Poor Man’s Canvas Explores the Relationship Between a Building’s Façade and Its Inhabitants

Kavin Kumar La Sa’s photograph exudes a contagious warmth, illustrating the vital relationship between home, hope and livelihoods.

Hannah Feniak Hannah Feniak

The 2021 One Photo Challenge brought together an incredible assemblage of intriguing photographs that told beautiful stories about architecture. The top winner in the student category was “Poor Man’s Canvas” by Kavin Kumar La Sa, Anna University. Architizer is delighted to present him with a grand prize of $2,500 and a Fujifilm Instax Wide camera.

At first glance, Kavin’s photograph depicts the faces of two smiling sisters; it exudes a contagious warmth that is felt by the viewer. As the viewer’s eyes linger and focus, however, they next notice that the sisters’ faces are separated by a row of windows that bisect the façade of the building on which they appear. The photograph’s subject is a façade painting, but it also about the relationship of the painting to real-life human subjects — the two inhabitants of the building, who stand on the top balcony and appear like an echo of the larger faces. 

Set in Kannagi Nagar, a resettlement home for fishermen communities, Kavin says that “murals like these illustrate ideas of home, hope and livelihoods.” By turning his camera to an oft-overlooked part of the city fabric, he challenges commonplace perceptions that more impoverished urban areas are simply ridden with crimes, violence, grime. He chooses instead to see the community’s vibrant resilience and the power of art to place social issues in the limelight.

Kavin Kumar La Sa facade

One Photo Winner “Poor Man’s Canvas” by Kavin Kumar La Sa, Anna University. Camera used: Canon

Kavin asks: “Can art matter amidst poverty? Though the people here are unaware of its implications, they say art matters — after all, little things make life.” 

Architectural photographer and One Photo juror Ana Mello commented on Poor Man’s Canvas: “The framing chosen by the photographer flattens the image, but the central snippets reveal the scale of the photographed object, bringing three-dimensionality. The lines that check the painting bring indications of the structure of the building behind this plane. With the frontal positioning, the children’s gazes attract our attention, but reveal that contagious happiness can even be found in a façade.”

We caught up with Kavin to learn more about his inspiration, process and feelings behind this One Photo Challenge-winning photograph. 

Kavin Kumar La Sa facade

The building is one of many with painted facades in the Kannagi Nagar area.

Hannah Feniak: Congratulations on your success with the One Photo Challenge! What sparked your interest in entering the competition, and what does winning mean to you?

Kavin Kumar La Sa: I entered this competition last year and couldn’t make it to the Top 100. The winning entry drove me to do better. That motivation continued as I journeyed throughout the year to find my own best. I’m a final-year student and have been working towards my dream of being an architectural photographer for the past three years. From running around with a camera in my university before, and now, to my first win in an International Architectural photography competition is tremendous. This being my last studio semester, winning this as a student made it sweeter.

What drew you to your subject matter that ultimately culminated in the winning photo?

Chennai is a city rich in diversity and has a lot of places of interest. In the past, I saw Kannagi Nagar as a slum, like any other slum, despite the attention given to the paintings. But, as I went around the city, the visit brought down my previous misconceptions. Art has changed the space and the people along with it. I couldn’t help but smile at the painting, and the painting on the building held this entire story. And, hopefully, so did my photo.

Kavin Kumar La Sa facade

Detail of winning image

What significance does this image have to you personally and your experience as a photographer?

I went for an evening stroll around Kannagi Nagar. The illusionary painting of the smiling children drew my eyes to the building. Initially, something was lackluster in the frame. When people came into my frame, it added a layer of scale to it.

As an architecture student, the illusion and differential scale of the photo was a fascinating point of interest for me. The image captures the façade as a canvas and as a building itself. This duality added a character to the place. The scale was the key in the narrative, and this photo helped me realize its importance.

My photographs always have buildings as their primary subject. This photograph was not about the building but its dialogue with the surrounding context. I want to delve into a process-based approach as I move on in my future work.

What do you find to be the most significant challenges in compellingly photographing architecture?

KK: Architectural photography, for me, is more than just capturing buildings as a subject. It is about understanding the space, understanding how that space responds to its surroundings, the character created in its dialogue with light, color and life.

Trying to capture the essence of that space through photographs is an enjoyable challenge for me, and it’s always a learning process for me.

Kavin Kumar La Sa facade

Details of winning image

How big a role did post-production play in conveying the story of your photograph, and how do you approach that process?

Post-production helped me dictate the frame, the narrative of the photo and its pace. Allowing the frame to contain the smile required the precise removal of distractions. It helped me create a narrative that begins as a painting, slowly transforming into columns, walls and openings and finally, the people dotting in and out—the climax being the realization that it’s a building.

What one tip would you give to someone looking to win next year’s One Photo Challenge?

My main tip to participants would be to start with a story. Start the photograph with an intent, something that intuitively holds meaning for you. Find a balance between the story and image. In my case, the narrative slowly brings out the hidden story of the photo. I found a good story that led me to an image waiting to be unraveled.

You can see more of Kavin Kumar La Sa’s photography here. Thank you to all participants for sharing these amazing photographs and telling such fascinating stories about architecture. If you are interested in entering next year’s One Photo Challenge, be sure to sign up for updates by clicking the blue button below.

Hannah Feniak Author: Hannah Feniak
Hannah Feniak is Architizer’s Managing Editor. When she’s not leading our talented team of writers and interviewing the industry’s most innovative designers, Hannah is likely to be found exploring the latest exhibition openings. A trained art historian and educator with a focus on architecture and urbanism, Hannah holds degrees from McGill University in Montreal and NYU.
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