Mumbai Taxi Ceiling Photos: Interview with Rachel Lopez

Rachel Lopez's Instagram feed.
Rachel Lopez’s Instagram feed, @thegreaterbombay


Rachel Lopez lives in Mumbai, India, where she’s been shooting a photo series: self-portraits where she is barely visible, most of the frame devoted to the vibrant, ornate patterns of the taxis she rides in. The series is on display now—her first ever photo exhibit—at Mumbai’s Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (through February 10th, 2019). I interviewed her recently via email:

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez

Jim Newberry: The head scarf you have on in the photos—is that a dupatta? I love the interaction between the scarf fabric and the ceiling patterns.

Rachel Lopez: Hahahah, I love that people ask me that. Mine is a proper scarf not a dupatta. I wear it because I prefer traveling with the windows rolled down and the scarf prevents my hair from flying all over my face and getting stuck on to my lipstick! Everyone thinks this is some great matching conspiracy theory—that I find coordinating designs. But I assure you, my personal taste is as loud as those ceilings, so it’s quite easy to find common design ground during the ride. Also after this series, my friends have been giving me scarves as presents!

JN: I understand that this series began serendipitously; had you done much art or photography before?

RL: Not at all. I took my first picture only because I noticed that that taxi I was in had a particularly hideous ceiling—strawberries in ghastly colours like blue and purple, against a chocolate brown background. It was a bit of a WTF moment. And it struck me that I could photograph more of them. Almost two years later, I have 400 images and haven’t even seen them all!

JN: Have you done any photo series before, or any plans for another one in the future?

RL: I debut at the Kala Ghoda festival Feb 2-10. It’s the largest cultural neighbourhood festival in Asia. I have 300 pictures right on the street and I’m headed to set it up today.

JN: Is every taxi ceiling pattern unique, or do you see duplicates?

RL: Oh there are duplicates aplenty. And i don’t choose which taxi I take (that would be unfair to the cabbies who make their living from my commute). I only notice the ceiling once I’m inside. So there are plenty of repeats. Florals are the most common. Some designs I’ve only seen once. And to my great dismay, I seem to catch some really pretty designs at night when it’s too dark to shoot!

JN: Do you have any idea how this convention started, of using vivid ceilings with such a multitude of variations? Is it one taxi company that does this, or many?

Mumbai taxi ceiling self-portrait by Rachel Lopez.
Photo by Rachel Lopez.

RL: We have only one public taxi service—the black-and-yellows are all licensed by the Mumbai Road Traffic Org. The colourful coverings have been there as long as anyone remembers. But the older car models are being phased out so there are a lot more new taxis on the road now. That means there are more factory-fresh cabs to cover up, and that’s why the designs have exploded. As far as I know, the mechanics get these coverings from China. I suspect they just repurpose shower curtain and tablecloth patterns for this.

JN: Your first exhibition of these photographs opens at the Kala Ghoda Festival. How did that come about?

RL: The KGAFis the largest street festival in Asia. I knew my first public showing of the works couldn’t be in some sterile gallery, with a handful of viewers over-intellectualising the work. While they are certainly worthy of close study, I wanted thousands of ordinary people to enjoy just looking at them. And that’s what the festival has done. There’s nothing like looking at your own city folk take in the images and watching the penny drop as they realise these are ALL ceiling shots. It’s the best thrill!

Rachel Lopez. Photo by Bhushan Koyande.
Photo by Bhushan Koyande.

Rachel Lopez is an editor and columnist with the Hindustan Times, and also produces the IVM podcast Wordy Woodpecker.