India is one of the most iconic destinations for photography, offering something to any and every genre anyone would care to explore. As a street and documentary photographer it was sort of inevitable that I would end up in India at some point, so I decided to make my first trip sooner rather than later.
I booked for the end of November, when I knew the conditions would be mostly bearable, and set about planning the finer details. I wanted to spend the majority of my time in one place, and settled on Varanasi which I thought would be a good calm corner of the country, whilst still providing lots in terms of culture, characters, and a good environmental setting.
It took a little more deliberation (honestly, maybe too much), to decide on the kit I would take. My XA would be in my shirt pocket as always, I would have my FM2 around my neck with a 50mm, and then my M6 on my arm with a 90mm. I would have another 50mm for my M6, as well as a 70-210 f/4 zoom for the Nikon, which would go in my backpack until I arrived and was able to change up my bags.
Choosing film was trickier still – I always worry about my supply running dry while travelling, although it’s yet to actually happen. It’s better to be over prepared than under, so I took a conservative 44 rolls, of assorted brands and types. Plenty of Ilford, mostly Delta 100, with some HP5 to use if I needed to push. For colour I took Ektachrome as well as Portra 400 and Pro 100 for use in my XA.
I managed to fit everything including my Billingham into my National Geographic backpack (W5071), which I have used many times for travel. I prefer to travel with one backpack, with no hold-luggage, and then rearrange thing when I’m past security.
Once on the plane I loaded both cameras with Fomapan 400, rated at 200. I decided to start the trip on Fomapan as it’s a cheaper film, and I expected I would want to spend a few rolls getting to grips with the environment.I landed on time in Delhi, and headed for the station. During my cab ride I started to feel odd – I had spotted maybe a dozen decent photographable situations in this time and was a little annoyed that I hadn’t been able to halt the cab, run out, and shoot these while I could. I really wanted to exert myself during this trip, and make the most of every second, and so far I just hadn’t.I arrived at NDLS but found out that apparently there had been an issue with my train, so instead of staying on track for what was supposed to be an immediate ten hour train to Varanasi I hired a driver to take me to Agra, where I would then wait overnight to get the train the next day from Tundla Junction.
The drive was long, and again I felt immensely unproductive after seeing a large number of quality photographable moments pass me by. By the time I reached Agra I was kicking myself about the wasted time. I took this unproductive energy and spent my evening in Agra just running up and down the road capturing what I possibly could using the street and car lights. I’d actually wanted to avoid Agra, as it’s one of the main tourist hubs, and definitely not somewhere I felt I’d have an authentic experience.At this point I was feeling very frustrated and stressed. The pollution was a heavy blanket, and made everything very atmospheric, but damaged my lungs, despite my attempts to use my scarf as a makeshift mask. Next time I’ll definitely have an air filtration mask. I hadn’t eaten since the plane, and I felt like I’d wasted my first day in India. I hadn’t even finished any of my rolls of film, barely made a dent in the number of frames I’d intended in taking, and was not feeling that this was a good start.
As much as I kept telling myself that this was just a first trip, hopefully the first of many, it’s unavoidable that the way I feel affects the way I photograph, and the results I produce or fail to produce will frame the way I perceive and interact with this part of the world for the rest of my life. This meant that I was feeling a lot of pressure to do something right, and was so far failing spectacularly.
I want to produce something as meaningful as the other artists who have visited India, to contribute some insight to this immense body of work focused around this country. It’s a fantastic amount of pressure, and it all resulted in a rushed first few days of work. I will inevitably end up with my own interpretation of the space, hopefully unique, but I still wanted my work to be good at first, even if it was just going to be cliches. I wanted a worthwhile use of my time, a real investment.
I woke up very early the next morning and after a short walk decided to get an uber to the Dussehra Ghat next to the Taj Mahal. This meant I would be productive without having to deal with the stereotypical touristy areas. The Uber was the cheapest I have ever booked, coming in at about £1.50.At the Dussehra Ghat I finished both the rolls in my main cameras, and loaded up with Ektachrome in my M6, and Delta 400 in my FM2.The Ghat was peaceful, and I photographed a few morning prayers, as well as some soldiers before heading back up towards the small village that lay on the outskirts of the area. I photographed around here before heading back to the hotel where I was able to have breakfast – the first thing I’d eaten since the plane, and sort my ticket to Varanasi.
After this I had some time before needing to be at the train station, and decided to spend it on the Haathi Ghat, where people were out along the Yamuna dying fabrics and tending to cattle.There were some great compositions around the bridges here, and a nice calm atmosphere.My train was due to leave from Tundla Junction, and I had some time to photograph around the station before it arrived. I shot here until the sun set, and then onwards into the evening. The station was a real fish in a barrel situation, as everyone was pressed up against the windows with different stories going on.At this point I had six shot rolls in my safety bag, a pushed HP5 to 1600 in my M6, and Fomapan at 200 in my FM2. I was feeling a little better about the amount I’d shot, but was still regretting not having done more when I could have worked harder.
While shooting around the station I noticed quite a few interactions between the people waiting on the platform and the monkeys, which had free rein over the space. I wanted to highlight these interactions, as I realised that I couldn’t think of any images I knew of which used these animals as key characters – I know of many street photographs in India which feature dogs, cats, snakes, cows, and so on, but few with monkeys. I’m sure they exist, but I can’t name any off the top of my head, which gave me the idea to perhaps spend some time on these images myself. Perhaps not too intently this trip, but something to keep my eye out for in the future. I don’t know if I should research to find existing examples of similar images, in case this contaminates my ability to approach the subject on my own terms.My train, the Poorva Express, arrived on time at 20:15. I had a small shared birth which was cozy. I was able to get a bit of sleep in, but not much and I woke up fairly tired, with about two hours to go before arriving in Varanasi. I walked the length of the train, but this was a low energy exercise – the majority of my would be subjects were asleep, curtains closed, which gave me little to work with.After falling out of the train (I disembarked at a part of the carriage which the platform didn’t extend to) with luckily no damage to myself or my cameras, but providing a great comedic moment to the onlookers on the platform I headed directly from the station to the hotel to check in.
Arriving in Varanasi was wonderful; everything was blanketed in thick mist – not the fog of pollution I had been used to in Delhi and Agra. This mist was very photogenic, but dispelled by the time I arrived at my hotel which overlooked the ghats.After shooting quite a few frames during my morning walk I felt that same oddly existential dread I had experienced in Delhi. There were so many quality moments unfolding in front of me, both things I recognised from my peers who had shot in Varanasi before, and new ones I was sure I was seeing for the first time. I was certain that even if I managed to do justice to all of these I would lose many in the cull and curation phase. Despite this I continued to shoot pretty freely, everything and anything I possibly could.
The touts were fairly annoying, but a whole lot better than those in Morocco – at least here they took “no” for an answer!
The Ganges gave some great potential for minimalism, as bodies of water tend to do – a very clean, undisturbed surface.That afternoon I took a boat over to the opposite bank, Katesar, where it was less built up; essentially a desert, and shot some scenes here.
The empty space was fantastic, but I also enjoyed using the main Varanasi shore as an imposing background.There were interesting scenes with boaters arriving at the shore, cattle being cleaned, and other comings and goings.I stayed a few hours here before heading back in time for dinner and an early night, intending for an early start for the morning prayer service which I had been told was worth seeing.
An early start has the benefit of being around with no other tourists (not that I’d seen too many at all at this point) but also gives me the space to walk freely before starting to be given the sales pitch for hena, flutes, haircuts, and boat rides from the touts.
The morning scenes were calm, and the prayers were definitely photogenic – I made a note to use a higher speed film for the next morning where I would shoot the same situation again.I then walked down and watched the rest of the city wake up, before heading back to the hotel for breakfast. After this I headed out and continued to shoot. On finishing the roll in my M6 I decided to load another roll of Ektachrome and to make it a portrait excusive roll. Portrait photography really isn’t my thing, but I still wanted to have a few examples to show for my trip, and forcing a whole roll of portraits would be a good way to achieve this. My decision to do this on slide film was just because this would be a great use of the vivid colour and sharpness that medium offers.
This exercise lasted a few frames, but I quickly became distracted from portraits, and had to respond to other scenes as I saw them. So it ended up as a roll of mostly portraits but with a few other candid situations scattered in. The portraits were made mostly with permission from the subjects, but a few candid ones too. The rest were all candid, in line with the rest of my trip which had been entirely candid up until these portraits.Unfortunately I didn’t manage to finish that portrait roll on the same day I loaded it, as I’d hoped to change rolls before the light started to die – I didn’t want to underexpose any of my slides. I put it away and promised myself to finish it the next morning, and to return its focus to portraits.
This meant that that evening I was using my FM2 for the nightly prayer ceremony, which I’d heard was pretty touristy but I still wanted to give it a chance. It was busy, with not just tourists but many locals in attendance too, and I had a better time shooting the audience than I did the actual ceremony.These were some of the trickiest images technically, as the low light meant I was having to use 1/15ths of a second at 210mm wide open at f/4 to have somewhat of a steady image with the Fomapan 400 (which I’d rated at 200). When I finished this roll I loaded what I thought was T-Max 3200, my first high speed film of the trip. I thought this would be useful for that night but also the next morning’s candle lit prayers. Unfortunately I hadn’t loaded 3200 as I’d thought but instead 100, as the films look very similar, and are not colour coded like Ilford’s films. Luckily I was able to catch this mistake and switch within a few frames, so I didn’t waste many.
The next morning I left my M6 in the hotel room as it still had the Ektachrome “portrait” roll in, and shot the smaller burning ghats on my FM2. I took a few shots here, but I’m not sure about the value of these images. I had to shoot the last few frames of the 3200 film at f/32, 4000ths because of the excess of morning light, and then changed to a more manageable film. I think for my next trip to India I’ll use HP5 exclusively, and push/overexpose where appropriate. This would save me a lot of time in terms of deliberating between film options.I then got back to work on my M6, finishing the Ektachrome portrait roll, which I expected to be pretty happy with. It bothered me that I hadn’t stuck with portraits exclusively, but at least each frame was unique – no repetition, no failures, no missed focus, or exposures. A perfect roll, with every frame unique. I just hoped they were good, on top of being unique.
After breakfast I took a car to Sarnath, with the intention of taking a more peaceful day than I’d been able to have so far. The lack of sleep and kilometres walked had started to catch up with me, so I would appreciate something calmer without worrying about how many images I’d be missing out on back in Varanasi.It was definitely peaceful, and I only made a handful of images, but my focus was more of just having a nice walk than spotting potential images. It was worth this short break to switch off temporarily and return invigorated for the remainder of my trip.
The next day I took a boat down the Ganges to Suzabad, just to see a slightly different part of the area. I asked the boatman to stay close to the shore, so that I could shoot scenes happening on the bank.Suzabad was nice and quiet – no other tourists around, and very little hassle from the locals. I was able to make some nice images here, before heading back after the boat collected me.
On the 30th I spent the morning wandering around the alleys and backstreets away from the river. This gave me something a little different to the bank-side life, different settings and different situations.That afternoon I took another boat, specifically to shoot onto the shore just so I know I’d covered those possibilities.At this point I was really being hit by fatigue, as I had been working intensely. I’d hit the 18 roll mark, with around 650 frames shot – this is the equivalent of maybe two months in London, where I shoot far more infrequently, having to spend longer wrking the more familiar areas.
I slowed my pace towards the end of the trip, and really searched for quality moments, having hopefully gotten the bulk of cliches out of my system.December 1st was my last full day in Varanasi, and I spent it as slowly as possible. I took a walk up and down the ghats as I had been, but this time walking for the sake of walking, and only shooting when something really stood out to me. I carried only my M6, leaving my Nikon in the hotel. I shot only one roll this way, making this the least productive day of the trip.I had an early night, and an early start for my afternoon train the next day. I wanted to spend more time shooting around the train station before catching the Kashi Vishwanath Express to Delhi, and then to shoot along the length of the train with people actually awake this time.
I got my early start on the 2nd and after a last sunrise walk along the ghats I returned to the hotel, packed, had breakfast, checked out, then took a cab directly to Varanasi Junction. I arrived, checked that all was OK with my train, and then worked my way around the station, walking around both inside and out, along the tracks and on all of the platforms before eventually catching my train.I managed to get some good time shooting along the train, with longer to work than the last one where it had been darker for longer, with most people asleep during my time there. I had two rolls of HP5+ loaded, one in each of my main cameras, in case I lost the light, and to account for the indoor shadows. I switched to 50mm on my M6, and left the 70-210 on my Nikon. This would give me the choice between going a little wider and faster for closer images that may unfold in front of me, and reaching out for details I notice further away.This turned out to be a much better situation than my first train ride, but I didn’t shoot that much many more images overall. I finished what were my 22nd and 23rd rolls and called it a night for then.
As the train pulled in to Delhi I shot a bit more, but nothing major. I had started to wind down for my flight, and headed directly for the airport after a short breakfast in Delhi. I shot nothing around the airport, and caught my plane home on time.
I had some time on the plane to come up with some initial thoughts on my experience shooting in India, although I’ll likely go a little more in depth in future blog posts. There are certainly no boundaries preventing you from making images aside from any indecision the photographer may bring with them. There isn’t the negative attitude towards photographers that I’ve seen in other places, which means if you can relate even a little with your potential subject you will be able to make an image. However I feel that many of my images feel disingenuous, and opportunistic, and this is something I will be working on in my future travels. It was difficult to not reinvent the wheel with my work here. I want to build on the work of other great artists who have used this space to make great work – I don’t want to replicate their portfolios or their experiences. This meant second guessing a lot of situations, wondering if what I was noticing was something new, or if I was just recognising something from someone else’s images.
The result is a mixture of old and hopefully new. I think all the images I made are in keeping with my “visual style” but there are definitely a few possibilities I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t seen other peoples work. This doesn’t make them rip offs, instead they are my interpretations of scenarios that have been seen and captured before from different angles.My 4/5am start every day was useful to how productive I was able to be, and it was definitely worth giving me those extra few hours without being bothered by the touts. I definitely became more comfortable with the setting as time went on: the more I shot the more I felt comfortable, the more comfortable I became the closer I got to my subjects, the closer I got the better the image turned out to be. They became less ambiguous, more characterful, and with more energy. I hope that I can take this experience and apply it to future projects, without having to go through those “practice” moments again.
My total rolls shot added up to 23, which makes 828 frames. Despite taking two 50mm lenses I barely used them at all. Aside from low-light I had no real use for these – the lenses that spent the majority of their time on my cameras were a 90mm f/4 on my Leica, and a 70-210 f/4 series E lens. Having the same widest aperture meant that I could calculate my metering and transpose the same settings between the two cameras. Next time I will take only one wide aperture lens for low light use, not two.
I think if I visit India again I’ll definitely spend time in Varanasi; the northern climate was very tolerable, and I think maybe travelling even further up towards the Himalayas could be interesting. I’d also like to visit Bangladesh, Darjeeling, Bengaluru, and Rajashtan. I’ll have to plan out a route via train and see whether I can work all of these in!