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India: Learning lessons in street photography

Before our trip to India, I never photographed a stranger on the street. I have done it at weddings plenty of times, but people are in another element at weddings, they are involved, they are part of a bigger picture that I was hired to photograph. Street photography was a different beast. A different, terrifying, intimidating beast. I didn’t want to offend or bother, I wanted to be sensitive and likable, I wanted things to go smoothly. So before our trip, I tried to do some research on the best ways to approach people to photograph them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of helpful information out there, and when in India, I started to get so nervous, I practically caved in on myself. The thing about India, is that as long as your eyes are open, you are looking at the most amazing photograph that’s ever been taken. Women in shocking red and electric orange scarves, harvesting a field of mustard flowers, balancing their wares on their heads??? It’s like a color explosion like nothing you see just walking around any other place I’ve ever been.

So how to approach? It was hard. First off, I was SO conspicuous. I wanted to take a candid photograph, but as soon as my presence was sensed, my subject put down all their colorful behaviors and stared what seemed daggers at me. I learned soon enough that they weren’t daggers, but just intense confusion at me, and Indian girl, with white man (Husbone), wearing futuristic shoes and obviously not from around here, though I looked it. I must have looked as colorful to them as they looked to me, I was just trying to be secretive about my own fascinations long enough to capture what I wanted. They had no qualms about expressing their full amazement.

I thought I’d share a few tips I learned along the way, once I summoned up the courage. It was hard. There was one time where Huz was photographing an unattended donkey on the street, when suddenly, everyone in proximity turned to us and started yelling. We shamefully sulked away just as the donkey’s owner ran out of a store demanding money for the photos we took. Kids wanted chocolates, or at least to see their photo on the digital screen, but we never seemed to have enough chocolates (we’ll be more prepared for next time), and I was shooting film, which no one seemed to comprehend (especially airport security). I took this photo below while walking on a street at night:

And the man who is looking at me started indiscernibly shouting at me angrily from the moving bus, and I ran away.

So, based on my experience in India, here are some things I will remind myself of next time I’m there (which hopefully will be soon!):

1. Be courageous! Let go of yourself, and remember the worst that will happen will be that you will be shouted at. I can say this because I’m Indian and I have intimate, lifelong experience with it, but Indian people are shouty. They might not even be angry – we are a passionate people, and we express ourselves as such. That being the case, if you are shouted at, and you aren’t certain that it’s the good kind of shouting (for me it was sometimes difficult to discern), apologize and walk away. The most important is to be respectful. I was brought up with this notion, and I felt it very strongly while in India, that respect is VERY important. Honor the people who are giving you these amazing photos by at least doing that much. Next time I go I think I’ll try to learn some phrases in Hindi that I can use to direct my portraits a little more. Like, don’t smile, or, could you stand over here and of course, may I take your photo?

2. Almost everyone we photographed wanted money or candy. So much so that I specifically remember the people who didn’t ask for anything. So make sure you have a lot of both. Bring a fanny pack and fill it with small denomination notes. But remember that in India, it’s hard to find someone willing to make change. We would try to ask for change and most of the time we were turned down. We also would try to use a large bill to make a small purchase, and even in cases where we were innocently trying to buy something, the vendor would not accept our money. Try to get the place where you exchange currency to give you small bills, otherwise, you just have to hoard them as you can. Try not to give people money when they are in crowds, or EVERYONE will bombard you. I found that it’s best to walk up to who you would like to photograph, and conduct the international symbol for “Can I take your picture?” (I’m sure you can come up with that one on your own). They’ll let you know that that point either yes or no, and if they want money, they’ll indicate such, sometimes before you take the picture, sometimes after. If you are naturally outgoing or just feeling brave and you want to actually get them to their feet (people in India are often sitting on the ground), I would just pay them a little extra. Sometimes they’ll try to sell you something, so when that happens, I just give them the rupee note and tell them they can keep it, and walk away as they continue to hassle me to buy something. If it looks interesting and it’s cheap, sometimes it’s best to just buy it! And when you are finished – say thank you!

4. Don’t try to photograph the idols in temples. The idols are holy, and they shouldn’t be photographed. Try to stick to the general architecture. And wear shoes that are easy to take off! My shoelaces snap on and off, but husbone wore high boots that took a long time to unlace. Flip flops might seem like a good idea, but there is a LOT of cow poop and trash juice everywhere!

3. Hire a driver if you plan to do a lot of diverse traveling within a region. We were mostly in Rajasthan, which is one of the most touristy areas. It is known as the Tuscany of India. If they know you are from the west, and you are in a tourist area, you will get bombarded with people trying to sell you things. It’s funny, because if you buy something from one vendor, than everyone will come running towards you trying to sell you the same thing! We hated doing it, but it got to the point where we couldn’t trust anyone who was being helpful, because they would ask for money afterward, for “giving a tour”. This was mostly a function of the fact that we were largely in tourist towns, during high season. This is where our wonderful driver, Mansingh, came in handy. He was like our locals liaison. He would make people who were bothering us go away, or if it seemed the person had something really interesting to show us, he would tell us that we should probably go see what that person is talking about, and stay with us while we did whatever tour it was. This one isn’t really that photo related, but it will be helpful for us next time we go to India, to have someone always looking out for us. And by Western standards, it’s super cheap to hire a driver. Mansingh was with us for 3 weeks, making sure our rooms were in order, and that things went smoothly. We booked our tour through this travel agency: http://www.northsouthindiatours.com/. We got a super personal, detailed and friendly response from Satish, who put our whole trip together, picked us up from the airport, and introduced us to our driver. We booked a budget package, and though it didn’t always run smoothly, Satish was always there for us – if we ever didn’t like a place where we were staying, we would give him a call and a always picked up the phone, without fail. It was so great to know that we had someone to rely on if we needed help, who could figure out for us how to get out of a pickle. The only thing to be sure of when booking a trip this way, is to be VERY specific if you have a specific place you’d like to see – especially if you would like to see that place from a specific angle. A lot of the cities we saw were totally not what we expected, and access for images that I dreamed of taking were not always available. But Satish was great at being their for us, and I would definitely turn to him if I needed anything for our next trip to India!

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film: INDIA. (win a framed print!)

Trying to choose images for this blog post has been an overwhelming endeavor. So many things, so many people, so many places, I can’t even remember what happened where. But I think this is it. Our trip to India, with commentary. I’ve also instated a new feature on Wednesdays for images I couldn’t fit here, and anything else there might be to come.

I’ll be choosing 1 commenter on this post at random to receive a signed, framed 8×10 print of their choice from this blog.  One entry per commenter, must comment by March 1st, 2010! Good luck!

Varanasi, at sunrise. Pilgrims come to bathe in holy waters at the sacred ghats in this of the oldest cities in the world.

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Pilgrim, and a dog I wanted to take home with me.

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Taj Mahal, at the break of dawn. Always cutting through the haze that sits over everything.

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Through the haze, a man on a small boat, in the river just behind the Taj. Did you know they planned to build an identical one across the river, from black marble?

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The stunning fort at Orchha ruined forts for us.

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Geckos in our hotel.

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On the road through Rajasthan.

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Elephants wait for tourists at the Amber Fort.

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Pigeons and mirrors at Amber Fort.

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Leaving Amber Fort.

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Safari in Ranthambore.

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The Kama Sutra temples at Khajuraho.

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Market.

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Making sweets.

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Kids in Jodhpur.

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Woman in Jaisalmer rocks her baby and sells foot bells (payals, which is also my sisters name.)

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Stopping on the road in Rajasthan, greeted by locals. Impromptu town portrait.

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The locals insist that Husbone get a ride on the Ox Cart that runs the mill that has supplied water to the town for hundreds of years.

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Bashful girl.

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Giant fruit bats in a random tree. So many of them.

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Prayer bells and picture frames.

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Puppet maker in Jodhpur.

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Woman at Mehrangarh Fort.

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Bonding with Camels at a Camel farm. We had camel milk kulfi (ice cream) and it was delicious.

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This camel came over and just gazed into my eyes.

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Then he kissed me on the cheek like a gentleman.

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The desert. 15 miles from Pakistan.

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Our guide with our camel.

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