“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” Robert Capa
I travelled to India three times in the 1990s spending about 8 months on the sub-continent without taking a photo. My philosophy: that life was for living not recording and about the moment largely revolved around a romantic notion that one did not need to be a tourist and could avoiding alienating others by poking a camera in their face. It was (and is) more than a little cliched but was right for that stage of my life. Amusingly, when Sean Penn reflects (wryly?) on not taking a photo – it still makes sense.
My philosophy did work. I had a great time each visit but reflecting on my experiences, the photographer in me shudders at what I shuttered with this attitude. There were benefits but it feels like opportunity lost considering what I experienced in these first three extended visits to the sub-continent. My context is different now that more of my life is behind me than in front.
My fourth trip to India was a mere two weeks long but my camera was never far from hand. Mostly I used a Nikon D800 with 50mm f/1.4 or f/2.8 70-200mm lenses. My iPhone 7 Plus was useful when time was short. I still have qualms about aspects of street photography and think about shots missed as “I just can’t bring myself to do it”. Here’s an example from Japan. I could have snapped at close range these two geisha (geiko or maiko?) but somehow it felt wrong. I shot from behind.
New Delhi is pregnant with photographic opportunity. While stinging my eyes and poisoning every pore, the pollution often results in arresting light. My approach is varied. Sometimes I document people in their surrounds surreptitiously, as would a street photographer but at other times eye-contact is made and permission sought. This can be very rewarding and lead to new opportunities. I especially like the challenge of night scenes and find the 50mm f/1.4 lens with ISO bumped to a 1000 a good starting place. It is wonderful to find a rhythm and stay in the moment.
This street scene, a man being shaved in the morning, instantly engaged me in a story. The trust displayed towards the barber, considering the scar the man already sports, is evident in the shot. How did he get the scar? His previous barber?
There are treasures to be found on and just off the streets. You have to poke around a little. This man was quietly tending his goat and pig among the ruins of Mehrauli Archaeological Park. Metres away were the streets throbbing with noise and pulsing with life but he was as peaceful as one can be in a big Indian city. The scene was almost Greek.
One of my ongoing interior monologues is about what a scene will look like in black-and-white. I shoot RAW allowing for this decision to be made in post-production. In my opinion, the colour portrait is more interesting than the B&W of the man tending his livestock. When shooting the scene, amongst the ruins, I’d felt the monochrome version likely to be more arresting. What do you think?
The following portrait seems better in monochrome. This man was waiting outside a street restaurant in Old Delhi with a large number of men. He was staring at me and did not react at all even though I was close, snapping with a 50mm lens.
It seems that the devout, visiting Jama Masjid mosque in Old Delhi, often provide funds for the poor to be fed free which explains why the men were packed closely together waiting at a number of eating spots along the street. Some of them were unbelievably dirty and a couple had cheeky senses of humour.
“I want to earn fame and money by serving the royal food to the common man” Haji Karimuddin
One night I ate late at Karim’s in Old Delhi. This is a very famous destination for eating quality food inexpensively in the city. I was impressed with how genuinely unique and tasty the dishes were. Completely lacking in pretension, the simplicity of the setting enhanced these delicious Mughlai dishes. One of the secrets (and I am sure there’s many) is the nature of slow-cooking using handi pots.
At a nearby restaurant they were cooking biryani. I had not realised the etymology (perhaps Farsi for ‘rice’ although it is contested) nor the association with Mughul era India. The layering process is the secret and the kitchen was absolutely buzzing with activity.
Photos are not memories but they certainly can help one remember. Here’s some more photos from the same street shot on the same night.
The hardcore street photography philosophy is as ascetic as some Indian religious traditions. It is all about capturing the reality of life (as seen on the street). The last photo above I was reluctant to snap or post – but did as it was one aspect of the evening wandering with my camera.
The overt editing of photos is not part of this hardcore ethos (and I imagine frowned upon). However, sometimes a shot is not possible but one can capture the feeling from the street (or imagination) in post-production. This shot of the mosque mentioned earlier in this post is a point-in-case. I had a wonderful evening wandering the streets of Old Delhi. It was a marvellously shocking and delightfully medieval experience.
I wandered Old Delhi during the day too. Street food always fascinates and often I use my judgement and try it. When there is a crowd it is likely the food will be fresh.
Stories appear everywhere on the streets. For some time the idea of the flâneur wandering, apparently indolent although really making sense of the urban scene, has interested me. It is literally stimulating to walk and constructing narratives is a human, meaning-making, pattern-recognising trait we all share. Look at this photo.
Once again, it was a picture that challenged this photographer. I walked past the old woman noticing two things: her gnarled, weather-beaten hands and quality glasses. Had she always been on the street or had something happened to alter her life-trajectory? Were the glasses a vision of her past life or had she been gifted them? I walked back and decided just to photograph her imploring hands.
Every time I look at this photograph I think of the cheels, slowly circling Delhi.
Featured image: “”Photo State”” flickr photo by Darcy Moore https://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/32265676536 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license