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In Search Of Inspiration – Photography

Through my years as a photographer, I’ve learnt a lot from various people. Some of them are photographers I know personally, some are artists, some are just random discussions with friends and some of them are just photographers on the internet. My explanation of photography and interpretation has changed over the years, with every shoot.

There have been highs and lows, the fun of photo walks have translated into solo journeys with my camera and I’m still learning.

One of the photographers who inspired me was Brandon Stanton of the Humans of New York fame. I’d been shooting random strangers and getting pieces of their story, but Humans of New York put a name to the project. It became more focussed and I met many more interesting people and stories.

But ever since I got the HONY Coffee Table Book, I’ve begun to feel that this is not enough. A portrait on a street, where they are looking straight into the camera… that isn’t really what I want to say. I’m not sure what I want to say through the photograph but this is not just it. There’ve been periods when I was hunting for faces for my city’s project when I felt… a little tied up. Perhaps I became too focused on what HONY was about and followed the same path, down to a T, instead of defining it my own way.

I rejected photographs from Humans of India because they were too random… just photographs of street children, laughing. They looked pretty but when you stripped them of the captions, they were just similar images of laughing children. I looked to Humans of Mumbai and that too seemed insufficient. That was more an anthology of Mumbai, and not a very strong one at that. I’ve seen better, untitled projects that captured the spirits of Mumbai better.

So what remains? What is it that drives me a photographer to tell a story? Strangely, I was not able to find the answer to that. Perhaps it is the commercialization of what I do… all the pitching, and marketing and mailing… but the answer seems to have faded.

I wanted to tell stories of people. But the photograph needs to speak for itself, and should not require captions. It should be defining features, should be poignant or funny or whatever. But should not require a caption. At least, it should be able to create a story by itself, awaken imaginations.

I find the work of David Terrazas suddenly compelling. I find Danny St Photography’s project of #100Strangers compelling. The focus is on the face, the eyes. The entire story is told in that little space.

Yet, it isn’t enough. Should I add props, do a studio shoot? I would love to convince people to give me ten minutes, loosen up and portray them as they are… but that is not always a possibility in this fast city. Besides, the world is changing and people are always suspicious of those random weirdos who walk up to you with a camera and say “I want to take your photograph”.

So what is the alternative?

There are fabulous stories, if we only had the time to break the ice and get people talking.

My favorite photograph remains of Diana… I ran into her in a mall in Australia. She sat down next to me to rest her feet, enclosed in those high high heels and began chatting. She was a busker… posed as Marilyn Monroe every evening on the main street.She told me stories of the people she met, and said she was a singer too. She dreamed of going to Paris someday, where she could eat good food and sing. And she posed for me, Marilyn Monroe-style, despite her aching feet.

Diana
Diana

Her pose, her dress… it evokes the question – who is she? You make your own story about her, or you read about her.

If I were to shoot her today, I’d probably do it a little differently. I’d probably frame it better, be more visual and capture little details about her separately.

But what do we do in this fast, fast world?

“If Your Pictures Aren’t Good Enough…”

What makes a good photograph?

Is it the colours? The depth of field? The composition (of course)? The subject? 

Or the mere fascination of the world with a particular subject?

In the past few weeks, my news feed has been flooded with images from the Maha Kumbh Mela. As I casually flip through the photographs, it strikes me that I am quite bored and jaded of the images of the naked babas, the ash smeared babas and the matted hair man smoking ganja. I remember seeing these images first in a National Geographic magazine and being quite blown by it. I saw more such images on social media.

But it has been a while since the last Maha Kumbh and the world has grown in leaps and bounds in the meantime. Software engineers were still blossoming and nobody had the money to buy super expensive cameras. SLR cameras were still meant for professionals only, or the super rich. And travel was mostly meant to be done in a planned, organized manner to civilized places. Photographs and stories of such ‘exoticity’ were meant to be devoured only over the breakfast table or in a novel, possibly written by eccentric people you would not want to entertain in your house.

Okay, I’m going over board.

But the point is, about half the people on my friends list were at the mela this time. It seemed like this was the latest ‘in’ thing to do. I should have known that this was a disturbing trend when I read about sadhus arriving in SUVs at the mela. But I was excited about it and wondering how I could afford two weeks shooting the world’s biggest religious fair, so I did not pay much attention. I had to, however, take notice when identical photographs of naked / ash-smeared / matted hair babas began appearing on my feed.

Isn’t there more to this mela than just these ‘exotic’ creatures? Did anybody talk to them? Did they get their stories? A photograph, particularly in a situation like this, is not merely shooting the man from far. This is what separates the real photography enthusiasts from the hobbyists. Anybody can get a ‘good’ picture with the right equipment. But to infuse feeling into the picture… you need to get close. 

I know I haven’t done that quite often and it shows in my photographs. When I sit, late in the silence of the night, and casually scroll through my photographs, I can easily tell you why some photographs are bad. There are plenty of my photographs that I wish I could have shot better. There are a million other angles, possibly just a fraction of an inch to the side, that would have made it better. If I had only taken a deep breath before I clicked the shutter. If I had only paused and looked at the entire area before composing the frame. 

When you are shooting something like the Kumbh, and I shouldn’t even probably be commenting on this as I have never been there, but you should be able to caption you photograph with something a little stronger than ‘ash smeared baba holding a charas’. Who is he? Why is he there? What made him turn to this? 

It is a brilliant place to be and a beautiful story to tell.

I wish the Reuters Photographer who covered this year’s event had blogged more about. You can read what he wrote here. But what makes the difference in his photographs is the way he taught.

Maybe there are stunning photographs out there and I haven’t seen them yet. 

But it definitely made me think again about what makes a good picture. And reminded me of Robert Capa‘s line – If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.

One of my favorite images from what I’ve seen so far – by Anindito Muherjee – EPA

Image

The Client Is King

The relationship between a client and the service provider is always quite complicated. The complications get… further complicated when you are an independent, freelancer type service provider, particularly in a field like photography.

Okay, maybe it is difficult in any field, but let me talk about what I know.

Firstly, you hope for references and repeat customers because that’s where the bulk of your business comes from, particularly if you do not want to advertise.

But these references and repeat customers often become a problem with themselves, given the fact that they do not think of factors like inflation, expenses and the very fact that these are different events they are engaging you for and different circumstances in general.

I often wonder what to reply to questions like “why did you charge me xx then and xx now?”

Or when client simply assume that your costs would not have changed and keep the old amount ready even before you have sent your invoice. I do appreciate the promptness, but I never know what to say in the awkward moment when we realise one of us goofed up.

Or when the client refuses to pay, or disappears after the shoot is done.

There are unprofessional people in the world. And we deal with them every single day.

You cannot turn a hobby into a business and expect the same level of happiness even in the business side. Maybe some people can… but I cannot keep up a happy face when I’m doing my accounts, or my taxes.

I’m yet trying to figure out answering these clients without hurting them, annoying them and walking that tight rope where they would still want to come back to you for more of your work.

And your work sometimes isn’t just enough to draw back these people.

Of course, you could be the eccentric photographer and say to hell with those who don’t appreciate art and I shoot only for myself. There was someone who did that.

And then the bill arrives in the mail.

I guess we are settling for swapping these funny stories over coffee to tide us over.

Here’s to 2013… whatever it might be.

Stranger Photos

It is a disconnected world. It is a world that looks more into their phones and computer screens than the people next to them. It is a world that rarely communicates, even though it talks a lot.

We’ve heard so much about these statements and the variations. We have even experienced much of these.

But in the past few weeks, I have come across photography projects that make me think that we are making an attempt to communicate, even if in baby steps. We might not really communicate with the ones we have to, but we have started to reach out to strangers.

It was in this attempt that I began the Humans of Bangalore project. It is a slow but steady start.

The inspiration, of course, was the Humans of New York Project, started by Brandon Stanton. And that started a whole new bunch of projects in each city like Humans of Melbourne, Humans of Sydney, Humans of India, Humans of Seattle etc.

And as I explored further, I discovered more such people trying to find the strangers around them.

100 Strangers, for instance. The project is described as “The One Hundred Strangers project is a learning group for people who want to improve the social and technical skills needed for taking portraits of strangers and telling their stories. The method is learning by doing.”

The challenge is to take photographs of a 100 strangers, with a small story about the stranger. It gotta be true. It is a little like the confidence building activities they made us go through once in school, but much more fun and interesting.

And then I discovered a whole new bunch of similar projects on Behance – Benoit Paille’s Stranger Project, Danny Santos II’s Stranger Project

These are among the few that I’ve discovered. But considering every photographer is approaching a 100 strangers or more, and perhaps two of them in that get inspired to start something similar… I guess, the network will get stronger again?

Too Focussed

Today was ‘shoot for yourself’ day.

So I took my camera and headed out to a local ‘flea market’ with a friend. The flea market is the upscale version of the old format, which means there are stalls rented by people who have Facebook pages and the prices aren’t anywhere close to flea market prices. The products… I’ll leave that up to you.

The day was dry and dusty but that didn’t seem to daunt people from walking around, picking up things at their whim.

The flea market is also a hot favorite with hobby photographers, like any other event with lots of colourful things. I am always surprised to see so many people walking around with black bags that generally say “Canon EOS Rebel” or some such thing.

After walking around the flea market and finding it a little too pretentious, I started watching the photographers. Most of them were focussed on the specifics of the colourful objects – the pointy tip of a feather earring, the top of a lamp, the row of lights etc. Strangely, words said by another photographer floated into my mind – The day you can compose a landscape to perfection, you can call yourself the master.

In the age of cheap SLR cameras, everyone has a Canon 1100D or a Nikon D5100. They even have fancy lenses. So why, in the name of everything holy, do they insist on shooting things at close range and those fancy focus point shots? This is a bright, vibrant, colourful space. There were people in all sorts of attire, children running, dust, dogs, wine and more.

True, it was quite chaotic to compose wider images but isn’t it worth a shot? I caught one photographer trying for a wider shot and he was the guy hired by the organizers to catalogue the event.

Does being able to use your focus points well make you a good photographer?

And the next time I see someone holding a really good (and expensive) SLR and shooting it on Auto, I’m gonna whack them on the head.

Buy. Learn. Shoot.

Interpreting the Like-o-Mania

Recently, a well meaning friend began researching some other photographers online. The criteria was Indian and female. He was trying to figure out how they became so popular and was hoping that I could emulate some of their tricks to get more business.

He came across one profile that had over 50,000 likes. He did his bit of research and asked me if I had heard of the photographer in question and I wasn’t following the same ideas.

I had heard of the photographer in question and despite the huge number of likes on FB (which I thought to be suspect), I was not particularly inspired by the photographer. And I said as much.

“True… her photographer is a little boring but then she does have so many people following her.” the friend said.

Is the number of likes on your FB page any indication of how popular, or more importantly, how good you are? At the cost of sound snobbish, should I consider ONE like a success?

Every other person who owns a camera has their own FB pages. You can easily churn up a certain amount of likes if you have a decent friend list and well connected friends. Is that actually even relevant to your skills?

There is a current like-o-mania affecting the social world. They like a status message, something sounds funny, something looks interesting… they click on like and move on. The average time spent on an actual post – about 3 seconds or less. I’ve done it myself.

When it comes to inspiration in photographers, I have a different set of names. Of course, even if I go beyond the the Steve McCurrys and Vivian Maiers of the world, there is a beautiful long list in my own neighbourhood.

Be it wedding photography, documentary or food… there are people on my own friends list who are quite accomplished and I know they will be featured in the best lists someday. I absolutely adore their work and wish I could be as good. When any of these people like my photographs, I get a sense of accomplishments.

To me, it has always been the approval of my work from the people I respect. They do not have to know the technicalities of photography. But I trust their opinion and judgement of the world. And quite often, these people have turned out to be right and given me a different perspective on things.

So given these factors, how does 5,000 likes or 50,000 likes matter?

But then the question does arise – how does someone rack up 50,000 likes in 2 years?