A day in South Mumbai

I'm back in Mumbai. It's been quite a contrast to the last time I was here which was this January. Back then, failing to find a charger for a Sony Alpha camera in Hyderabad, I abandoned the idea of carrying a heavy camera and lenses together with everything else for the incredibly long journey around the South AND the North. The camera of convenience and choice was my iPhone 4S, which was a brutal test on composition and simplicity and following the 'rules' as I knew them. 

As for Mumbai. there were many things I took for granted in that last trip. One was the fact that my Mama and Pinni (mothers brother and sister respectively) were journalists and so were very different to the rest of my Indian family, and quite probably the rest of India - a country obsessed with engineering. I had come to Mumbai on a bank holiday and the city was magical. There were people in such a jovial mode - in the main attractions, shops and the roads were not very crowded. I got to see a great deal of the new India merging with the old and spent an entire day around the South part of Mumbai - arguably the most beautiful and rich in history.

This time round, staying here for a week and figuring out the local transit system and later meeting people in Bandra and elsewhere - was quite an experience. The trains were crowded, a reminder that there were more than 16 million people in the city and that commuting times were longer than travelling between two cities in any of the other countries that I had lived in. It was a rather frustrating experience to learn the hard way. Twice, I had been late for meetings and by more than an hour. Once, I called to cancel my meeting, an hour from meeting time - to say that there was no point in taking the trip since I had to sit through peak traffic. All to say that if you're not taking strolls in the South part of the city on a bank holiday, then you may find Mumbai a very intense experience. That being said, it's still a great city and I was reassured that over time, people have a way of figuring things out and making their lives that much simpler. Perhaps the first part of getting used to things was picking up reading material for my commutes - which was both abundant and relatively cheap in comparison to North America (I bought a book called A Thousand Splendid Suns for $1.50 for example). 

The photograph above took some waiting, I will admit. It was a rather crowded passage and there were people constantly complicating the composition and other times when our book vendor had slipped into the shadow and so didn't standout quite as much as he does here. The bicycle is it's own special addition to the story. It means something to me: about the India that I have always known growing up and visiting as a child that were abundant in the villages. They were very heavy but quite inexpensive and one could see them parked everywhere. It was, to many, their first purchase of a private form of transportation, with each subsequent purchase a reflection of their social mobility. These were now relics and not as abundant as back in the days. 

 In the subject of street photography - Though I don't really consider myself a street photographer or an expert in it, I think the best of photos bring out a story within the scene, a photograph that leaves the viewer asking questions that are very specific. If it's a portrait, Who is this person? What are they feeling? What is their world like? etc. In other cases, it may be somewhat descriptive of a scene underfolding and organized. While I wish I could take more of the former, being a tourist and looking like a foreigner has always made me conscious about this approach. That I would probably write a blog about that photograph and borrow from that person, their entire experience of live - trivialized into a photograph. There's always that issue with photography - it hides so much more than it reveals and to many, including myself, there's a great deal of beauty in it, but taking a photograph of a person with that knowledge is a painful process. You have to win their trust to take their portrait and you have to bring them out in the best light because you do believe that they are great people. 

Then there's that search for a story - a scene with the organized set up.  I tend to search for these. It's not an immediate experience, but rather an iterative one. There are many more rejects than there are successes. Sometimes, they come to you but most times, you have to spend some time at a place and constantly critique your approach. If it's 3PM, stick to the alleyways and little walkways such as this for better lighting. If it's 6.30PM, then you should be outside, trying to catch photos that are being made magical thanks to the incredible light. Eventually, you will happen upon a composition and a storyline (or perhaps several great versions of that story) to pick from. 

Take a look at the photograph below. I'd say it's somewhat compositionally sound and even balanced. The setting is the same as the one from above, but it lacks the strength of the story that the book vendor carries. It leaves the viewer on an image with all sorts of questions but nothing specific. 

The photograph is significant in the way it characterizes how people in India see space. The country is so overcrowded that strangers walking with hands bumping into one another is a perfectly normal sight and experience. If you are a foreigner or even an Indian from outside that may, for example, be carrying a tripod, it's also completely normal to be stared at, especially in the train and especially if you're one of those few people, God forbid, with a seat. You're not treated specially but rather you just happen to get on the train at a relatively obscure point where the train starts from. 

"He's not even from here and there he is, with his big bag and tripod and supposed sense of space - taking up room that could have been used for one more person."

One more person? perhaps a little boy.

No! One more person! And so was my discovery of commuting in Mumbai. It would be a remarkably stark contrast to the train ride from Mumbai to Hyderabad - where I had the entire cabin to myself - literally a small air conditioned room and I think that particular journey deserves it's own little blog entry, not because the photos were incredible but because it provided me with a great deal of perspective.

Using the slow shutter speed in crowded spaces

I had seen photographs where the slow shutter speed had come into action. It had a way of resting the focus on a stationary subject, as the rest were rendered insignificant as they passed that person. It solves the crucial problem, quite common in street photography, of having a composition that's far too busy. 

Indian streets are filled with this sort of busy distractions and if used well, they can make for incredibly strong and unique compositions in a place where almost everyone else messes up with too busy a composition. 

The photograph above is interesting - but it could only work in black and white. The car on my subjects right is red and therefore quite distracting to the eye (not to mention that it's not the prettiest car to pose as a stationary subject in a photograph where being stationary was a mark of significance). 

Next, I tried the same composition as part of a series of photographs that tried to capture my favourite building in the whole world (ok. second favourite after the Taj Mahal). 

I caught this man trying to catch a cab and decided to keep with him for an interesting composition. The one regret is that it's not really in focus and has been a victim of a slight hint of motion blur (perhaps noticeable when zoomed in close). I had used a shutter speed of 1/5s, completely unnecessary given the fact that the moving subjects were cars and not people.

I kept with the idea though and decided to search for different narratives with the train station at the back. It was the same idea of a slow shutter speed (relatively) and trying to capture more of what goes on around the scene rather than a photograph of a Victorian building which was rather like the one everyone else had.

The photograph above was rather cliche of Mumbai (I will concede) but it really is about a photograph that describes my experience of Mumbai, and perhaps the last breed of the famous Fiat cars - that were one of very few models that were known to Indians. In the early 90s, if you had one of these cars, you were a well-to-do person. Liberalization and economic growth had rendered them relics - soon to follow the same standardization that afflicts all developing countries - the preponderance of Japanese and South Korean cars for the masses, German cars for the select few elites and the odd Jaguar or Land Rover for the very rich, now, actually owned by the Indian company, Tata Motors. 


The above shot was a bit underexposed (notice the noise on the bus and and midtones in general) and had to go through some recovery on my part, but notice that it is from more or less the same angle. I decided to wait there and capture the red busses as they passed, but thankfully, I had this man on his bicycle, also make his way into the frame.  I decided to bring out the building and the textures in the clouds in the process. 


It was getting darker now, and as I got closer to the building, the first few shots really had nothing interesting going for them. They were very bland shots of traffic and people - rather distracting. I spotted some people waiting for a cab but this time, I was close enough (and conspicuous enough) to get an intimate story. The photograph above is ruined thanks to the man on the right. His checked shirt makes for a very distracting sight. 

Waiting for him to leave, I got a cleaner composition (with my favourite Fiat taxi). 

And then a last shot with the red bus blurred and creating for more of a focus on our subject.

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