Photographing Villages in India – The People Swarm

Kids swarm the camera

Kids swarm the camera


Though India is well traveled by tourists these days it seems a foreigner can still draw quite a crowd. When first photographing in a new village I’ve experienced a pattern of behaviors that can make work challenging.  While some of these behaviors are present in other countries, Indians puts a distinct twist on things. The country is so populated with curious and friendly people that you will rarely be alone or anonymous in India.

The presence of a foreigner with a camera in a village or small town seems to draw people out from behind every rock and tree.  After the initial curiosity wears off many villagers start insisting on being in front of the camera.  The kids will plead “one photo? …one photo?”…”one photo please?”  and pile all over each other to get in a photo.  Unlike people in many other developing Asian nations most Indians seem to love to be photographed by foreigners. So much so that many will ask, even insist, that you take their photo if you are seen waving a

Portrait of Rajasthan tribal woman

Portrait of Rajasthan tribal woman

camera about.  Even the most shy and reserved women seem to catch the photo fever as the excitement of the kids and the crowd builds.  While I’ve never experienced this leading to any real danger it often degenerates into pushing, shoving, smudges all over your lens, and occasionally things disappearing from your camera bag. Overall the level of distraction makes high quality work quite a challenge.  So I thought I would throw together some of my collected observations and tactics for making these situations more manageable.

 Establishing a Rapport

Put down the camera and dive in

Put down the camera and dive in

The single most effective route to taking better and more unique photos of strangers is by investing a little time and establishing a rapport with them.  When you have the time it’s often best to keep the camera away until this relationship is established. In India these relationships are quick and easy to establish if one can speak English or basic Hindi.  Forming a relationship often leads to a stranger that becomes your friend and “facilitator”.  A local facilitator can keep the crowd at bay and often opens doors (quite literally) that would normally be closed to an outsider.   If time or logistics don’t allow for building a rapport then just managing the swarm is your next best bet.

 Rapport tips

  • For men its best not to approach women directly let a male village elder or young man escort you around.
  • If you can explain what you are trying to photograph and/or show examples your success rate will go up.  If you want pictures of food preparation, then bring some examples, I find it a great help with any communication barriers. 

 Managing the Swarm

Smiling girl in Rajasthan village

Smiling girl in Rajasthan village

The “keep to yourself” and “minding your own business” attitude in the west is an unfathomable concept in India. Small groups and crowds form effortlessly and quite fast in India, especially when a foreigner is involved.  At first these quick crowds can be intimidating and hugely distracting, but after some time acclimating it becomes a familiar routine. Be prepared to work fast when out in public in India. You often will only get a split second to capture a scene before it’s gone.  The natural and ordinary behavior of people changes immediately to unnatural stares and posing as soon as the presence of a camera is noticed. The more remote the village the quicker the crowd forms.  The bigger and more obnoxious your camera the more of a crowd you will draw. Some mental prep beforehand  can increase your success level quite a bit.  Think about your light & shadow conditions before pulling out the camera.  

  • Which direction is the best light falling?
  • How fast a shutter speed will you need to freeze action? 
  • Will I need to make light meter compensations for the skin tones of locals?

Mentally reviewing these questions before your camera comes out and the timer starts on the swarm can be a real benefit.

 Do’s and Don’ts

  • DO know when to put the camera away. Kids often pile all over themselves to get in the picture. Once this madness starts it usually escalates, be conscious of this and know when its time to put the camera away and let the crowd disperse.

 

  • DO follow through if you promise prints or emailed photos.
    Indian village boy holding picture

    Indian village boy holding picture

      Often it’s not a realistic option to get copies of theses pictures to all the villagers so resist making that commitment.  I was surprised the number of people who have email addresses even in remote areas so sometimes you can deliver some photos that way.

 

  • DO bring a decoy if you can. Many times you will not have
    Sharing pictures with village kids

    Sharing pictures with village kids

    the luxury of working with a fixer/guide so a decoy can be the next best thing.  Someone else with you with digital camera out snapping away and sharing the photos can draw all the attention away from you.

 

  • DON’T share the images with the crowd right away.  Once you have started sharing the images on the camera screen that is all everyone will care about. Kids will start pulling at the camera to see the screen. I found it best to wait before sharing the photos.  Work for a bit, self edit to show only the type of photos you want to encourage and then share.*

 

  • DON’T let your camera out of your hands.  Some villagers will insist on holding the camera to look at the screen, or even take your picture.  Be smart, theft is not highly likely but few of these villagers understand the delicate nature of the glass and electronics and accidents can happen.**

 

  • DON’T expect crowd control form parents. Adults don’t often bring any order to the chaos, in fact in many places they only encourage it.  You are a stranger to them and essentially viewed as a brief bit of entertainment.  Some of the adults are worse than the kids they push through the crowd casting children aside and insisting on becoming your subject. 

 

  • DON’T give out pens, chocolates, rupees, etc. to the kids. These handouts only increases the chaos and ruin most photo ops.  Its tempting to want to give handouts and get big smiles and “feel good” but this really encourages begging and destructive behavior.***

 

  • DON’T expect to get model releases without a fixer.  The likelihood of getting any singed model releases without a fixer who can clearly communicate the concepts and requirements is near impossible.  I’ll discuss this more in-depth in another post.

 

This is the one post in a series of entries that deal with some of the unique and often humorous challenges photographing in India for the full series list click here.

For the full gallery of related images click here

 

Elderly tribal woman in Rajasthan

Elderly tribal woman in Rajasthan

Rajasthan gypsy woman

Rajasthan gypsy woman

——————————————————————————————————–

*One exception to this is if you are trying to warm up a subject that is reluctant to be photographed sometimes showing the screen with smiling images of kids softens them up enough to allow you to take their picture.

** Don’t baby your camera either, if you don’t take it into the dirt and the dust you’ll only get clean sterile photos.

*** Save your goodwill for more structured and long term programs to help the villages. If you must bring little gifts give it to the women of the village.  In the hands of the mothers, grandmothers, or the head of the village these things have a higher chance of being used as intended.  With the men and kids these things tend to just be fought over or sold.

(This of course is just my opinion based on my experiences, but I believe you will hear similar advice from long term aid workers)

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~ by Pete Niesen Photography on July 19, 2009.

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