“For me, it’s a physical pleasure, is photography.” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photography gives me pleasure, it challenges me every day and rewards me also.
I live and work in Mumbai, where I teach photography.
When I look at photographs, I often wonder how a photographer got access to his subjects – the people and the places. How accessible was the areas and how did they know to be at that location at that time? How open are they to be photographed, what is their culture and how did they get access to the area?
It is known that large photography agencies employ fixers to research a location or event and everything to do with it.
The job of a fixer is to establish a relationship with the people in the area that is to be photographed, learn of the movements of the subjects and the environmental challenges well before the photographer arrives. These fixers do the leg work, investigate the area, find the ideal location, consider the environment and establish links with the community.
Now wouldn’t that be nice? Showing up at a place with your camera with pre-established access to photograph everything! Knowing what’s available and where, knowing where good accommodation is and having access to someone that knows the language and everything associated with the location.
Now I don’t work with large budgets; I haven’t had the luxuries of professional fixers. However through my many years of travel throughout India I have managed to establish relationships and take photos of people quickly and easily at places that I did not know, and in extraordinary places. Through this experience I have developed a thorough understanding of the requirements of working respectfully with local inhabitants and the challenges of photography in a developing country – my country. Incredible India!
It is my intention to share my experiences with you, enlighten you with challenges, and the joy of getting that perfect shot with the right subject and the right time. A shot that will remind you of the location and the event, a shot that will talk to you for years to come.
Let me start by taking you on my journey, where I started and my hopes. I’ll start with this photo because this photo started things off for me in 2002. It was made at the “world famous” Anjuna flea market in Goa, you may or may not know of this incredible location. I climbed up some rocks so that I was at eye-level with the girl walking on the tightrope. I used an 80-200mm; this is the only photograph in this presentation that was made with a long lens. The long lens helped me isolate the girl and eliminate other people who had gathered on the beach that morning.
During that time that I made this photo, I was yearning to witness and photograph village life and ancient cultures. So I went to my local parish priest asking him for suggestions on places that I could go and visit, places that he had worked – so that I had a local contact. He introduced me to his colleague from another parish. This priest was happy to invite me to a village along the Maharashtra – Gujarat border. The early missionaries had set up a boarding school for children upwards of grade 4. Small children between kindergarten and grade 4 would go to school in the village, on the other side of the river.
A non-teaching employee of the boarding school took me to the village and that’s where I made all these photos. This was the first time that I had access to so many people all at once – my first extended portrait shoot, ever and my first experience of unadulterated Indian hospitality.
The people in the village were very accommodating, welcomed me with smiles and invited me into their homes and schools. Generally people are receptive to having their photo taken. There are times and situations however that photography is not welcome – as with any society and like any culture it is always important to respect a person’s request to not be photographed.
I spoke about the 80-200mm lens earlier and although I have taken some fine photos with it, I prefer the 16-35mm lens as it forces me to get close, real close to my subjects. This “closeness” establishes a certain kind of bond, however brief. This bond reflects in the photograph, unlike a similar photo made with a long lens.
My knowledge about editorial content and documentation etc. was limited back then. Today, I regret the fact that I never made any photos of the boat ride across the river, the exteriors of the schools and houses in the village, and the man who escorted me to the village.
The one other thing that I’ve since learnt am very disappointed about is the fact that I pointed my camera down at all these children rather than shooting at eye-level. Obviously I don’t do that anymore. The positive takeaways from this trip is the way in which I used natural light to ensure that the portraits were not “flat” but rather three dimensional. Through these self-learnings photographic expeditions I have learnt important lessons in communication, logistics and travel.
Travel can be difficult depending on where and how you want to go; the environment of a place can be different from what one is used to. The dust, heat, humidity or cold can be challenging. Monsoons are most challenging for a photographer, however can also be the most rewarding.
Many languages are spoken in India. Hindi is the “national language” however not everybody in the country speaks Hindi. Our states have their own “state language” or languages. In the southern states for example, it can be easier to find someone who speaks English than Hindi as all local communication is done in the state language. In the north however, barring the northeast it’s easier to find someone who speaks Hindi than English. Taxi and rickshaw drivers frequently don’t speak English so tourists can frequently be challenged trying to get their desired destination communicated.
I’d like to talk about Indian hospitality, there was a time earlier in 2002 when I reached Fort Cochin in Kerala at around 10:30 in the evening. It was January – “tourist season” in Kerala. Half an hour later, I still hadn’t managed to find any accommodation. Finally one homestay owner by the name of Christopher Walton let me in; he opened his personal guest room for me after hearing about my travels. I had been backpacking through the south of India for the past two weeks. I left Cochin three days later, however I was disappointed about the fact that Christopher wasn’t home when I left. I wanted to thank him, again.
I returned to Cochin in 2010 to photograph the “world famous” Chinese fishing nets using medium format film – and find Christopher – I had forgotten his name and the name of his homestay. After asking around for a while, I finally found him! He had forgotten me but after we spoke for a while about our encounter 8 years earlier, he remembered. We’ve kept in touch since. Photography stimulates and awakens memories, they are a moment in time, just as they had for me on that occasion
The fishermen working on the Chinese fishing nets are friendly and accommodating – they don’t make a lot of money selling fish because they don’t catch too many – not during summer days anyway! Tourism helps add to their income. I hung out with them extensively over three days and there was never a dull moment – singing and dancing as they pulled their net in.
Not only do I remember that day, but also the exact moment when I pressed in the shutter release button on my Yashica Mat (medium format, twin-lens-reflex camera). It was my third morning in Fort Cochin in March 2010. I had spent the earlier two days hanging out on a single fishing net, trying to establish a relationship with the fishermen. There seemed to be no urgency to the fishing that morning. I reached my fishing net, still uninhabited at 9:30, looked around and saw this man ambling up to inspect his catch. I waited for a second and a half until he moved to a position where I thought that the composition would be at its strongest.
My experience in meeting Christopher Walton has a lot to do about the way that I’m always looking out for homestays – (India’s equivalent to a bed and breakfast) wherever I travel across India – it brings us closer to lifting the veil between local knowledge and that written in a tourist brochure.
In recent times, I have come upon rural tourism companies that recognise that visitors/photographers want to learn more about the local culture, environment and truly experience Incredible India. So they offer some delightfully authentic local experiences, such as camel and horse safaris through the desert, spending time with shepherds, artisans, traditional musicians and dancers etc., while staying in home-stays. Such collaborations with local people and culturally aware operators, I find are the most rewarding especially because the company that’s sourcing and handling the logistics is doing it to both reward the homestay owner, the shepherds and artists etc.