Celebrating the margins

At the edges of festivals I find interesting human stories, the sort that I like to capture in photos. The last couple of years have not exactly been productive times for street photography, so I’ve rescued some photos from the dark depths of a hard disk. The featured photo is from the end of the Ganapati festival. Families from a fishing village gather at the shore of the sea to watch large images of the god being brought for immersion in the waters at the end of the festival. The children had created a viewing platform to watch from. I backed up against the crowd-control barrier at the edge of the sea to take this photo.

Around every religious place you find commerce in the necessities. Outside a Durga puja, I found this young man trying to sell flowers to visitors. I hung around across the road, sensing that a teenager at a repetative job would give me a good shot at some point. It wasn’t long before he started showing signs of boredom. I got my shot.

There are families who hop from one Durga puja to another, eating dinner at food stalls around them. I like to hang around these stalls, and not only because I like a snack. You can see interesting stories build and resolve at food stalls and the nearby tables. Festivals are times when families eat much more than they would normally do. Late one night I found this sleepy child apparently abandoned by his family at a table piled with the remnants of a feast on the go. The father came back soon with another fizzy drink for the child.

Diwali is a private time, spent with families. It doesn’t give you too many opportunities for a camera roving the streets. Instead I spend time at the pre-Diwali markets. Families are out buying lights and decorations for the home. The strange forms of these long stems of artificial lotuses created an interesting forest for shoppers looking for something new and different, and salesmen trying to convince them that they have found exactly what they are looking for.

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.

I need your help

On Saturday the streets of downtown Mumbai were deserted. With the number of cases rising again, people were safeguarding themselves. Optional travel was clearly down, and most people were more safely masked than before. It was an even Saturday, so few businesses were open. The first wave was a learning experience for everyone. Now we know that measured and graded response is better than a long shutdown. I finished my work and then tried to take photos of the food carts. The mid-day sun is harsh. Sometimes I persist even with this awful lighting because of the human stories I see. Today, the lack of crowds killed interest as effectively as the harsh light.

The featured photo has a story. A pregnant woman tries to sell a good-luck charm (the string of chilis and a lime) to the food vendor, as she turns to look at her two young children at their “home” on the pavement. I wish I had looked more carefully first, and positioned myself to get the whole story in one shot: the cart, the woman, her children at “home”. Street photography involves more than just the camera. The lockdown across the world has been harsher on the poor. Pavement dwellers have no masks. I would like to help buy some. If you know of organizations or citizens’ initiatives which are distributing masks to homeless people, or otherwise trying to help them against COVID-19, could you please let me know in the comments?

My first street photos

Six months passed after I got my first digital camera before I thought of going out to just capture photos of unknown people on the road. I’d done several photo walks before that. But I’d concentrated on getting photos of places while avoiding photographing strangers. I have photos of Rome, the Italian Tyrole, Malmoe, Duesseldorf, Hamburg, all looking strangely deserted. The only people who appear in my photos from those months are friends and family. Why did I change my subject abruptly? I don’t remember for certain, but I remember coming back to India after six months in Europe, and being delighted with the number of people on the road. The photos you see here were taken days after I returned.

I remember watching a street vendor selling white shirts. The heap of white cloth acted as a reflector, lighting up the faces of the vendor and his customer. This was the first of the street shots from that day. The banana man in the featured photo was the second. I had some trouble getting him. I was shooting from far away, and people kept passing in front of him. Looking at the photos that didn’t work out, I remember trying again and again.

This photo was even harder. I was shooting close to the stock exchange around midday, just when this guy with the fruit plates was doing roaring business. It was my first shoot, and I was trying very hard not to be noticed taking a photo. I had to stand there are time my shutter release to find a small gap between people. This was not all. The man was much darker than most of the others there, and I had to find the right exposure for him. Between fiddling with exposure and looking for a gap, this photo took time. I learnt later that it it better to go close. After some time the subjects forget about you. But if they don’t, they interact with you, giving you even more interesting photos. I leave you with the example below, coincidentally taken a decade later.

Gloomy day grab bag

I woke up to a gloomy day. it started raining as I made my morning’s tea. Cyclone Burevi had passed well south of us a week ago. I pulled up the satellite images and saw that this was a big cloud mass which had moved in from the south west. There go my plans of spending a night watching the Geminid meteor showers. Depression has multiple meanings! I opened a folder of photos from the middle of a monsoon more than a decade past, and came across a set of street photos I’d taken on an Independence Day. In the featured photo a group of labourers spends their day off chatting. I liked the closed wooden door behind them, and the way they had arranged themselves.

It was a holiday. Most shops were closed. Some had the old style wooden shutters, others had the metal rolling shutters which double as space for advertisements. This was clearly an amateur effort, a little cluttered, but in keeping with the surroundings. I think I like the wooden doors more.

Not all businesses have to close even on a holiday. This pair with a fruits and juices cart was getting some punters. The man with the push cart was also going off to work. He seemed to be a regular customer, greeting the juicewallah in passing. I’d found an open space two floors above the street for these photos. It allowed me to look around without intruding on the life of the street.

When I came down to the street I found this cat sitting in a corner where it thought it was not under surveillance. Friends! had wound up a few years back, but Phoebe’s song Smelly Cat came to mind.

South Mumbai on Sunday

We took a little walk through the empty streets near the stock exchange late on Sunday afternoon. The roads were far from busy, and it was easy to take photos. I haven’t done street photos for almost year now, and it felt good to be out with my camera.

There was construction going on in this lot for a while before the lockdown due to COVID-19. Now work has stopped completely. I wonder whether it will resume at all. If the building industry crashes one can imagine that a lot of savings will be totally wiped out.

A street barber can always find work. The featured photo is a close up of this same barber at work. No masks! That seemed to be common on Sunday. This is not a political statement that the media is geared to recognizing. But it certainly is a response to the way the poor have suffered through the pandemic.

A raddiwala sleeps outside his shop. Sunday afternoon is a good time to sleep. Why is he sleeping there, I wondered. What’s his story? He is likely to be an employee. If he is still here at a time when this business is doing so badly, he must be quite desperate for work.

Above the raddiwala’s shop were lots of small apartments. The pink casement caught my eye. Every building looks battered after the monsoon. Some of them will get a coat or two of paint soon. Other buildings were not being maintained because the owner was planning to make money by selling the lot to a builder when the tenants moved out. These calculations will have to be redone.

There were games of cricket on every street. Sometimes even two to a street. This happens every Sunday, but it seemed to me that there were more people on the road now. Lockdown fatigue?

Younger children were going into a park to play. Different age group and different economic class. That’s why the toy vendor is standing at the entrance. The flood light is from a film shoot which had just finished. So they are shooting films again. Lack of consumers is not the problem with that industry.

This old man also seemed to be a raddiwala. Why was that little diya burning inside his kiosk. Evening puja? I feel sorry for people in this business. The margins are low, and at this time I’m sure he’s barely making money.

Near the stock exchange is this imposing neo-classical building which holds a bank. It’s almost a hundred years old now, and is in slightly better repair than many others around. It was perhaps the last of the neo-classical buildings here. Just about the time that it was finished, Art Deco became all the rage.

Time to get a taxi. This lemonade stand does business near the parked taxis. Clever guy. But someone should teach him the right way to wear that mask.

At the end of the walk I was very happy that I had a good mask and a face shield. I’d passed too many people who were not wearing masks. Outdoors the risks are lower than they would be otherwise. Still it is not the most comfortable situation to be in. I usually see a larger fraction of people with masks. Perhaps the people I saw today are always without masks, and only the middle class office workers, bankers, and businessmen wear masks. I’ll have to watch carefully the next time I come around here.

Nostalgia is not what it used to be

When I first left the town that I still think of as home, I would sometimes be overcome by nostalgia about the unlikeliest of things: a little corner shop which would take ages to serve samosas, impassable traffic on roads which would even force bicyclists to take alternative routes, a bunch of quarreling labourers who would spend an hour before dinner drinking and playing cards in a little alley, a shop which would stock all the treasures of a school kid’s life (scented erasers, fidget toys, Phantom comics). Walking along the roads of Nanjing I found the streets familiar in a strange way: if I’d grown up here I could miss it horribly. A simple dumpling soup? Of course I could become nostalgic about it.

The streets were not as crowded as those of my childhood, but China has managed its infrastructure to expand with its growth. There are still traffic jams in the large cities, but the traffic does flow. The one parallel with the ancient imperial city I grew up in was the inability of different kinds of traffic to stay away from each other. The lady in the scooter jacket was talking to her very young daughter, who was riding pillion. As I took this photo the child turned and was hidden completely. I realized at that moment that the pillion rider does not need a jacket.

I took a photo of this shop window in passing. Sometimes when I’m chasing the light, as I was doing on this walk, I don’t have the time to stop and examine things which look interesting, so I keep taking photos with my phone. I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to describe to The Family the atmosphere of streets in Paris and Geneva when I was an impecunious young man. Nowadays, photos serve better. When I showed her this photo I realized that it was an artists’ shop: the bowls hold paint and the kites are painted. I would love to go back, it looks like a magic shop of my youth.

These two young men on the sidewalk trying to figure out some card game could well be the kind of unlikely thing that sticks in one’s memory. I’ve tried to develop a method of stealth shooting with my phone. It needs some work. Sometimes I get a good shot when you take an unobtrusive photo on your phone as you walk past a group of people, but the composition is totally unpredictable.

Back in India the next weekend, I was having dinner with a colleague and a good friend, who turned out to have gone to school in Nanjing. The Family and I encouraged his nostalgia (we are incorrigible tourists) and I was happy to find parallels to my memories of growing up in a smaller town. Discovering a common humanity is part of the fun about travelling: in two culturally disparate countries, divided by the wall of Himalayas, our personal experiences ran parallel.

Faces of Kumaon

Like many other parts of India, Kumaon’s history is that of constantly shifting borders. Recorded history tells of migrations and the intermingling of a variety of people, including the Rajputs from the west and the Gorkhas from the east. In 1815 the British took this district from Nepal. As one can see from the remains of colonial bungalows and estates, this became a favourite haunt of Raj-era expatriates even after the fierce fighting during the 1857 war. Writings from that era seem very racist. The gentleness of Jim Corbett came much later. As a result, there is very little recorded about Kumaonis going about their ordinary lives.

One of the interesting things about traveling is people watching, and Kumaon is as good a place for that as any other. When you are an obvious tourist, you are watched pretty closely yourself, so there is not much chance of you catching a person totally unaware of you.

Rowing on Bhimtal

The person whom I first watched in Kumaon was this man rowing his boat quietly across Bhimtal. The lake was deserted and quiet at sunset, and the only sound was that of the water gently lapping on the shore, and the muted splashes of these oars.

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On the day of diwali, we were returning from Kausani to Almora and passed a little village where people were enjoying their holiday. These three pensioners were chatting outside a shop. When I stopped to take a photo one man sat up straight while another started looking theatrically at his newspaper. They relaxed and smiled back at me after I’d put my camera down.

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A day later we were on our way to Ranikhet and stopped for chai at a dhaba on a cross roads. This old man was sitting near the stove waiting for a bus, chain-smoking and coughing away. He would have been aware of me, but I think he did not know exactly when I took his photo.

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These children were noisily eating at the same dhaba while their mother stood outside at the bus stop. One of them had finished his plate of Maggi noodles and was clearly eyeing his brother’s plate. When children are caught up in their lives they are completely themselves.

I found women in Kumaon were shy of the camera. They would either turn away or cover their faces when they saw me taking a photo. Since their reaction was so extreme, I did not try to photograph them from far away.

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