19 November 2012

Photographing people in Bangalore

Indian workerIndian auto rickshaw driver

Bangalore (or Bengaluru as it is now known) is the 3rd biggest city in India and a major centre for commerce, but it's certainly not an international tourist destination. I soon learnt that this is a mixed blessing.

"Don't take photos in public," a concerned local warned me. "The police will arrest you." He went on to explain that in Bangalore there's a heightened fear of terrorism. "The authorities warn people to alert the police if they see ‘foreigners’ acting suspiciously or taking photographs." It’s a familiar story, one that makes travel photography ever more difficult. And it didn't bode well for a conspicuously tall white bloke toting a camera worth several times the average salary in India.

But I was undeterred, and determined to come home with some candid portraits of people of Bangalore. Travel photography requires just the right mix of naivety, smiles, and outright balls. I also had a secret weapon: my wife is of Indian descent and knew a smattering of Hindi should we have to talk our way out of a tight corner. We also took along a clutch of rupees in case a "facilitating payment" was due. I’ve photographed people in India before, albeit in more “touristy” locations, and have been swamped by kids demanding money. I expected the worst.

Poor Indian children

As we set out to take the first photos, the reality was far from what we expected. Everyone we approached seemed more than eager to have their photo taken. Three girls, playing by the road, lined up like soldiers when I approached them. I took a couple of shots and showed them the back of the camera. They said (in perfect English) "Thank you, Uncle," with such manners that it melted my heart. Two mature women were taking a break from tough manual work on a building site, to drink tea at a roadside vendor. They were absolutely thrilled to be photographed and shrieked with delight when they saw their photo on the camera back. An auto rickshaw driver sat nonchalantly waiting for a fare. Surely he wouldn’t take kindly to being photographed. But no, he nodded his consent, stayed in the same effortless pose that had drawn me to him in the first place, and shrugged with cool indifference when I thanked him.

Of all the people we approached in Bangalore, just one woman with young children declined to have her photo taken. Only one man asked for money, and only after he'd patiently posed for his photo. Rachael gave him the smallest note she had, (10 rupees, about 20 cents,) and he nearly fell off his bike in shock. India may be one of the wealthiest nations in the world, but the reality remains that it is also home to a third of the world’s poor.

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe on another trip, or in another neighbourhood, we'd be hassled, arrested, or worse. But this time I left Bangalore with my faith in humanity restored.

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