Capturing the Essence: Anshil Popli’s ‘Wild Wild West’ both commemorates and elegizes the complicated landscape of the Bay Area

I often wonder what most defines the Bay Area. Is it our magnificent outdoor scenery bordered by endless Pacific waters? Or is it our iconic structures that stretch our sense of imagination, splendor and human achievement?

Is it the people and culture from years past, the revolutionary values they’ve instilled? Or is it the surge of technological innovations that emerged from this weird little corner of our globe to reshape the way we interact with one another?

Whatever the answer is, it isn’t singular. And perhaps it can’t be fully encapsulated in language, either. Perhaps the essence of the Bay Area can only be felt by being present and rooted here, by walking its streets, talking to its people and looking at its many complexities with an objective, unfiltered lens.

That’s exactly where Anshil Popli, a local Indian-American photographer from Berkeley, finds himself. Since his teenage years, he has wandered the Bay Area’s corners, documenting his home and the community around him to share with others. And as his skills have grown, so has his desire to showcase the realest layers of the Bay.

“To me, photography helps keep places as real as possible,” Popli says. “My sole job is to bear witness to things as they unfold in front of me.” And he does, without blinking.

Whether riding around deep East Oakland with a group of rappers to find the perfect angle for an album cover, or simply cruising the Berkeley Hills to discover a moment of unexpected serenity, Popli both commemorates and elegizes the complicated landscape of the Bay Area with his impressive range of subjects, moods and focal points.

“It’s the art of capturing the realness of things,” he says. “Getting to work with a mass variety of people [and places] with their own unique story is healing to me.”

For the photographer, who battled his own demons as an East Bay youth, his medium is not only a form of therapy, but serves to offer a larger tapestry of cultural enrichment and preservation for the region. Now, after years of documenting the wildly stratified realities that exist throughout the Bay, Popli is sharing his perspectives as a visual compilation. 

In his debut book, Wild Wild West, Popli provides a window into the diverse micro-cultures and lifestyles throughout the Bay—with a particular interest in rap and street life. His photos are most notable for how they capture the underground elements and raw truths of Northern California’s cities, particularly among marginalized communities that are often stigmatized by mainstream media and institutional policing. He’s celebrated for his work with local icons like Koran Streets, White Dave, sndtrak, Big Spence and many others.

Those who keep up with Bay Area rap circles might have already seen Popli’s work and not even know it. Case in point: Ian Kelly sitting on top of a smashed-out Buick with a pair of red Adidas Crazy 8s, or group members from Trey Coastal posted up at the Lake Merritt BART station as a train glides by.

Yet, Popli goes beyond any simplified, one-dimensional representation of urban living by also capturing the larger, subtler context of a community: an OG with his child; an abandoned lot at midnight; an artist standing on the corner with a police cruiser frozen behind him in mid-pursuit.

After that, he’ll transport you to the nearby forests, rolling hills and beautiful sunsets just around the corner. It’s what makes his work—and the Greater Bay Area—such a compelling and fractured place to live.

“I’m not going to ignore that there is a serious divide between living conditions all over the Bay Area and that most of us are statistically three paychecks away from homelessness,” Popli says. “[But] sometimes context may provide a beautiful sunset.”

It’s as if Popli’s title is both a reference to the wildness of living in our ultra-gentrified and economically violent reality, while also honoring the natural and wild beauty of our surroundings. It’s a simultaneous schism that he finds pleasure in exploring, and shares with us as high-quality, compelling images.

Regardless of the subject, Popli—whose auntie gave him his first camera as a way to stay out of trouble and pursue a positive outlet—never backs down from any shot and seeks only the truth, with a deep sense of curiosity about what the Bay Area is, and what it is becoming.

“I will never stop capturing what’s real,” he tells me. “That’s the only way we get a better understanding of one another.”

His dedication to “the art of capturing the realness of things” is witnessed in the way he humanizes his subjects by photographing them in their organic state—whether that be defined by nature, or concrete.

Some people criticize him for “glorifying” certain lifestyles; however, Popli tells me it’s not the lifestyles they should be outraged by, but the conditions in which some Bay Area communities—which are systematically disadvantaged—are forced to live, that critics should be concerned about.

Although the Bay Area is one of the wealthiest regions in the world, it is also one of the most inequitable, in which massive homeless encampments line our freeways, and abandoned structures are adjacent to million-dollar homes. When we add in the rich and limitless bounty of natural wonders nearby, the Bay Area truly does resemble a hyper-modern version of the wild, wild West—in which survival and a certain ruggedness are required to endure.

Still, while the cost of living continues to increase and encroach on various communities, severely shifting the dynamics and textures of our region, Popli often finds himself somewhere in Central Richmond or Vallejo doing a photoshoot with notable local figures, since that’s where he finds his sense of comfort and home. And it’s something Popli doesn’t take for granted.

“It is a privilege to get to work with these extremely talented musicians,” he says. “It’s a vulnerable position, to get your portrait taken and let your guard down. I’m very thankful I’ve earned the trust of a lot of folks to get to consistently do it.”

Popli isn’t looking for that easy, generic shot of the Golden Gate Bridge or an Instagram-filtered look at Oakland’s Tribune Tower. Instead, he operates among the Bay Area’s gray spaces, where the culture is most vibrant, and the people are authentically themselves. In spending some time with Popli and his art, it’s clear that his labor is one of fearless hope, undying resilience and careful observation.

And no amount of words can convey what his camera reveals about the contemporary Bay Area.

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