Conquering the Streets of Mumbai – by Kaushal Parikh
Street photography grabbed my attention only about 3 years ago when I stumbled upon images made by photographers like Cartier Bresson and Joel Meyerowitz on the streets of Paris and New York.
Those images were so real. So unposed. For the first time I felt emotionally connected to still photographs. I wondered about the people in the images and what their lives must have been like and where they might be today. I marveled at how the photographer captured such a fleeting moment to tell the perfect story. Sometimes I would lose myself in an image for several minutes.
That’s when I realized that this is the kind of photography I wanted to do – capture real moments of real people going about their lives. I am a very curious person by nature and I love watching people live. So I grabbed my camera and headed for the streets.
The only difference is that I was not shooting in Paris or NY or London. I was in Mumbai, India, where I soon discovered it was a serious challenge to capture the kind of images I had in mind.
Mumbai has a population of over 20 million people. Over 70% of these people live in slums or on the streets and make up my primary subjects. Those who can afford it travel by car or taxi to avoid walking. In fact Mumbai is not a city designed for walking, which theoretically makes street photography redundant.
And trying to be an invisible photographer in Mumbai is like Gisele Bundchen trying to go unnoticed in San Quentin. I thought that in such a crowded city it would be easy to remain anonymous. And it was until I attached myself to a camera. Suddenly I was attracting all kinds of unwanted attention. Over excited kids jumped in front of my camera just when I had the perfect moment framed; and I was drawing suspicious glares from people who were obviously doing something they should not be doing – like illegal pavement vendors who are wary of citizen journalists posting images on the net or in newspapers in an effort to get them out of there.
I realized the importance of maintaining an unthreatening and affable way about me when walking the streets. As a photographer it is easy to be mistaken for someone who is looking to exploit the poor for self-profit and that creates a lot of antagonism in the people. As a rule I avoid shooting people in obvious distress or in abject circumstances – there are several better alternatives to choose from.
Personal safety is also an important aspect when shooting on the streets of Mumbai. Pavements are often narrow and filled with squatters and hawkers and I am often forced onto the road where I have to dodge the endless flow of vehicular traffic. I have to be as vigilant about where I walk as I do about potential images around me. There is a lot going on and I had to learn to manage the chaos and filter out distractions in order to find that special shot. And I needed to do all this without aggravating anyone.
Initially when I took my camera onto the streets I perceived a hostile vibe toward me. I shot from the hip a lot and barely managed to score any keepers (I find shooting from the hip quite unsatisfying because luck often plays a much bigger part than you do). There have been a couple of instances when my photographic excursions have instigated aggressive reactions. Like the time I made a picture of this quaint building with a garish beauty salon signboard at the entrance. The board had a picture of an inviting woman on it. The fact that the sign and this building were so incongruous is what made the image for me. As I moved on someone yelled out to me but I pretended not to hear. Within minutes a car with four men pulled up beside me. A burly, angry looking guy jumped out and asked me why I was photographing his building. I told him the truth and luckily he believed me and laughed. He got the idea but he still insisted I delete the image and I immediately obliged. As it turns out the salon is a cover for a brothel so I figure the burly man had every reason to be concerned.
I have steadily overcome the difficulties of shooting in Mumbai and today I find that the crowds and chaos actually present interesting photographic possibilities. Mumbai is not as photogenic as Paris or as glitzy as New York so what it lacks in aesthetics has to be made up for in content.
Experience has taught me to assess whether or not a situation is safe to photograph. I realized that while not all people like to be photographed, many are indifferent and too busy with what they are doing to care. I also got better at estimating distances and pre focusing, which hastened my shooting process considerably. Usually I can take a picture and be gone in a matter of seconds. Of course there will be the occasional confrontation, but nothing that can’t be resolved with some polite reasoning, genuine respect and a friendly smile.
As my confidence grew so did my conviction that good street images can be made anywhere in the world. According to me street photography is the hardest and most honest form of photography. It is a documentation of history if you will. Every city throws up its own challenges that contribute to the uniqueness of the images created there. I have shot in NY, Seattle, KL, Bangkok and recently had an amazing time shooting on the streets of Istanbul with a bulky medium format camera. Each place offered up a different experience but I got reasonable results from all in the end.
The basic guidelines for street photography in Mumbai and probably in most places around the world are to adapt to the situation, always respect your subjects and maintain a friendly vibe about you.
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