November 2015: sniff and a sneeze in Old Delhi
On a recent trip to India I spent several hours wandering the wholesale spice markets of Old Delhi, seeking out hidden courtyards and backstreets avoided by tourists.
The air is pungent with the smell of chillies and numerous varieties of spices. I sniff and sneeze my way between sacks, barrows and sleeping dogs and duck and weave as porters haul their loads and buyers and sellers engage in heated negotiations.
I ask some market porters for their pictures while they rest, drinking sweet Indian tea, puffing on cheap roll-ups. Palls of smoke are picked out by shafts of weak sunlight through the smoggy Delhi sky. Sitting together on sacks of spices, enjoying the camaraderie, some porters refuse, while most cautiously agree. Theirs poses are serious and formal, their stares penetrating, challenging. I show them their portraits and their guarded uncertainty melts. Many smile and nod in good humoured appreciation. I thank them and shake their hands; their powerful grips and calloused hands contrast with mine.
I stop at a tea stand and review my pictures. Focussed, formal, serious stares. And there’s a question in their eyes: who are you and why are you here? It's a question I've been trying to answer...
September 2015: 6.30 am in a Kolkata market - fish, light and smoke
I am recently back from an exhausting yet exhilarating visit to Kolkata in the state of West Bengal, India. Fighting jetlag I joined a photography walk starting 6.30 in the morning with the fabulous Manjit Singh Hoonjan of Calcutta Photo Tours http://www.calcuttaphototours.com/
Wasting no time we dived straight in to a wholesale fish market in the depths of central Kolkata. Bumped and jostled by (generally!) good natured buyers and sellers, ducking to avoid porters balancing baskets of fish and prawns on their heads, with my camera getting a showering of fish scales and ice, Manjit suggested we find a relatively quiet corner of the market and take it all in – to observe rather than click away randomly. There we watched dozens of noisy transactions punctuated by shouts and the clattering of weights on old fashioned scales as the market reached full swing. The threads of early morning light streaking through colourful plastic streets and yellow, red and orange fish crates resembling stacks of Lego bricks created an odd sort of beauty.
Still dazed by the sensory overload of the fish market the tour then continued in a neighbouring wholesale produce market dealing in everything from tamarind to eggs to green beans to flour... a photographer’s paradise where the subdued, mysterious lighting from vegetable sellers’ green, blue and red lamps mixed with the early morning sun’s rays, steam from boiling pans of water and smoke from market porters’ roll up cigarettes...
As well as thoroughly enjoying what was a surprising, affirming and energising experience I learned a lot of lessons as a photographer. One was the importance of finding some sense in the chaos of a complex environment by isolating interesting or important details such as weights on a set of scales, money being exchanged between a buyer and seller or anchoring a picture with a strong point of focus – a character or an interesting object that leads the eye and helps make sense of a scene. That means stopping, observing and waiting for the scene to play out.
Another lesson is to try to work with, rather than against, the light. Sophisticated modern cameras are excellent at ‘correcting’ exposures in difficult lighting, and a problem with several of my images of the dark, smoky, intriguing produce market was that they were cleverly brightened by my camera. In short, many of my images didn’t capture how it felt to be there – they simply failed to create the mood. Next time I must remember to set my camera to under expose by a stop or so...
A final lesson I learned is to try to understand what you are looking at – and for this I was lucky to be shown around by someone who is both a brilliant, inspiring photographer and highly knowledgeable local.
It is one thing to learn these lessons, another to apply them in the craft of photography... if I’m ever in Kolkata again I may have the chance...
See the Guardian article featuring Manjit’s photos -