India: freezeframing the unstopable
By Etan Doronne
20 May 2012
A novice I jumped head-on into the hive. 2 dusty years later, photography tips from backpacking villages & towns across India.
1. Giddy up! (Chalo...) - India is about people. Time, though much more fluid than in modern countries, doesn't cause people to vegetate. Everything is in a constant flux. In most cases I had no more than 2 seconds to draw and snap: either the object will disappear or something/someone will come in between us. Quick startup camera is no. 1
2. Skip 'Ready... Set...' - Walking down the streets, camera in hand at all times. Same goes for train rides: mellow with open view on rail margins. Bus rides however are a different story: rural roads are a mosaic of potholes and passing maneuvers on those narrow/winding two-lanes are action-movie quality. Ever wondered how your clothes feel during a washing machine cycle? now you'll know. I kept it 'on', lens extended and often on the window seal level.
3. Quick finger on the clicker - The Indian essence of life is not camera-proof. The moment your object notices the camera he shifts into 'official mode' (elders, smiles wiped out) or becomes 'cool mode' (youngsters, jiggling and ever-changing poses)
4. Sticks in the wheels - Over my two separate years on India's roads I experienced the same camera failure symptoms: locked zoom lense. Since I kept the cameras on a string or in padded pouch they haven't been dropped or shocked. The technicians who had tested them suggested dirt/dust/sand particles penetrated the zoom rings resulting in jammed gears and high friction which the motor couldn't overcome.
I lost about 1-2 months worth of photos until I could reach a mega city where anyone would attempt to open and repair it. The only case it had actually been repaired was an authorized Canon lab in Kathmandu, Nepal. The cost was 2,000 Nepali Rupees which were about $60 at the time. While the camera original cost was $260.
I would recommend getting a rugged camera with internal zoom mechanism, usually the waterproof/dustproof/shockproof pocket cameras work for me. Another solution is a backup camera, if you can afford it. In case you chose a compact bring a similar model and save the weight of an extra charger/cables. I would also suggest to bring a backup battery for long travel days with no charging stops.
5. Indian are camera friendly. Luckily & unlike other countries I traveled, there are very few superstitious or social codes about it. The few bans that do exist are:
Small babies while asleep - those who still haven't gotten their first hair cut and are dotted with black evil-eye buster marks on their cheeks
Central Temples - Town & village temples are mostly OK for photgraphy but the pilgrim mega temples are usually off limits for camera's
Women - that aligns with Indian traditional ways about men and women in public places. Women photographers will enjoy more exposure to Indian women photography.
6. Starry night - Indian villages and towns are dimly lit at night. I enjoy naturally lit photos (no flash). Recently (2011), with a more light-sensitive Canon G11 I got better results than previous SD600 (2007). Next time I would opt for whatever latest technology I can afford towards this important matter. Even a tripod can't freeze life for a few seconds and ISO range couldn't yet compensate the very low lighting of rural streets and homes.
7. Big-time, small-screen: Most Indian don't yet have laptops, not to mention iPads. Even most homes don't have computers. TV sets are often CRT with limited input sockets and low resolution. I found my camera screen to be the best, and often the only, playback device around.
On the other hand, I wouldn't opt out a screen that takes over the space for manual camera controls in favor of a touch screen interface. My experience shows that light sensitivity of those controls is still quite a way from becoming as quick and precise as needed for Indian streetlife snapping.
8. Amateur upgraded - "what mobile is this?" I remember being asked in a small town in east Gujarat back in 2007 while holding my Canon SD600. Today it has not changed much in this respect: mobile phones are flourishing with every new feature but digital cameras remained an optional toy. Many villagers still use film cameras and those having smart phones can't really zoom or print quality photos. Moreover few are familiar with photoshop for balancing a photo and would still have to pay for computer access in a cyber cafe to do so.
However in every small town I found a photo lab that served the local reporters and wedding studios. With that I found my all-time best gift for locals I befriended and spend time with: a collage postcard I composed of our common photos I had snapped during our excursions and around town. For 5 Rupees flat ( $0.1), all across India you can get a 4"X6" photo professionally printed within an hour. The surprise and joy of those receiving was 100's of times more valuable than this modest cost. I usually edited my contact details onto the photo so it stays intact and they can reach me later.
9. Another big-time perk I could offer my Desi (Native Indian) everywhere was screening the photos and videos I captured of them, families, neighbors, local events and celebrations on my laptop or on a wall by the projector I hauled with me this time (Thanks to a kind donation by Mr. Atul Thakkar of San Diego). Many neighborhood children, migrant workers who left their families hundreds of miles away or whole school classes gathered around for these. Sometimes, by their request, I also screened a presentation about my own family and biography or some of their favorite Indian films I gathered along the way. As projectors become less costly and very compact it's worth to carry such a marvel in Indian terms. Not long back, in the early 2000, old cinema trucks with huge cellulose-reel projectors still roamed rural roads offering one night screenings in remote villages
10. Homework, for every village that was my home - Back in the USA I take my time now to write and post feature stories rich in on-site photos, here on JPGmag ( http://jpgmag.com/people/etand/stories ), videos on Youube ( http://www.youtube.com/user/MyIndiaExperience ). Some of my friends in India are on my facebook, some only have email and many have none, for those I have printed and snail-mailed collage postcards on Diwalli... but of course with changing time and communication technology creativity is always on the go.
More stories of my experiences backpacking rural India for 2 years on http://jpgmag.com/people/etand/stories
Short description: A novice jumps head-on into the hive. 2 dusty years worth of photography tips backpacking villages & towns across India.