In Conversation: Bal Bhatla, aka Mr Whisper

In Conversation: Bal Bhatla, aka Mr Whisper

Bal Bhatla — also known as Mr Whisper — is not your typical photographer. After years of leading advertising initiatives for Samsung, he found that the most inspiring part of his day happened on the tube to and from work, where he was able to capture the candid scenes of London’s underground. After quitting a lucrative career, Bal dove headfirst into the unknowns of freelance photography, eventually carving out a successful niche in noir-inspired night time street photography. Today, he is an in-demand Fujifilm ambassador who translates the unique atmosphere of London at night into beautiful and mysterious images in his upcoming book, London After Dark.

Bal’s upcoming book, London After Dark, will be available in August 2024.

How long have you been a photographer and what initially drew you to the profession?

I've been a photographer for just over a decade, so about 12 or 13 years now. Originally, I was drawn to it through social media and Instagram.

I previously didn't have any intention to become a photographer. In fact, I had no interest in even owning a camera because I thought photography was quite complicated and technical. My job kind of drove me into it. I was a creative director at Samsung, and part of my role at the time was to embrace social media and see how that could fit into our digital campaign work. I like to practice what I preach, so I threw myself into all the social networks like Facebook and Twitter. I found I was pretty rubbish at most of them, but I resonated with them. Instagram - being a visual storyteller, being able to tell my narratives just through images - really drew me to the whole photography space.

Everyone was just using a mobile phone. It really felt that there were no egos. It felt very equal, like a new way to invite everyone into photography without having to know all the technical stuff, the skills that originally kept me away from it. As I started to upload on Instagram every day, I found that the community was very supportive of what I was doing.

Fast forward to two years of me uploading every day. My only opportunity to post was on the way to work because, if anyone who's worked in advertising knows, you don't really have a social life. My creative fun happened to and from work on the tube, where I was capturing candid people doing pretty much the same as me — going back and forth to wherever they might be going.

This just struck a chord with me. I really enjoyed that form of candid street photography. It certainly introduced me to the whole genre, which, over the last decade, I've explored way more. That's how I originally found myself doing it. And then, eventually, brands started to get in touch to work with me. And I thought to myself, “These are pretty cool brands like Adidas and Lonely Planet. Perhaps I could make a career out of this.” This was an opportunity not to be missed. I spoke to my wife, and I said, “Look, I might take at least six months out to freelance, in between the transition of creative director to photographer, or see if it's even possible. Let me test the water.” I quit my job, which enabled me to do photography full-time.

That was over 12 years ago, and I've not looked back. I've worked with some incredible brands, and I’m now a Fujifilm ambassador. I specialize in low-light street photography, which is where my creative journey has led me.

It sounds like quite a brave leap to take, going from such a stable career to the unknown of being a photographer! You began on your smartphone. What gear do you use now?

My transition from smartphone to a big camera happened early on, about three years in. I had shot the Brazil World Cup with my phone for an Adidas campaign, so I was really comfortable using a phone to do everything. Simultaneously, I was working on a campaign with Lacoste. I got back to London from Brazil, and they said, “Look, we'd love the photos you've taken and we want to use them in a wider campaign." And they wrote a really big check for me and then when they realized the photos were taken on an iPhone 5, the check was ripped up.

I was never going to let that happen to me again. That same day I went to the camera shop to buy a Sony camera but didn't feel much of a connection with it. Then the clerk pulled out the new Fujifilm camera and it just looked like what a camera should look like, being very well designed and just beautiful. Coming from a design background, the Fujifilm camera was something that I wanted to have with me at all times because, being a street photographer, you have your camera with you at all times. I consider it like a piece of jewelry. It's something that has to look good with you as well as do the job. So, that's where my transition happened. And that's how I started using the Fujifilm products which I still use to this day. 

That's the best incentive that I could possibly imagine to transition from mobiles to gear — a huge company ripping up your gigantic check! I know you've worked with many brands, but what made you interested in street photography and photographing London in particular?

When I was trying out photography and found that it was something that I was interested in, I did try out different styles of photography. Because I initially only had the opportunity to shoot on the tube, I accidentally fell into doing candid street photography. It was very unique.

London's always had some kind of magnetic appeal for me. I think it stems from when I was much younger. We lived just outside of London, but we would make an annual trip into the city to see the Christmas lights — my parents in the front of the car with my brother and I in the back under some blankets. The whole experience was very magical. I remember it feeling better than watching any movie, just looking out the window and seeing London illuminated by these beautiful Christmas lights.

Later on, I got my first job as a paperboy delivering newspapers. As soon as I got paid, that enabled me to be able to get on the tube to go into London and just play around with my friends. When it was time to go to university, all my friends decided, “This is my chance to get away from home, get away from my parents, and live on my own,” as anyone does. They all moved to different parts of the country, whereas I saw it as my opportunity to move as close as I could to London. I was very keen on staying in London. In a creative sense, I wanted to be in London because it's the melting pot where all creative things happen. If you happen to be in the capital, you can tap into a lot of things first, you get to experience them first. For me, being a creative, it was very important for me to tap into that and to be able to step into the city as soon as I could.

When I became a photographer, it only made sense to me that London was going to be my canvas, and then over that time, it's turned into London by night. The city at night always has different opportunities happening — there’s always a different mood.

What is your process like for shooting a new location? Do you try to match the feeling of the place with the image that you produce, or is it much more spontaneous?

That boils down to how much time I have in a location. If I’m in a new city and there’s something that catches my eye, I might try and capture that fleeting moment, and the beauty of the shot might be in the colors or the composition. When I can spend a little bit more time in the location, then there are a lot more deliberate elements placed in there, and I'm framing things much more creatively.

Tell me a little bit about your editing process as well. All your shots feel very noir. 

That's really kind. It's taken quite a long time for me to get to where I'm happy with how I edit my photos. My ultimate goal with editing is to streamline the process as much as possible so that I can spend more time out on the streets and less time behind a computer. Which, early on in my career, was the complete opposite. It was 50% behind my desk or behind my phone editing.

At the same time, I really enjoyed it because my approach to it then was the fact that I enjoyed taking the photo, but then the other half for me was painting this photo to make it feel like how I wanted it to look. Over time, I felt that I was spending too much time in post-production. I just didn't enjoy it as much as I used to. The way I started to look at photography became much more purist — that I should be able to get much more of my story straight out of the camera, and the job of post-production should be for me to add a visual brand or visual language that people would recognize. I've created that language — my reds look a certain way, my blues look a certain way, and that's all that should really be affected. While previously, it might have been 50/50, now I'd say it's about 85% outside shooting and 15% in post-production. 

Is there a shot you recently took that you’ve been really drawn to or that has inspired you above others?

There's a shot I got recently during one of my workshops, and my workshops take place in Soho. Soho is always changing. I was outside of a theater with two giant LED lights which totally illuminated this corner. Lo and behold, the theater design had changed and they were now promoting Michael Jackson. Everything was red and white, and it was like the whole corner was painted red. Any cars that would drive by would just be shining red, but then there would be all these abstract lights coming off all the reflections. I remember thinking, “This is going to make for a really cool new shot around Soho,” which is always hard to do because everyone’s shooting Soho at night these days. I wanted to be one of the first to get this.

After some trial and error, I found my frame. There are two big LED red boards that are advertising Michael Jackson stacked one on top of the other. The one above is predominantly red. And the one below has got some white writing on it with a silhouette of Michael Jackson on it. The opposite side of the street is quite predominantly filled with windows, so very reflective of all the red light coming across the street. So now, all I needed was a subject to come down the middle of the street. What I've learned over many years is that black cars are the best because they reflect light so beautifully at night. As a black car came down the middle of the street, I was able to turn the driver into a silhouette using the lower advertising board, and the larger red LED board above shone all the reflected lights onto the front. Effectively, I used the backlight to turn the driver into a silhouette and then I used the light above to layer in front of the window, which produced beautiful abstract red lines in which he was completely submerged. I'm really proud of that photo because it took a lot of thought. 

What advice do you have for other street photographers?

I wish I'd known earlier on in my career to be a bit more patient. When you go out and you're doing street photography for the first time, there's this misconception that it's all very spontaneous — that you have to capture these fleeting moments as they're going by or it's not a real street photo. If you stop and allow yourself to slow down, you really take in the rhythm of how things are moving and how people are moving across the lines. Just give it that patience. You'll see how much that affects your work. 


 Learn more about Bal Bhatla and London After Dark.