This Mumbai Jeweler Amassed the World’s Largest Camera Collection
In a two-bedroom apartment in Mumbai, 62-year-old Dilish Parekh lives among some 4,600 cameras—the largest camera collection in the world, which has made Parekh the Guinness record holder since 2003. “I probably need 10,000 square feet to lay them out, but that is impossible in this city,” he says of Mumbai, one of the world’s most overcrowded cities, where the average residential space for the estimated 18.4 million people hovers just above 86 square feet. Instead, stacks of cameras—including some of the rarest and most expensive models in the world—spill off shelves that line the walls of his bedroom, in a home overrun by the spoils of over four decades spent scooping up every camera in sight.
Parekh, a jeweler who moonlights as a photojournalist, began collecting cameras in the early 1970s after his grandfather gifted him a camera. From there, the teenage Parekh began placing classified ads in newspapers, or scouring Mumbai’s sprawling Chor Bazaar flea market, in search of more (he was known to hit the market at 6 a.m. with two men in tow, each brandishing bags in anticipation of a hefty prize).
“Remember, these were the days before the internet,” he tells me with a mischievous smile. “Nobody had a clue as to the value or history of these items.” To this day, he says, he’s never spent more than $15 on a single camera in his collection.
Despite this, Parekh has amassed a treasure trove of rarities—from a vintage Daguerreotype plate camera from 1890, to a camera disguised as a Zippo lighter, to the string-operated WWII spy camera he scavenged from a junkyard in Nashik. He’s also keeper of a Tessina L, the world’s smallest half-frame 35mm camera, which weighs under six ounces. It helps, of course, that he frequently receives cameras as gifts, from donors ranging from India’s prime minister to “anonymous, unnamed folk” from across the country, who, after reading Parekh’s story, send their otherwise dust-collecting gems his way.
While media attention has long taken note of his Guinness Book of World Records wins, Parekh and his collection gained a greater foothold in the public realm in 2014, when 40 of his antique cameras went on view in “A Vintage Camera Collection,” an exhibition at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in Delhi. “It was an important moment for me and the collection,” says Parekh. He even lent his favorite camera to the show, his 1934 Leica 250 (valued at roughly $80,000, the camera is also among the most rare; out of 950 manufactured, Parekh says only seven remain today). Even rarer, perhaps, was the 1907 Royal Mail Postage Stamp Camera—a mahogany box with 15 lenses that can snap 15 stamp-sized portraits at once.
As pointed out by Mumbai-based filmmaker Dheerankur Upasak, whose stunning black-and-white short film about Parekh, “The Light Collector,” was released in August, every time Parekh acquires a new camera, he’s beating his own Guinness record. “Even if you buy a camera every day, it will take you 12 years. By that time, I will [be] way ahead,” Parekh notes playfully to any would-be challengers during the film.
But Parekh’s admiration for cameras far surpasses this game of numbers. When he’s not breaking records, he takes the cameras out into the world, intent to document history. The oldest camera he’s shot with is the medium-format Rolleiflex from 1929; the newest is a Canon 5D. “We would not believe man’s visit to the moon had it not been for the camera,” says Parekh. In 2008, he captured the aftermath of the terror attacks in Mumbai with a Canon 7D, just a few hundred feet from his office. (He dropped more than $15 for the digital SLR, but it’s not part of his collection, which only comprises cameras made before 1960.)
“Remember the riots in Gujarat in 2002?” he asks me, recalling the photograph of a tearful 29-year-old tailor Qutubuddin Ansari, his hands in prayer, that became the face of the riots. “That is still embedded in people’s memory,” he says. He also points to the iconic photograph of the Indian army holding their flag atop Tiger Hill in Kashmir in 1999, following their victory against Pakistan. “It has come to symbolize the Kargil War,” he says of the image. “Without a camera, these moments would be lost and forgotten.”
Despite residing in a shrine of analog cameras in an increasingly digital landscape, Parekh is optimistic about the future of the medium, ultimately praising digital cameras and smartphone photography for having democratized the medium. And though his two sons, like the global population, are devoted to their cell phone cameras, they remain deeply respectful of their father’s wish for his collection: to house it in a museum that preserves the cameras as art objects, setting them on a historical timeline for coming generations who, without connoisseurs like Parekh, might forget what came before Snapchat filters and smartphones—and whatever comes next.
—Himali Singh Soin