Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Street Photography – a comparative study between Urban and Rural setting in parts of India.

Street photography is almost as old as photography itself. As urbanization and globalization of the world started, art saw a new chapter opening with the invention of photography in the early 19th century. The first photographs were taken in the streets.

Nicéphore Niépce’s earliest surviving camera photograph, circa 1826: View from the Window at Le Gras (Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, France). Could be easily interpreted as a “street photograph”
The advent of digital cameras in the world of photography, allowed us to shoot in near darkness at high ISO. Just think how difficult it must have been for earlier photographers who used to shoot with films that had ISO of 25 only. Now we could take thousands of photographs without worrying about film rolls and developing/printing costs going through the sky.
More than the digital camera, the advent of internet, softwares for processing the photos and online social networking completely changed the way pictures were being taken and shared with the world.

Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C – by Diane Arbus
Many people needlessly waste hours of their time arguing, what is, or is not, street photography. The definition of street photography has been evolving over time. In early 20th century, a street photographer used to be someone who would stand in the streets, taking photographs for money and send you the prints at a later time. 

Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. SPAIN. 1933. Valencia Province. Alicante.
Today, a “street photographer” would be someone who goes out to public places and takes photos (usually candidly). There are lots of debates even on the candid nature of street photography. It would be pertinent to mention here that, some of the most famous images like Grenade Boy (by Diane Arbus), Transvestite and two women in Spain (by Cartier-Bresson), and Kid with a Gun (by William Klein) weren’t candid– but with the subjects’ consent.

Gun 1, New York 1995 – by William Klein
Recently there has been a huge hue and cry over the some of the supposedly candid street photographs by one of our age’s iconic photographer Steve Mc Curry which were not only found to be posed but some of them were also found to be heavily edited.
These days, lots of great street photography are done outside of the streets, mostly in public places – in malls, parks, and even beaches, not all of them candid in nature.
Although street and people photography mostly started out in urban setting and is still mostly done in such places, it is no more restricted or limited to primarily urban settings. It has transcended the barrier of urban world and stepped into the rural parts long ago.
I had always found similarities and differences between street photography in an urban setting and a rural setting.
India has always been a primarily agricultural economy where the bulk of the population lives in rural areas. India is also the home to huge Metropolises whose population exceeds 10 million.  From the point of view of street photography, India presents such diversity and completely different scenarios that it can be highly bewildering.
On one hand India has such remote villages where even basic amenities such as roads, electricity etc are non-existent, and on the other hand there are cosmopolitan cities that are home to the most advanced technology centers in the world. India lives in religious diversity, communal unrest, slums, poverty, corruption etc., but India can also boast of the biggest manpower in software field, huge malls, supermarkets, cine complexes, flyovers, latest gadgets and cars. On one hand we have a big chunk of the population who can barely write their names and on the other hand we have Indian origin persons who have become CEOs of the biggest companies in the world.
India seems to be a place of extreme polarity which exists in unexplainable intimate inter-dependency and inter-relationship. Two worlds inter-twined in such a manner that it is almost impossible to tell one apart from the other.
I feel fortunate to have witnessed such great diversity in a single country. The urban part of my street photography has mostly been done in parts of central India and other urban centers while I was travelling. I have this habit of photographing local life, street food etc when I travel apart from the tourist spots and monuments which are obvious subjects. Common men, their life, their food fascinate and attract me, not only in cities or towns but also in villages.  Hence I often find myself carrying my camera to villages where I try to photograph rural folks. I like to talk with people, listen to their stories and laugh with them.
Street photography is not just capturing a fleeting moment, it is also about connecting with people, projecting stories in a single frame, or as some would like to point out, capturing such moments and emotions that would make the viewer question or imagine stories.
Whether it is a urban or rural setting, one thing is almost universally common. A street photographer has to have the power of observation. He/she needs to be an astute witness to whatever is happening all around him. Not only does he have to understand the numerous stories unfolding one by one or all at a time in the surroundings but he also has to look out of the best opportune moment when everything falls into place to give that story/message in that one frame, as the great photographer Henry Cartier-Bresson liked to call “the decisive moment”. Such power of observation and perfect timing comes with practice, with hours and days and years of roaming around among people and strangers, and infinite patience. Someone who wants instant result should not venture into this genre as it can really test one’s tolerance and sometimes even the best of street photographers can feel frustrated.

I could have used my telezoom to zoom in on this man washing his clothes in the river water. But I used the wide angle lens to capture the beautiful sunset in the background. The beautiful background makes the picture stand out and also gives the story a context. It also reinforces the predominantly rural environment shown in the photo. Joda, Odisha. June 2016
Apart from the importance of a story and proper timing, composition and backgrounds are also very important for street photography whether it is in a city or a village. I have often found that a simple composition along with an eye on the background can result in very good photos that can convey the message more powerfully rather than a cluttered and busy frame where the message is lost in the melee. I would like to mention here, that India being a densely populated country, Indian cities are generally very congested and it would be very difficult to find large frames where you can keep the composition simple. Wide angle shots in such cases would naturally take in a lot of busy background. I had to be extra careful in such cases not to include unnecessary details that can easily distract from the main subject of my story. City life is also much busier and almost mechanical in nature. People are just rushing by. No one has the time or inclination to stop.

I wanted to isolate the man waiting on the divider of a road for his son who is away playing with his son, while people walk by and vehicles rush by. Use of a wide angle would have resulted in inclusion of too much background leading to the subject getting lost. The wide aperture 50 mm gave nice isolation as well as some context to the shot. Nagpur, India. March 2015

Everybody is busy with their own existential struggle. Moreover, city people are more accustomed to see people walking around with cameras or cell phones taking photos, especially if it is some tourist spot too. Doing street photography in such places becomes comparatively easier. Nobody would bother with what you are doing apart from showing some mild interest or asking a few questions. Please note that although this may be a general trend, it is not true for all places. There may be places where the public may not be open to or accustomed to cameras being pointed towards them and may react unexpectedly or even adversely. I always try to be as discreet as possible but in case I see someone noticing me or showing some kind of unhappy expression, I generally approach such persons directly and ask for their permission for taking photographs around him or he/she as a subject. But in most of the time, I have not faced any adversity or opposition. Rather people have been very open to being photographed. Some of them would even request me to take their photos and would feel innocent glee on seeing their faces on my camera screen.
I found these villagers smoking Ganja (Opium) near a Shiva temple in Odisha, India. They were a bit inquisitive why I wanted to take their photograph, but once they were satisfied, they were very free and almost forgot I was sitting there taking their photo. April, 2016.
Village life, on the other hand can be languid to the point of boring. People generally have more time and more leisure than city folks. This also makes them more inquisitive to what is going on when they see someone moving around with a camera in their hands taking photographs of common people and more often than not approach me and start asking questions right away. Mostly they think I am some kind of surveyor (may be because of my tripod, which I sometimes lug around) and would ask me what I am surveying for. I would generally explain to them that I am not a surveyor and that photography is my hobby and I love to photograph common people and their lives. Most people would gladly accept this simple truth. But sometimes, some people are more suspicious of my simple explanation and would look for some hidden truth behind what I am saying, imagining more complicated stories. I would then give them something akin to being a member of a club and I am doing some kind of photography assignment in which I have to take photos of village folks and their life. This would normally satisfy their minds.
Village folks have gathered to have a drink of Handia (fermented rice drink made by indigenous people) during a local weekly bazaar. Barbil, Odisha, India. May, 2016.
However, one should be careful and respect the sentiments of people, especially around religious places. I have seen that in India, village folks are more open to people taking photographs around religious shrines than city people. I am not sure of the reason, but I can guess it might be related to a more open environment and more communal harmony among village people. With terrorist incidents in rise and terrorists targeting various urban centers, it is not unnatural for city people to be suspicious of camera toting strangers who suddenly emerge out of nowhere to take pictures of their religious shrines.
Hence, the approach needs to be modified based on which kind of setting, urban or rural, you are photographing in. Whereas in villages you can be a bit more relaxed once you have satisfied the inquisitiveness of people who come inquiring as to your motive behind taking photos, in cities you need to be more discreet and careful, although in many places (e.g., in tourist centers) people are very used to camera and won’t even notice you taking photographs. It all boils down to the comfort level of people whom you are photographing. To be within their tolerance zone, try to be as invisible as possible. Be mindful of how people might react to your presence. Try to guess their reaction from their behavior and expression. Be respectful of their sentiments and if someone does not want to be photographed, leave that person alone, do not force anything. You do not want to face a hostile crowd with expensive camera equipments in your hands.
Street photography in India is incomplete without scenes of street food. I shot this street side stall of Chole Bhature (an Indian delicacy) in the streets of Agra, the city of the Taj. This one had to be in color, as the ambience, the texture on the food would have been lost in black and white.
Apart from your personal approach, photography style and technique is also important while taking street photos. City life is fast and the scene is quickly changing, requiring you to be constantly on the lookout for perfect moments which might be very short lived. A little carelessness and you might miss out on a frame that you would regret. But
This photo was risky, I sat down near the feet of the kids playing football on a road while it was closed for traffic during some weekend celebrations. The ball of someone kick could have hit me or my camera anytime. For me, the fast movements of the kids, the low angle, the ball in the air and the slight motion blur works very well. Nagpur, India. April, 2015.
at the same time, the ever changing fast life of cities also offers more opportunities for photos. The village life on the other hand is slower and more leisurely. Does not mean that there are no interesting moments in there, but it means that you can be a bit relaxed and plan your shots in a better way and be more mentally prepared when the perfect moment presents itself.
Whether it is a city/town or a village, connecting with people and understanding their stories is important in both the cases. A deeper understanding throws up more interesting frames. People in both the places have similar kind of emotions, expressions, problems and joys. The happiness is similar, the sorrows are same.
As photographers we need to respect their private spaces, their culture, their sentiments. We should never look down on them whether or not they are less educated, or less financially well off than us. I hope my article will be of help to people from within India as well as those who want to visit India from abroad.
References: Various websites and Wikipedia.

All pics in this article are shot by Indranil Bhattacharjee unless otherwise mentioned in the caption.