[ Public Beach, Private Bath ]
Personal space is a rare
commodity in India. Much of
a westerners morning routine
takes place behind closed
doors. But for nearly 100,000
pilgrims to Vivekananda Rock,
in Kanyakumari, everything
takes place in broad daylight.
-One in a Million
Our wake up call was at 5:00 am. Early mornings tend to be a theme when traveling abroad. The plan was to head down to a cove in the beach where the waves are partially blocked by rocks. The practice is to bathe, however you define it, in the ocean as a cleansing ritual.
The road outside of the hotel was desolate the day before, but overnight 100,000 pilgrims arrived and were setting up a make shift city on the street. The colorfully painted buses created a backdrop for pop up food stands, vendors, and pilgrims. There were people everywhere. Children were being handed down from the windows, men surveyed the beach from the bus tops, while women prepared enormous pots of rice and stewed vegetables. This overnight city extended as far as the eye could see in both directions.
Weaving our way down the street the scene changed from double parked buses, to clearings where pilgrims meditated as the sun rose. Unlike the rigorous of Zen meditation I am used to, meditation here can look like anything from staring blankly at the horizon to nearly sleeping.
-Finding A Rhythm
The alternating columns of brick divided the beach from the street. Each column allowed enough space for two vendors. As I watched this routine develop over the next few days, it seemed like vendors staked out there place and returned the following day. There was only one fight that I saw, between two older women the entire time I was there. That was impressive considering the sheer number of people packed along a tiny beach road.
I wanted to start the morning by shooting the 90mm Summicron that was on loan to me. The majority of my street portraits are done with a 50mm Summicron, so I hoped the 90mm would allow me some breathing room between my subject and the camera. The Summicron line is famously good for portraits. It renders warm, even tones which are more flattering than the harsher f 1.4 Summilux lenses. Shooting in a new place, always takes some adjusting. People react very differently to having a camera pointed at them.
George Rodger, one of the founding members of Magnum photo, once recounted that the Masai Tribe in Africa, now known for their Eco Tourism, “…threatened him with spears when he attempted to take their picture. But his instinctive respect and sympathy for the people, his obvious delight in observing and absorbing their courtesies and customs, helped ensure his safety. He did not photograph exhaustively and never intruded with his cameras, but simply took pictures when as he later observed “Something Happened.” (-Russell Miller “Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History, p. 65)
I read this passage just a few days ago, but it says, better than I could, how we should approach people when taking pictures. Smiles and head nods were the primary way to seek approval as a walked to the bathing cove.
-Time For A Bath
Rolling up my pants I walked through a narrow corridor of permanent shops selling statues and clothing. The sidewalk changed from black asphalt to grey stones stained brown, by a stream of water, with murky origins. Knowing that the public restrooms were usually bypassed because the had an entrance fee, the hill above the stores was used as a bathroom for more people than I would like to imagine. It is tough to say what I walked through, but by the time I reached the beach, I felt like a dip in the ocean was mandatory.
It feels like there are very few real boundaries in this area between commerce, worship, and everyday life. Nestled between the pilgrims were a tier of people selling clothing off of blankets. The man pictured above was selling western style neon skirts. I never saw anyone in a neon skirt the entire time I was in India, which might account for his expression. Right clothes, wrong market?
But while he was distracted by the lack of sales, I grabbed a shot with the 90mm. At the lower F stops ( f 2.0-f 5.6) the ultra shallow depth of field allows you to pluck people from a scene. By doing this, the lens allows you to spotlight one person in a crowd. It is like the photographer’s version of quotation marks, an added something to let you know “Yes, its him I am interested in.”
The scene on the beach was serene. Bathers were dunking themselves or just their feet and hands to make water offerings. I decided not to shoot any of the pilgrims out of respect for their tradition. Many of the women were in just the thinest saris (Indian dress) and it might have been indecent to shoot them undressed. Beside the habit of relieving oneself in public, nudity is a bit of a faux-pas. But I did decide to shoot one image of Mohini. I first shot her in Egypt in the beginning of the year. She has a golden way about her that works really well in front of a camera. I like the contrast of her hues against the backdrop of the man walking away in the distance. It kind of reminds me that we are visitors.
Meanwhile, on the walk back this man was reading the morning stocks and did not seem to care about the hustle and bustle around him. It was just another morning paper and an ocean breeze for him.
On the walk back to the hotel, we were swimming against the stream. A steady flow of goods was making its way into town. There is no limit to the amount of things that one person can carry. This was only a modest example, but I can’t recall my grandmother ever slinging a sack of food on her head. This woman was out running the man behind her, who was at least twenty years younger than her. Bravo!
Before heading back for breakfast, wandered through the parked buses, slid down the dirt hill, watched very carefully not to step in poo (human poo), and made it to the beach. Things were more practical here. Teeth were being brushed, children were resisting their baths, and people were chatting away, at what I can only assume was the morning gossip.
There was a make shift hot tub, formed by a hole in the rocks these guys had claimed. They would talk and laugh, then point down the beach. When a big wave would come the would duck down and missing the force of water rushing over their heads.
When all the splashing about was done, they would wrap themselves in either black or orange clothes. The color indicated whether this was their maiden pilgrimage or if they were returning veterans. Since most of the men on the beach liked staring at my girlfriend, it was very easy to take pictures of them.
One thing that takes some getting used in India, is that parents are intensely proud of their children. If they see you walking around with a camera they will literally grab their child and push them forward to you. This feels bizarre. While we were on the beach there was a typically cute child walking down the beach with her brother and father. The father gestured that I should take a picture of the poor girl. He pushed her forward and her expression revealed the terror of being sold to a traveling circus. To ease the scene, I suggested he join her. The picture that followed possess a tension that I feel captures the weirdness of shooting someone who feel obliged to pose. For those of you wondering what’s on their heads, it is dried sandalwood paste, and the red mark is called kumkum, a mixture of slaked lime and turmeric powder which turns it from yellow to red.
Walking back to the hotel for a much needed cup of tea and a nap, the morning breakfast crew was ready to feed the masses. The last two hours were such a draining experience that when I took this picture I did not even see the man on the right side of the image. Later on when I was reviewing the shots from the morning, I noticed him and though, ” What was I thinking? Its all lopsided.” Oh well, part of the learning curve that comes with new lenses.
For those of you interested in the more technical side of things, I will be posting a full review of the 90mm Summicron next week. The lens is now back at Photo Village and available for $1,495. It has taken every ounce of restraint to not snatch this lens up myself, but if you are interested give Will a call, (212) 989-1252. It is not listed on their website.