Midweek Mobile 10

Ambush photography is always on mind when I’m in a place with lots of tourists. I define that as taking photographs of people posing for photos, of paparazzi taking photos of celebrities, of photographers taking photos, or of people taking selfies. Except in the case of paparazzi, when my subjects notice my ambush it leads to a breaking of ice, and some conversation. But I digress. This series of posts is not about the art of photography, but about its craft. And the start of craft is to examine the behaviour of the tool that you use.

So I looked at this cell phone photo in my favourite editor and called up its colour histogram. The result was surprising. In every primary colour, a majority of the pixels were all white (fully exposed, blown out) or all black (dark, unexposed). The exposure of all other pixels has an equal chance of being anything in between. Contrast this to what happens in images from two regular cameras: in each colour the histogram peaks somewhere in between. This means that a majority of pixels see a general level of illumination in each colour, with lesser number of pixels straying far from the average. I checked that the odd histogram was not special to the photo by checking a few other of my cell phone photos. The two examples in the gallery above show that this general behaviour belongs to the cell phone, not the photo.

So what’s happening? Flattening the histogram is what multi-exposure HDR photos aim for: bringing out details in the shadows and controlling over-exposure. This is HDR in colour, and on steroids. The camera AI has been trained in what the average human eye sees, and edits each photo in-the-box to maximize the effect for the human eye. It has automated a lot of the detailed editing that we used to do. That’s why I find it hard to improve most phone photos with my editor. The AI has already done what I would usually do, and done it better.

That’s what automation is for. It can still miss in a few cases, and I would like the ability to start again from scratch on those. Sometimes I would also like to make things deliberately different, that’s what the art of photography is. But perhaps most people don’t care for either nicety, and a lot of the time neither do I. This automation is certainly a tool that I would like in my kit. I have several different cameras for different things anyway. A cell phone is just a versatile power tool to add. I would welcome anything that takes away a bit of the burden of the craft, and lets me concentrate on the art.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Managing crowds

In the featured photo I wanted to capture a story of resilience in the face of the enormous economic turmoil that the pademic brought. These two women had probably lost their incomes, but, between waves, they had started a new business: catering quick lunches for office goers from the back of their SUV. The womens’ faces are roughly at the points where the horizontal and vertical thirds intersect. Horizontal and vertical lines of thirds divide the picture into nine rectangles. The interior of the car sits in the middle rectangle, where your eye first lands, before it is drawn away to the visible faces, and then to the bananas in the lower right rectangle, and finally the off-camera man with his open wallet. There is movement in the photo, but knowing the rule of thirds makes sure you are not distracted by these compositional rules as you take the photo that you want. Rules of composition are always useful. We use a fullstop to tell people where a sentence ends. It makes reading easier. I don’t break this rule, ever, … unless my thoughts interrupt themselves. The rule of thirds is also a compositional rule. You use it as much as you need to. Any rule is meant to make communication easier, not to distract you endlessly. What is important is the message you want to give. Especially in shooting street scenes, you need to do things fast. Practice the rules, but don’t let them distract. Distil the scene in front of you to an image as quickly as possible.

After the first wave most people thought the pandemic was over. Just before Christmas day of 2020 I took this photo in a lovely open space outside Panchgani. Nothing much to the photo if you see it out of context: just ordinary people out having a nice time. But knowing the date gives you a sense of how forced this spontaneous fun was. I had my eyes on the couple and the photographer. As soon as the second couple walked past, I realized that I had my image, and clicked. The rule of thirds is roughly achieved, each couple is aligned along the vertical third. The face of the man in front is at the intersection point of the lines of thirds. He looks back at the photographer, leading your eye there, and from him to the other couple.

A year before that, on a crowded beach in Kochi, I captured two fishermen playing a game of chess. Tourists were busy taking photos of the Chinese fishing nets behind them. I took time off to watch this game. The background was too crowded and busy and I didn’t know how to bring out a sense of two people battling. Then one of them made a move that the other didn’t like, and I got my photo. The man’s open mouth is at the intersection of two lines of thirds. The other person’s hand is at the diagonally opposite intersection. The man’s eyes give you the movement that is essential in a photo. The tension is more important than the rule. Use the rule, but don’t be lost in it.

China is full of people taking photos. I began to develop my ideas on ambush photography in China: it gives you a sense of what life there is like. Here’s a couple on the city wall of Nanjing, posing for their wedding shoot. Standing well away from their photographer and his crew, I got this shot which looks like they posed for me. The photography crew was moving back and forth, the couple were walking. I didn’t have time to measure the picture space (I switch off the guide lines on my viewfinder; they distract) but clicked. The woman’s face is at the intersection of the lines of thirds. The slight fog behind them sets them off from the city, and I was really lucky with the light. November 2019, China. A poignant photo.

A few days later, in Wuhan, another wedding shoot, and another opportunity for ambushes. This spot in front of the Old Customs House was always crowded with photo crews. I had to work quickly to isolate my subjects. I’d spent a few days in the most crowded places in the city, and I was feeling a little under the weather. I put it down to tiredness, as I took this photo. The photography crew takes the center of the photo, but I created a little movement by placing the couple’s faces in the intersection of the line of thirds, and balancing it with empty grey space at the lower right. There’s a personal addendum to the story of this photo. A few months later, when the media was saturated with advise on how to tell if you have been infected, I realized that I’d already been infected when I took it. Too many symptoms matched for it to have been anything else. I spent the next few days feeling very tired, and unwilling to drag myself out of bed. Fortunately, I’d begun to recover by the time I caught my flight back.

I don’t take street photos in portrait mode very often, but this one needed me to turn the camera round. On a visit to Ujjain in July 2018, on the banks of the Shipra river, one of the holiest of places for Hindus, I got this image of the patriarchy which is part of the religion. In the center is a linga, being worshipped by a young, perhaps newly married, young woman. She is in colourful clothes, matching the flowers that she’s putting on the linga. Behind her is an old widowed lady in her mandated white. Without thinking much, I put the young woman’s face at an intersection of two lines of thirds, the other woman’s hand at another. The barge below draws the eye towards the empty third of the photo. Don’t be distracted by rules, use them as you tell the story that you see in front of you.

Selfies and spectacles

When you reach Amritsar, history suggests that you to take an ancient highway, now called NH1 or the Grand Trunk Road, and drive towards the old (but not ancient) city of Lahore in Punjab. At our time in history you will stop at the half way point where the Wagah border post was established. If you reach in the evening around sunset there is a daily spectacle of beating the retreat.

We’d been advised to reach early and leave as soon as possible in order to avoid crowds. It was not entirely possible to avoid crowding; the usual security barriers create a bit of a bottleneck. But we got through it rather quickly, and found our seats. There was a nice fairground atmosphere in the stadium that has been built around the border gate on both sides. On the Indian side there were vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, and Indian flags. The old sikh who sells paper flags had a very camera-friendly smile.

A couple went right up to the border gate to have their photo taken. I did my bit of ambush photography. Most people were content to take their selfies from near where they sat. Crowd control was tight, but done with smiles. It helped that this was a place where everybody had warm and mellow feelings for the army and security in general, and were on their best behaviour. In turn, the Border Security Force did their best to keep everyone entertained. There was music, lots of opportunities to pose with flags, or dance.

With my camera in hand, I was more interested in the peripheral build up to the main event. In the no man’s land between the gates that each country had built, a member of India’s Border Security Force was preparing for the flag to be lowered. His opposite number from the Pakistani Rangers was also occupied similarly. If you were alert you would not miss the high degree of synchronization between the two. This is a clear signal of some level of cooperation between the two organizations in putting together this daily spectacle.

The military ceremony is the main event of the evening. First the prelude. An officer takes his position. Then various cadres of the BSF march up to theirs. The dog squad was interesting; military dogs seem to be well-trained in deportment. But the literal high point of the evening is what the BSF calls silly march: the high kicks, one of which you see in the photo above. Quite a bit of fun, we thought, grinning as we demolished our popcorn.

The central part of the ceremony is announced by the familiar flourish on trumpets. The gates open, and an equal number of troopers from both sides march into the no man’s land. There is a lot of colourful pageantry, a ceremonial show of aggression. And then the flags are lowered, in perfect synchrony. The folded flag is taken away with an escort, the last of the troops march away, and the gates are closed for the night.

We hastened back to our car, hoping to drive out before there was a traffic jam. Attari village, the last one before the border, is supposed to have a couple of places where they have wonderful sarson ka saag in this season. Should we stop for dinner there?

People of Amritsar

As soon as you enter the doors surrounding the Golden Temple of Amritsar you see the devout. We entered from the east, with the setting sun in front of us. All around the lake people were facing the temple with a beatific look on their faces. The lake water was clean, perhaps kept clean not only by the filters around it, but also by fish which attracted the cormorants and kingfishers that I saw.

We’d been thinking of a trip to Amritsar for several years, and mid-December seemed to be a good time for it finally. I’d imagined spending a long time around the lake, scoping out good views, waiting for the right light. I was down in the dumps when I read that photography is not allowed in the temple. Even though I was ready to travel without equipment, The Family convinced me not only to take it with me to Amritsar, but also to carry it when we went to the temple. Amar, the chatty Sikh who drove us to the temple told me that I was allowed to take photos anywhere in the temple except inside the Harmandir Sahib. The coir mat and cold marble on which I was supposed to walk felt like billowy clouds under my feet when I understood that.

Two conventions are strictly enforced when you enter. You have to be barefoot, no shoes no socks, inside the temple. And your head has to be covered, not with a cap but by a piece of cloth, either a simple piece tied as you see in the photos here, or in the form of a turban. There is an advise to be dressed simply. This threw me, but we interpreted it to mean that we should avoid conspicuous red clothes. We were also familiar with a dress code that many places of religion enforce, which is to wear clothes which cover your arms and legs. In any case, it was cold enough that I had to wear jeans and a sweater. The Family decided to wear a salwar and kurta, with a dupatta to cover her head, and a warm shawl against the cold. We were dressed like the thousands of others that we saw. Masks were another point of concern. We could keep our masks on except when we stood in front of the Adi Granth.

One of the pleasures of people watchers like me is to take ambush photos. These are photos of photographers and their subjects. There was ample opportunity for that. I was glad to find couples looking for the best angles for selfies. They are so absorbed in their quest that they never notice, or even mind, a photographer using them for local colour.

I was not so certain about what the guards armed with pikes would think about being photographed. But once one of them smiled at me and told me that I should stop taking a photo as close to the Harmandir Sahib as I happened to be, I realized that they were as polite as any other guards. A few steps away I managed to take the ambush photo of a guard watching a group of young men taking photos of each other against the temple.

That blue uniform of the guards looked wonderful with the Golden Temple in the background, but the light was hard to manage. In this photo I was happy to catch the trio in an unguarded moment, just being the young men that they are. The colours turned to be an added visual interest.

That light is just what I’d been imagining I would spend days trying to get. I was so fortunate that our first visit to the Golden Temple was in that golden hour of the day when every image seems to be magic. Walking around the Golden Temple I realized that I’d been missing street photography for half a year. This was a great place to re-enter that immersion in images of crowds.

Water ambush

You are not safe out in the middle of the lake; a determined ambusher like me will get you quite easily. Continuing my practice of shooting photographers in the act of photography, I caught these two groups. The couple were in the middle of one of the Sat Tals, the family in Bhim Tal. They say that hunters begin to enter the minds of their prey. I find that interesting statement is contaminated by a tinge of truth.

As I ambush more, I begin to see two kinds of selfie takers. One kind has arranged their lives so that they can easily say to others, “that happy me in the photo you see is the real me”. Others have not been so systematic. Their selfies take a small slice of the reality, edit out large portions of the world. These ambush photos appear to have the selfie-taker saying “the person in this photo is the me I wish I am”. Are either of them correct about themselves? We change every moment, after all.

Maps for lost lovers

Ambush photography is a name I have for a corner of street photography in which you take photos of other photographers, and their subjects, usually without them being aware of you. (I love the fringe of this area when your subjects become aware of you and your camera, so that you enter the photo through their facial expressions.) Several years of ambush photography taught me that it can tell you of certain universals about human beings. In our times when the world seems both more closely knit together, and more rapidly disintegrating into blocs of us versus them, I like the picture of our common humanity that emerges when I put photos from different countries side by side. The photo here is one such universal. Couples want photos of themselves, and they love to look at the photos.

You may be disappointed that I did not say anything about Nadeem Aslam’s exquisite book, whose title I plagiarized for the title of this post. But the photo does contain an echo of the story of conflicts between human variability and weight of expectations which is at the core of his book. The couple stand next to a poster with a man and a woman posed in the manner of a famous shot from James Cameron’s popcorn movie Titanic. That trifling movie has begun to create a stifling convention of how lovers have to be imagined. I am happy that these couples did their own thing instead. A common humanity does not mean exactly the same ways of doing everything.

A hard day’s drive

When our flight was canceled we took a taxi as quickly as possible. The day’s drive was through the plains just before the land rises into the Himalayas, the hottest part of the country. The heat was already bad enough that the air conditioning in the car laboured to keep the temperature bearable. From Dehra Dun it is just a short while to Haridwar.

Haridwar was hosting the Kumbh Mela during this time. If I’d passed so close to it in a normal year I would have spent time photographing pilgrims, but this year I thought it prudent to avoid it. As our car sped past Haridwar we saw the tent cities that had been erected on both sides of the Ganga to accommodate pilgrims. It wasn’t a particularly holy day, so they were mostly empty. But there were people coming for a dip in the holy river anyway. Farmers had come here with their tractors, family in open trailers with mattresses and changes of clothes. Other groups had elected to come in minibuses, which normally hold about 15-25 people. Some walked. Others looked for taxis and autos. It was a hot day, notice how that family trying to flag down an auto stands in the shade of an enormous gate which welcomes travelers to the Mela. As our car sped by I had a pang that any photographer will feel at missing a wonderful opportunity for people watching.

Soon after we moved off into narrow country roads. The continuous stream of traffic sped past many little villages, each with its little market square. Now and then we would pass a large walled off property. In these plains fired brick was the building material of choice. The heat hid the fact that it was still just around the middle of astronomical spring, so trees were still flowering and putting out new leaf buds. For a large part of the day we drove through the state of UP, where the local body elections were about to happen: the evidence was posters on walls, and large hoardings lining the roads. But most of the time we just drove past agricultural fields. This is India’s heartland, mostly farming.

Then, in the golden hours of the day, we passed a country market. If we had more time I would certainly have stopped the car and walked along the margins of the market with my camera (the crowd without masks was too daunting to wade into). But I got a few shots with my phone as we speeded past this enormous, but completely unremarkable, market. So many human stories there, I thought, it only I could have stopped. India’s plains are like that: more stories per square kilometer than almost any other rural part of the planet.

Then the landscape began to change. The plain had segued into broken land, the mountains closer. We’d crossed from Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand: UP to UK. Before I knew it I realized that we had gained more than half a kilometer in altitude. We began to pass mixed forests of sal and pine, and rivers which originate in the mountains. I was glad to catch the story that you see above: ephemeral, but repeated endlessly across the globe. Even in a non-stop six hour journey in a taxi I was able to take an ambush photo! I call something an ambush photo if it is a photo of someone taking a selfie, or a photo of a photographer taking a portrait. Soon we were in Haldwani and had exchanged our airport-to-airport taxi for the car that we were to take for the next few days.

Our hotel in Almora had agreed to keep a late dinner for us, but we hadn’t eaten since we left the airport munching a couple of wraps. We stopped in Haldwani for a quick snack, and drove on. A climb, a brief stop next to Bhim Tal to take photos of the lights at night. “Crystal clear,” The Family said, a phrase I would remember in the next week of smoky air higher up. I love these night drives in the mountains, and now sitting in the seat next to the driver I could get to take shots which tell you something of the charm of passing through this liminal space: well-lit towns empty of people, streams of trucks beached next to the road for the night, cars parked outside houses blazing with light. I was dog-tired when we reached the hotel after 11 at night. The charming staff brought us hot food in our room, and I must have eaten something before sleeping, because when I woke the next morning there were used plates on the balcony.

History is a door

It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.

The end of another lockdown

It was a Wednesday night and we didn’t have much food at home. Although we talked about going out to eat, we were too tired. Eventually we scraped a dinner together and sat down to see the post-prime time news. That’s when we saw the first confusing shots of what would later be known as the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack.

It wasn’t for another hour that we realized how lucky we were that we stayed home. The curfew lasted only three days, but it was a month before I walked about Colaba aimlessly again. On Christmas day, The Family and I found that we were tourists in our own backyard, so to say. We walked past small restaurants which were suddenly infamous, past a familiar vegetable market into lanes which had appeared as blurry shots on TV screens across the world. Looking back at that now, I realize that lockdowns and curfews do not end when restrictions are lifted; it takes time for you to come back to normal.

The little lanes were still full of press photographers. Usually I like to talk to them; they are not in an easy profession. But that day they had no time off to chat. When I look back at my archives, I have more than twenty shots of the crowd of photographers jockeying for position without jostling. Today when I look at the photos I see professional rivalry, as well as the courtesy to let someone else rest a heavy lens on your shoulder to steady a shot. A very different world from the savage days that we had gone through. That walk bled some darkness out of us.

Treaty Port Hankou

When I walk down the streets of China an old song comes to my mind “And you of tender years, can’t know the fears that your elders grew by.” During the time that the Taiping revolution had weakened the Qing dynasty, European powers forced China to open up the heartland of the Yangtze to foreign powers. One result was the establishment of treaty ports, like the one whose remnants I walked through in the Hankou district of Wuhan. The customs house, which you see in the featured photo, is now the backdrop for wedding shoots.

I crossed Yanjiang Avenue through the zebra on which you can see the couple and walked along it to take photos of a few of the old buildings here. Construction of the neoclassical HSBC building started in 1914, and as held up for many years because of the First World War before it was completed in 1920. The most recent renovation was in 1999. I was quite impressed by the ten two-storey tall Ionic columns of the facade. Another striking neoclassical structure on the road is the old Citibank building. I couldn’t find much information about it. Neoclassical was mixed in with neo-Georgian here, as you can see in the third photo above. I have no information at all about this building.

I walked back to the pedestrian area which starts from the customs house and noticed a lovely old Art Deco building. There was no information about it. A few local photographers were standing around taking photos of various buildings here. This is clear evidence that an awareness of the architectural heritage of this part of the city is growing. I discover interesting things which I hadn’t noticed earlier each time I walk in this area. I will be back again for another walk, I promised myself as I took a metro from the Jianghan Road station.