think they would examine it less critically. If all the information is there, there is nothing to challenge you,” says Bowler, who was in India recently as part of a four-year project capturing newsrooms across the world.
This is Bowler’s second such venture. His earlier work, published as a book Union in 2015, is a portrait of union offices redolent with the air of animated conversation.
Drawn from 14 countries, from the US and Poland to his native Ireland, it was an attempt to capture beleaguered centuries-old organisations founded at a time when the idea of work was different.
Criss-crossing the globe
“I began with a trilogy of ideas — union, newsrooms and finance. I have long been interested in the labour market. For the current project, The Hindu is one of the few newspapers I could access in South Asia,” says Bowler, adding, “I started where I lived, in Dublin, with The Irish Times. During the course of my research, I read an article in The New York Times about the paper moving online and I thought it fascinating to capture print newsrooms before they disappear. When I moved to England, I photographed at The Independent, The Sun, the Financial Times and The Telegraph. In the US, it was The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In Japan, I visited The Asahi Shimbun and The Yomiuri Shimbun and in Paris, Le Monde. I look at large circulated papers representative of an ethos. And since I can’t afford to fly everywhere, it is also dictated by budget.”
With a rare interest that straddles the worlds of photography and travel, Bowler feels that projects have to crystallise despite a time frame.
“A project is finished when it is finished. I have a general idea of a newsroom, but I’m not a journalist; neither have I worked with a newspaper. I have to learn from everyone I meet and allow the project to change slightly. I have a set pattern of how I approach it, the logistics of how I organise it and how I get to it. I keep an open mind on the narrative.”
Each of his pictures begs to tell a story. Bowler’s newsrooms capture reporters’ desks crowded with leaning stacks of books and sheaves of paper, the odd one filled with curios from around the world and family photographs, and corridors with potted plants that lead to rooms where stories of shifting geopolitics are written.
There is both hubris and history in the union rooms filled with plaques and worn-out jackets; the stillness of the space lends it a sensory air and a voice despite the absence of people.
Bowler’s portraits are a microcosm of the world inhabited by people, through their articles of faith, half-written notes, empty water bottles and stationery. “I don’t clean up. The idea of photography is truth. I’m interested in the evidence of people than the people themselves.”
It is an interest that Bowler has pursued since he first fell in love with photography as a pre-teen. “I had a Yashica and I took pictures of clichéd images like sunsets. I found it therapeutic. I loved the process.”
Bowler also has a Canon DSLR 5D Mark III, but it “doesn’t see the room in the same way. It’s way more elongated. For the projects, I use a Mamiya RB67, a fully manual camera. I use medium format film; it’s a slow process with 10 frames per roll. I have to wait till I process the film in England to see the results.”
Does he capture life beyond newsrooms as he travels the world? “I do, but I use my phone for social media. Every city reminds you of somewhere else. Chennai is much like Bangkok but crazier, as far as traffic goes,” says Bowler. “I love photographing architecture in general, interiors in particular. I like the ordinary and the everyday, more than the spectacular. I love the idea that the dirt on the walls lends it character.”
Bowler, whose work has been exhibited worldwide, including at The New York Photo Festival and Les Rencontres d’Arles, says his place of passion is Italy. “The narrow streets, the buildings, it’s a very Instagramable country.”
At the University, he teaches Critical Theory and Ambition. “It’s a difficult thing to teach; I try and inspire students to drive themselves. It’s hard because it isn’t in a book, so you set an example. I’d like to come back to India. Working in Afghanistan was a challenge. I didn’t photograph the war but women’s football. It was more interesting than the bombs. That’s where we should be looking. We have to show the violence, but also that life goes on.”