I had always harboured an interest in photography. As a kid, if there was a film camera laying around, I'd latch onto it after securing the relevant permissions. I'd snap pictures of family members, animals, just about anything that caught my eye. Later in school, I took a course in biomedical photography and soon became bored to death with the technical aspects of the science and subject matter. And yet, when I went out shooting on my own with carte blanche to shoot as I pleased, I never discovered a creative niche for myself. Landscape photography seemed dull and over-saturated with artists who've already covered the entire spectrum of natural beauty (or so I believed then). I was too much of an introvert to indulge in fashion photography, although I liked the idea of photographing people. But the scope was too narrow and too void of substance. Somehow, I had never heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Bruce Gilden. Had I been aware that street photography was a 'thing', it would have been a game-changer.
The game-changer came many years later in the form of a workshop with artist and photographer Kedar Kulkarni. I wasn't sure why I wanted to attend his lecture and photowalk, but I thought I could get some good use out of my poor Canon, which had been only put to sporadic use since arriving in India. My introduction to street photography, in all its raw and rugged glory, left its mark. I finally discovered a niche that I could embrace. What followed next was photographic awakening during a trip to Kolkata.
I began taking pictures of people on the streets of South Kolkata in late May. The Nepal earthquake caused our trip to Sikkim to be cancelled, so I decided to make do with the 'small' Canon and see what images I could capture locally. I managed to collect more than a dozen for a photo essay in the DailyO documenting life on the street during the notorious heat wave that struck large swaths of India. I was encouraged by the positive feedback. Once back in Mumbai, I began pursuing street photography during the onset of monsoon season.
There are two basic approaches to street photography. You can try to be as stealthy as possible, ala Cartier-Bresson, and try not to be seen as you photograph people. Or you can be bold and walk right up in front of someone and take their picture -- maybe with a flash -- like Gilden still does to this day. I have utilized both approaches in making my photos, but I have a great disadvantage in the stealth department in India since my subjects tend to see me coming a mile away. It makes it difficult to capture candid moments, which is what street photography is all about for me, those candid, existential moments frozen in time and space.
The observer in both quantum physics and street photography affects the behavior of the observed. It's not so absolute in street photography. I've managed to get quite a few candid shots with no one being the wiser. I love moments that tell a story or demonstrate emotion.
I hate posing for pictures. I'm just one of those people who aren't photogenic. As a rule, I don't like taking these types of pictures, either. It feels artificial, it looks artificial, and standard portrait photography never appealed to me in the slightest. Until I started getting multiple requests from people on the streets to take their pictures. Even though street portraits are just as staged as any other variety, there's something more spontaneous and fun about it, I'm discovering. On a practical note, I need to make up for a lot of the shots I'm not getting because I'm usually being watched!
Okay, the one-eyed dog didn't ask me to take her photo. But she did come up to me when I was trying to take somebody's picture, likely in search of a snack.
I made a snap decision from the first time I was asked to never refuse anyone's request for a photo. I show them the image, which makes them happy, and me too. Often I still hear them talking about it as I walk away. If I think they can speak a little English, or if someone is nearby to translate for me, I give them my business card and tell them to email me and I'd send them the picture (a good practice I learned from Kedar).
The most surprising fun I had recently was moments after taking the photo of the young and old shopkeepers featured above. I was approached by a very warm-spirited street woman who invited me to take photos of her and her nearby family members. One photo turned into two, then three, and so on. And then she took me across the street to where they were camped out. I truly enjoyed the experience. The woman was obviously trying to make the best of a bad situation and doing all that she could to keep everyone happy. She's a saint if there ever was one. She even tried to lift the spirits of her baba, whom you'll see below was not wooed by my Caucasian charms in the slightest!
Article and select images originally appeared in DailyO.