I went to India in October - click for a Flickr set with 25 photos. I’ve been to a few places, but urban India is one of the most challenging photography environments. I shot with Rolleiflex (manual focus and exposure) and was frustrated most of the time; these cities demand a strong distraction filter, fast cameras, or both. It’s a perspective-altering place, one that requires time to adjust to.
Before going to a place like India, Japan or Sicily, I look around at photos, both recent and classic. Some people read history books before trips, this visual research gives me a mental list of elements to look for, cliches to embrace or avoid. It creates anticipation for the trip.
If you have any suggestions of more India-related photography, send me a note or an ask and I’ll update this post.
Here’s some of what I looked at:
All my books are packed up at the moment, but once I finish moving I must post my own ‘India library’ - both my photography books & my non-fiction. This list is just off the top of my head and I’ll add/expand in a few weeks…
- “Shiva’s Pigeons” photos by Stella Snead w/text by Rumer & Jon Godden
- “The Edge of Faith” photos by Prabuddha Dasgupta w/text by William Dalrymple
- “Henri Cartier-Bresson In India” photos by that famous French guy.
- Everything I can find by the aforementioned William Dalrymple
- Everything I can find by Mark Tully
- Everything I can find by the aforementioned Rumer or Jon Godden. Their books about India include: autobiographies (Two Under the Indian Sun, A Time to Dance No Time To Weep, & A House with Four Rooms), Kingfishers Catch Fire, Black Narcissus, Mooltiki, Rungli-Rungliot, The River (from which this blog takes its name)
- Everything I can find by Rudyard Kipling
- Delhi Noir, a collection of short noir mysteries all set in Delhi
- “A Passage to India” by E. M. Forster
- “Dek Ho!” a strange book I found at a used bookstore, written by the wife of a British officer
Ravindra Misal rejected tradition to become a self-made man. With his “personality contests” and idiomatic-English lessons, he’s trying to help others do the same.
Kennedy Odede, who grew up in a slum in Nairobi, writes in the New York Times that Slum Tourism is exploitative and that “its not worth” the money and awareness that it advocates. Odede suggests that “slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from.” The author sites examples from slum tours she/he witnessed in Kibera, of tourists taking invasive pictures of the men, women, children who lives in the slums, etc etc etc.
I see where the author is coming from, yet, having never myself lived in a slum, I don’t presume to understand what that is like. Its the sort of very tricky situation that comes up in our uber-PC world these days; the sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ sentiment that I got so often reading pieces of literature from the Women’s/Gender Studies classes I took. One wants to raise awareness (right?) yet, it seems all attempts can be labelled as fetishizing or patronising (or whatever) the subject. I’m not sure how a white privileged person ought to go about helping (apart from throwing money at the situation from afar, which, in many eyes, is also contemptible). But even apart from that, I take issue with the generalizations made in this editorial to back up the thesis.
In Mumbai, Vanessa and I went on a slum tour of the Dharavi slum, one of the largest slums in Asia - and, yes, featured in Slumdog Millionaire. It was probably one of the most rewarding & eye-opening things we did in India (even more so than helping at the orphanage in Bangalore). I went into the tour knowing absolutely nothing apart from what I’d read & saw in That Movie, and I learned SO FUCKING MUCH. And that is why I think slum tours are ‘good’: they dispel the myths that trickle through to our sheltered, western lives and educate tourists with something (at closer to) the truth. For instance, That Movie purports that the slum is a cesspool of poverty and gang leaders. What we were told on the tour and what we saw, was actually a mind-blowing, intricate & independent & entirely self-sustaining recycling industry and surrounding society. I have no doubt that the things we were told were rosy-coloured for our ignorant temperament, but all the same I think what we saw & learned are valid - and things that would have been much more difficult to learn elsewhere.
I also want to point out that the tour we went on was not like the tours described in this editorial. (We followed the Lonely Planet’s advice and booked one with Reality Tours and Travel - if anyone is in Mumbai I HIGHLY RECOMMEND GOING ON THEIR TOUR). We were not allowed to take photos, and the profits from the tour went directly towards a preschool in the slum (which we visited) and an adult education center/community center (which we also visited, and saw young adults learning how to make spreadsheets). Also, our tour director was a young man who’d grown up in the slum. One of the women on the tour with us, an Indian-American, worked for a non-profit in another part of India (I mention this in attempts to prove that it wasn’t just ignorant Americans on the tour, but also ‘industry insiders’ LOL).
Ultimately, I think the slum Odede is writing about, and the tours that are run there, are very different from the slum tours run in India (and, hopefully, other parts of the world). India, first of all, is a completely different country from Nairobi, with a completely different sort of culture and people. The children we met in the slum came up to talk to us, show off their English, and they were smiling and seemed happy that we were there. (Granted, some of the older workers did not seem so pleased, but we tried our best to be friendly and courteous and respectful; again, we did not take pictures!). I don’t see how the slum tour could be any worse for the Indians than, say, when we had to walk through a different slum to get to the apartment building where our host, Bhisham, lived. For that walk, we were left to make our own assumptions about how the people lived without a tour guide to educate us. This exploitation Odede talks about I think is in many cases simply a side-affect of our more mobile world. If a person travels to India, or Nairobi, they are going to be exposed to the ‘dirty underside,’ that is what tourism is, in part, about. I think Odede has over-generalised, and is blaming the whole industry rather than the offensive part: disrespectful tourism.
Feel free to correct my views. Also, is this different from tour vans driving through the Castro and snapping pictures of the homosexuals in their habitat? I mean, it is different (right?) but what part makes the difference?
Also, here is a link to the Travel Entry I made of our slum tour (which is, I think, a really unfortunate name, but maybe since that is precisely what the thing is, it is an unfortunate activity, after all…)
I am home. There is a lot to do. Updates will continue, however. Soon…
Today we leave India. It has been an amazing trip.
Yesterdy we did many things:
- learnt to cook from Mary and Shanti
- went to the Karnataka art museum
- drove around the massive Bangalore Market
- went to a shopping mall and ran into a couple Vanessa had met (briefly) in Hampi
- went out to a lovely dinner with Jake at the Leela Palace hotel.
Today we still have things we need to do before flying home. More to learn from Mary and Shanti (also, as our thank you to Jake, we’re gonna try and teach Mary to cook western style eggs, “I ask for double-fried eggs and I keep getting omlettes.”)