Light is a strong force in the world of Indian photographer Sankardeep Chakraborty’s black and white photographs. Shafts of sunlight breaking through dark skies, street lamps refracted and intensified through the rain, the moon as it casts its ethereal glow: all of them become material for the artist to transform ordinary moments into scenes of otherworldly awe.

“When I first started out with photography, like most other people, I didn’t have anything in mind. But while going through the photos I’d selected from my archive in 2021, I noticed that light itself was the protagonist in many cases,” he explains. In other words, he hadn’t been searching for it, but seeing the images together made him realize how often he is drawn to light and its magic effects. From then on, he was inspired to flesh out these beginnings into a fully realized project. The resulting series, simply entitled LIGHT, consists of pictures taken over a two year period, some unconsciously found and others sought out later. Most were taken in Tokyo, where Chakraborty lives, with a few being taken in other places across Japan during his travels.

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

Chakraborty was born in 1989 in Kalna, a small, historic town full of temples, right by the river Ganges and about 80km from Calcutta, the former-capital of British India. As a kid, he was creative, loved art and painting, and dreamed of being a cricketer as good as Sachin Tendulkar. Then, as he grew, a formal education took up more of his time, and he set aside his other passions to study computer science at university—all the way to receiving a PhD by 2017.

He had a point-and-shoot camera during that time, but it wasn’t until 2020 that he would find his love for photography as an art form. The Japanese government had given every citizen a $1000 bursary in response to Covid-19, and something compelled him to spend it on a new camera. He shot aimlessly for a while, and then decided to study photography to find more of a direction. “And that is how street photography and I met,” he says. “So now, all of my free time is divided between my assistant professorship position at the University of Tokyo taking care of my love for computer science, spending time with my wife and photography.”

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

Street photography looks different for each and every photographer who chooses it as their genre, but something that does unite all of their approaches is having to lean into the element of chance. Chakraborty’s schedule means his time to head out with his camera is limited to the weekend. “Like any other street photographer, when I set out of my home, I have no plans of what I want to capture because I don’t know what is going to happen. That is the serendipitous beauty of this genre,” he says. “You just have to be there with your camera to receive these little gifts of life. Luck plays a very big role, and the rest is just down to how prepared you are.” Being ‘prepared’ for Chakraborty means three things: being ready to spend as much time outside as possible, deciding where to stand, and deciding the moment to click the shutter.

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

“As for planning, I just select an area I would like to visit and then walk around there for a long enough time. On average, I walk about 20 kilometers per trip, but that’s mostly in circles in specific regions where I think the people and the light might be interesting.” Most days, he says, street photography is a slow game and he comes home without having taken a single photograph. Occasionally though, a golden moment will reveal itself and the patience will all be worth it.

The images in LIGHT are unified by a palpable visual intensity and a contrasted, monochrome spectrum of deep blacks and bright whites. They are populated with strange and brilliant scenes the artist has happened across, including a gathering of plastic skeletons that appear to be worshipping the moon and a child’s face among the smoke of burning sparklers. One person appears to be floating in mid-air, captured mid-jump perhaps.

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

Other images feel like scenes from an old black and white movie, like the one of a cat’s silhouette under a misty street lamp, caught stalking silently through the night. Smoke, mist and fog are often a component in these pictures. “I guess smoke and light provide a terrific combination to create an atmosphere that I find very surreal, poetic, and otherworldly,” he says thoughtfully. “But these two alone cannot make a good photograph; they almost always help to set up a poetic environment in which something else has to happen in order to make it a (potential) successful image.”

“For this project, and much of my work in general, I’m always looking for something that somehow connects back emotionally,” Chakraborty says. “It could be mysterious, joyful, or anything that speaks to me at that time. It’s almost like I am looking for things in the external world that help me connect more with myself.” It’s about realizing what sorts of scenes trigger an emotional response within him, he says, and the highs of finding an exciting image out in the world—something that piques his interest to the extent he wants to stay and watch and figure out the right moment to photograph it.

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

That emotional investment also extends to his reasons for choosing to work in monochrome. “I experimented many times with the way I should process my photographs before settling on the current format. With high contrast black and white, I believe I can really show the intensity, drama and mood of light without any unnecessary cluttering. Ultimately, light is light only because there is darkness, and processing my images this way really helps to enhance this fact.”

Chakraborty is clear he adheres to strict photojournalism standards—in terms of not removing or adding elements to his photographs, and only ever shooting things candidly—but says he does enjoy that with black and white, he is able to tweak the contrast of his pictures and use dodge and burn techniques to bring forth certain parts of images in order to align them with the images he sees in his mind. “That is how I can better express my vision of the world—the one I am making out of reality,” he says.

Untitled, from the series “LIGHT” © Sankardeep Chakraborty

At times, the photographer speaks about “divine interventions of light” in reference to his photographs. Elaborating on that, he says, “technically speaking, we don’t see light—rather we see objects because they emit or reflect light. To give an example, you cannot see a beam of light from a low-powered laser that is not directed into your eye if the air through which the light is traveling is devoid of dust or smoke. Add dust or smoke to the air and you can see the trajectory of the laser beam because of the light being reflected from the dust entering your eye. This simple and universal truth is what I refer to as ‘divine interventions of light,’ because I am able to capture what I see simply because of this act of light. Just like a great piece of magic, you can feel the light yet cannot touch it. This is fascinating to me.” And ultimately, this is probably also why photography holds such enduring allure for him—as the medium of light and a little magic itself.

Editor’s note: LIGHT was a Jurors’ Pick in the LensCulture Street Photography Awards 2022. For more exciting takes on the genre, check out the rest of the winners here.