‘There are two fundamentals in all picture taking – where to stand and when to release the shutter … so photography is very simple.’(Jay & Hurn, 2001, p.37)
So photography is simply viewpoint and moment… but what about subject? The simplest subject is the moment. You can record the moment with a snapshot, but when you review the photograph later you find you didn’t actually record the moment, you just recorded the ‘event of photography’.
It might take a very long time to simplify the whole world and its infinite framings into a subject that makes sense to you. Robert Adams said, ‘Sooner or later one has to ask of all pictures what kind of life they promote’ (Grundberg, 1999, p.34). For now, though, you should just feel comfortable with your subject. It should say something about you and, in the end, you like it!
The final assignment is an open brief. Take a series of 10 photographs of any subject exploring the theme ‘Photography is Simple’. Each photograph should be a unique view; in other words, it should contain some new information, rather than repeat the information of the previous image.
In your assignment notes explore how you think you’ve answered the brief. This is a chance for a little philosophical reflection.
After much deliberation on this topic, I wanted to actually approach this assignment with as much simplicity as I could. Having worked on complex assignments through this course that involved tedious lighting conditions or fleeting moments beyond my control, waiting to capture the right moment, I consciously wanted to treat this assignment as an opportunity to explore photography in all its simplicity, with no fuss attached. I do believe that photography is not as simple as it appears but for once wanted to explore it as simply as I could.
For this assignment, I also wanted to explore a subject that I have been meaning to since FiP, where I had explored the juxtaposition of middle class vertical living versus the slums that are often attached to it, in my first assignment, One Square Mile. My tutor at the time, Robert Enoch, had suggested that I go inside one of these slums and explore people, as he had liked one of the images that I had taken of a poor beggar family at a stop light. He had said that it is perhaps a very sad image but one which had the maximum potential to be developed into a project in itself. He opined that I could really make something out of this subject, finding dignity in these families, photographing them as a group or community. To explore this subject with a completely simplistic viewpoint involving absolutely no staging of scenes, props, lighting, etc. was my intention, like a snap shot kind of recording a moment.
I chose one such small slum of approximately 1800 sq. ft.where around twenty such families live and call it their home for this assignment.
I wanted the feel of a point and shoot camera for this assignment. I decided to use a simple flash light on camera as the area where I planned to shoot is extremely sensitive in terms of the stark contrast between the well-off and people living in extreme poverty. Anything that makes it seem even a little over the top was to be avoided as just a camera in itself attracts a lot of undue attention. I was extremely careful as to not add anything other than the absolutely necessary equipment – so just my camera and a flash light to compensate for any lack of light.
Preparing for the Shoot
In order to understand the subject that I planned to shoot for this assignment, one must understand India as a country and the wide gap that exists between the rich, the middle-class and the lower income group, who more often than not, live under extreme conditions of poverty. I have hesitated to do this shoot earlier also as these areas are not too safe for anyone to venture in, leave alone a woman with an expensive camera. I had to ensure that I do not disrespect them in any manner, my presence as a more privileged member of the society being already conspicuous. I made large packets of gifts containing rice, pulses, flour, cooking oil, etc. for all the families there, as a token of my gratitude towards them, to allowing me to photograph them in their surroundings. When I reached there, I assured them that I will not impose upon them in any manner whatsoever and they should continue to do what they are doing and just ignore me while I take a few pictures.
And thats how simple I had imagined this shoot would be.
Actual day of the shoot
I arrived on location around 3 PM. I spent an hour meeting each family and handing them their pack of rations from the car. Once I entered, I asked them to go about their daily business as usual while I tried to make myself as invisible as possible and capture candid moments to the best of my ability. I did pique a lot of curiosity as I didn’t look like them, I didn’t dress like them, plus as you will see in the images, women have quite a different role in such societies. To see a woman like myself taking pictures from a camera definitely piqued their curiosity to an extent that my candid images mostly had someone or the other looking into the camera. Yet the experience of the day left me quite speechless, probably something that anyone who looks at the images will perhaps experience it first hand. I will write more about that later in my reflections.
Final Ten Images
Having wanted to photograph this for almost two years now and finally getting to it was not due to procrastination but because of the various conflicts going in in my mind- the automatic guilt factor which creeps in when you visit the lesser-privileged was a key factor that was playing on my mind. Another main factor was that these areas are the hub of criminal activities and are extremely unsafe as well, was a major deterrent too. I was quite hesitant to approach this on my own. For this assignment, I finally chose a slum a few miles away from me, surrounded by several middle class vertical buildings, contained within a small land piece of maybe 1800 sq. ft. in total.
For my first assignment in FiP, I had photographed the juxtaposition of the tall buildings against these slums and I was urged to get inside and explore the people who live here. Trust me, I have seen a lot of poverty growing up in India, but nothing prepared me for this eventual coming off face to face with the bitter reality that grips our country. I saw a lot this day – everything that I had read about their living conditions was more true and real than I had either expected or imagined – The smaller than small make-shift homes made out of waste materials like banners, advertising hoardings, some scrap like cardboards and plastic sheets, the bare minimum clothing, squalid living conditions, the overcrowded living areas where up to five family members shared an area of maybe 10’x10′. An Indian garment called the sari, which is a six yard long fabric that drapes around a woman was the make shift bathing areas and bathrooms where little privacy could be expected. Going through the contact sheets will give you a very clear idea of what it was like. Despite the abject poverty that faced me that day, what really touched me and what I really took away from the scene that day was not a completed assignment alone, but the smiles and the living in the moment attitude that these people possessed. What I really took away was the smiles despite everything. And that really shook me and made me think hard about the “US” – the privileged ones and our constant whining about things and circumstances, despite the immense privileges of just the basic living conditions and food that we have access too. They had nothing to call their own, most of them were barefoot, yet their smiles and their facial expressions were far more genuine than the ones I have seen ever.
The few shaken images are due to the fact that it was hard to control the tears welling up inside me. Technically, the simplest assignment I have done, hoping to explore the simplicity of photography; turns out it was one of the toughest ones I had to do. Photography is not as simple. It just might be the toughest thing that one can experience, as was for me shooting this assignment.
The editing for this project was quite tough for me as I have spent days and days selecting my top ten. Trying to show the most distressing images, trying to show their appalling living conditions, trying to show the abject poverty that these people live in; but despite my best efforts, somehow I kept coming back to their smiles and their happy attitude that haunts me to day. With a new found immense gratitude for all the privileges I have, for the final edit, I have tried to choose images containing different aspects of their lives that can be a window to their daily routine, yet I have tried to keep some of the smiling ones as my top ten, as it serves as an important reminder for us to be grateful for what we have and possibly share that with the underprivileged, to the best of our capabilities.
Below are the final ten images for this assignment. Each one of them deserves a careful examination because there is so much information about their way of life, that one notices after having had a chance to study each one of them for information that perhaps missed one’s attention at the point of being recorded. The image becomes stronger and more impactful because of the inclusion of that information. I will add some footnotes to each of my selected shots for an idea.
The barefoot children with their calloused and cracked soles, their running noses, some of them without even a sweater to keep them warm, seem richer than all the privileged kids; for their smiles and their positive attitude make up for all that they lack in material goods. The gleam in their eyes and a no care attitude is all that they need to have a good time. The Christmas carnival and the baby show banner behind them to the viewer’s top right side is ironic – (which is very clearly visible in a higher resolution image but might not be in this). The commercial market that caters to children’s entertainment is huge in our country. And on the other hand, are these underprivileged children, happy and content, making the most of what they have.
This beautiful and dignified lady was preparing her family’s evening meal on a handmade clay oven, fired by wood, when I chanced upon her. She was so pleased when I cracked a few jokes with her. Her smile, beauty and warmth are so radiant and the beautiful evening golden light that fell upon her as she turned towards me seemed to have light up her entire personality. What makeup can make a person more beautiful than this genuine smile did?
We are so used to our washing machines and dryers, that perhaps a lot of us will not even be familiar with what the woman is doing in this picture. For the lack of even something as basic as a bucket, a woman washes her clothes in a tin canister and discarded paint bucket being used as a mug. Does make one want never to take things for granted. What struck me most was the beautiful smile she flashed at me while doing a difficult chore in cold winter conditions with her bare hands.
I candidly captured this young woman spending time grooming her hair, applying lipstick and kohl to her eyes, making herself look beautiful, oblivious to the world around her, including me standing at a distance capturing her. This was such a wonderful frame for me. The fact that she was not bothered about the state of the clothes she wore, that were stained and torn and despite that strived to carefully do her make-up. I later caught her talking coyly on the cell phone, perhaps to her boyfriend.
The Food industry, especially Fast Food is so huge in the current times, when often we are satisfying our cravings for all kinds of food, almost instantaneously, at the touch of a button. Seen here are three men, sitting around a clay oven for some warmth as they eat their no frills meal which does not even have enough vegetables to eat the rotis (bread) with.
I did take his consent before photographing this picture which is important to show how despite such cold weather conditions one does not have access to a basic four walls, within the privacy and protection of which they may clean their bodies. The small fabric enclosure next to him is made out of women’s saris that is an area used by women to bathe inside. The water is heated on clay ovens and then used for bathing.
Seen here are two grown men, engaged in a friendly wrestling match as the amused woman watches them. Having no sources of entertainment like TV and so on, these underprivileged people make no complaints, instead can almost be seen celebrating it and enjoying life.
The above image gives us a fair idea of the size of a dwelling unit where up to five-six members of a family often share the given space. Rags, tatters and whatever materials can be found in garbage dumps and discarded on the streets make up these small dwelling units. Seen here is the woman of the house, cutting chillies to make a pickle that they often eat with bread as an accompaniment to their meals to spice them up or alone due to the lack of money for including vegetables in every meal. Once again the thing that affected me most was the effortless smile on her face.
I see whining unhappy kids around me all the time or I hear their parents complaining about their never-ending demands for a new game, a new phone, new shoes or a new toy. It tugs at my heart to see this semi-naked kid with no shoes and no pants so focused on playing with his toy that once belonged to perhaps a rich kid’s tricyle?
In poorer and underprivileged households as the one above, one often wonders why they have so many kids when they can’t feed them or look after them due to lack of resources. But in their minds, more hands mean more bread-earners as can be seen here. Three boys means immense joy as a girl child is often looked upon as a burden upon the family still. The area that this family shares will give you a fair idea of their living conditions.
More photographs can be seen and accessed in the contact sheets below.
Ignorance is bliss. Living at such close quarters to the underprivileged and poor sections of the society, I guess, makes us indifferent to them. Or we are so caught up in our own lives or simply trying to deal with the stresses of every day living, that we often do not see or feel things that are right in front of you. I have seen slums for as far as I remember but in the recent years, due to the immense population growth and unprecedented construction, the numbers have risen so dramatically. I feel that the corrupt government, especially the current one under the guidance of an uneducated tea-seller turned into the Prime Minister, who literally has no agenda but to instigate a divided India, is unnecessarily spending billions on a new Parliament, a bullet Train, various Hindu Temples and statues – none of which make India better – instead so much of this tax-payer’s money that is being spent on totally non-sensical things as stated above, should be spent on providing at least basic accommodation and food for the poor. Why does any help for the underprivileged only comes from a handful of kind individuals who do things for them within their limited capabilities while the government as always turn their eye away, except during election times?
At the end of this assignment, I feel rather low, which I should not be feeling at the end of a level. But this assignment that was meant to show how simple photography is does open my eye to the fact that photography somehow always comes and bites you in the ass when you least expect it to. A technically simple and fairly straight forward assignment such as this one made me feel drained and exhausted just by seeing so much that was hidden amongst these photographs, that I discovered later and spent days and days looking at again and again. I think photography is not simple. It involves a whole set of dynamics at every event or scene that one is photographing. Yet some of the most complex and tiring assignments left me elated and joyful and full of energy.
I would like to conclude that photography is not something as simple as taking a picture but involves many aspects- it involves not only the person behind the camera but the subject as well and beyond that he dynamics of everything that is contained within that frame. Definitely for me its more than a snapshot or the click of a frame but a great experience involving many aspects that go behind the making of a photograph.
Strengths and Limitations
The very fact that I was able to do this assignment inside a slum is an achievement in itself as such places are considered very unsafe, especially a woman. That I was able to take an old project forward is another fact that I am quite happy about, even though it came quite late. I believe winning these families over with a gesture of kindness was important and since they were so grateful for it, they were overtly nice to me and tolerated my presence amongst them. Because they were comfortable with me, I was able to get some pretty authentic gestures and expressions from them and they did not make me feel that I was imposing. Overall, all my apprehensions were laid to rest and I did not feel uncomfortable or looking behind my back all the time. This assignment made me understand a lot about photography, its different nuances and how just being in a certain environment can change everything. It also kind of nailed in the fact, though I am pretty aware of it already, not to take photography to be simple. You never know how difficult it can get and due to something totally not related to the camera.
Another thing that I really appreciated about this assignment was the fact that each of these images recorded so much of information that was impossible to see in its entirety at the location. The wealth of information these images consisted were a great lesson to watch later and raised my understanding about my subjects immensely as I looked and re-looked at these images for several days, trying to sink in and understand the conditions of abject poverty within the frames that I shot. The details that I missed while recording the picture due to a highly emotional state that my mind was in, were all available to me later.
If I have to talk about limitations, I will say that I was a little hesitant and not totally myself in this alien environment as I just felt guilty being there, because of my being a more privileged member of this society. I was quite dumb struck to actually see this kind of an environment at such close quarters. I did not want to direct them in any which way or to control or stage their actions. I just wanted to let them be, doing what they were and be as invisible as I could be. Maybe a different approach could have resulted in different results? Having said that, I am quite happy with the final outcome, and look forward to taking this project in different directions. Also, seeing a woman with a camera caused a lot of unwanted elements from outside the slum, mainly the middle class people in the tall buildings nearby, who came in regularly to keep pestering me to ask if I was from the TV and maybe they could get some footage too. And asking questions like is this slum going to be removed as it creates ugliness in front of our homes, and so on. It was difficult to see the indifference of the better off people, to whom the slum dwellers are just a nuisance value, it pained me immensely to see that and also I had to refrain myself from slapping a couple of them!!
Taking valuable life lessons and a stronger sense of gratitude towards what I have and blessed with and a promise to do as much as I can within my capabilities for the underprivileged, I am finally glad that I did get to attempt this project. That it is by no means complete, I understand that. There are so many ideas that have emerged from this one session and many ways that it may be taken forward.
Ideas on taking this project forward
- I would like to spend time with maybe one family, shadow the members, learn more about them and document a day in their life.
- I would like to talk to the womenfolk here, and try to understand their dreams, aspirations or their take on the kind of lives they live.
- Most importantly, it would be great to talk to the children that belong to this community and the future dreams that they hold, it would be great to understand their minds by talking to them about it, as they are unbiased, honest and will talk about things as they see it.
- I also would like to probably follow the men and women to their work, which is tough to do in India as someone with a camera is just considered trouble, but nonetheless, documenting their lives beyond such a limited time frame would be really an incredible way to take it forward.
- Portraits of everyone, recording each one of their faces with their lines and wrinkles and the life of hardships that they have lived, could be another interesting way to take this forward.