Category Archives: Photography

Q&A

I asked my friends on Facebook if they have something they’d like to know about my stay in India. This is what they came up with – I promised to answer all, which perhaps explains the one about the passage of time.

Highlights?
Definitely all the trips around the country and beyond: Mumbai, Goa, Kerala, Varanasi, Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal and Hong Kong will also live with me for a very long time. So much beautiful scenery and enriching experiences that I haven’t even had the time to comprehend it all yet. Same goes for the more local, mundane stuff here in Pune. It’s all routine for a few more days, and therefore something I’m still blind to, but once I get back I think I’ll be able to pinpoint all those good things that make this a special place and culture.

Low points?
Coming to terms with a foreign culture and its strange ways is a challenge. There have been moments when I’ve been frustrated at how things work – or don’t – and the general way people can be. Being more or less alone in this process gives it more personal depth, but there have been times when I’ve had to go into myself and find the strength and focus in order to keep a positive vibe.

What will you miss?
On an everyday basis there is a certain atmosphere of freedom, in a strange way. Even though there is a lot of chaos and randomness, it’s perhaps that same unpredictability that makes a lot of room – and need – for improvisation. This might sound abstract – and ironic considering all the bureaucracy – but there simply isn’t the same kind of strict big brother setting here as we have in Finland. It is also within this frame that making all those trips has been fun – you never know how the day is going to turn out.

What’s the biggest a-ha moment? 
Dealing with people here in general, especially rickshaw drivers: since it’s a matter of asking if he’s willing to go where you want to go – not all do, for one reason or another – and negotiating over fare, it’s not as simple as just getting a cab in Finland. Also, being more assertive yet diplomatic. It’s a kind of strange dominance struggle: will the cabbie take me where I want to go, and for a fair price, or will he win by getting me to agree to a overly high fare. And for that you need to be prepared to turn your back and walk to the next rickshaw. If you’re out of luck and there is none around, then you might have to pay almost whatever he asks for. There are a lot of good cabs, but many if not most are just out to milk the cow as much as possible – and will be quite obnoxious while doing so.

Another thing is negotiating my way through traffic on a bicycle, getting the pulse of the flow, being aware of my surroundings and maneuvering based on that. In Finland that is no problem since people drive according to a common set of rules. Here, however, there are no certain vectors: if it’s not a car coming up the wrong side of the road, it might be one suddenly swerving in front of you and hitting the brakes, or a motorcycle bolting in from a sidewalk. You can trust your own actions, but treat all others in traffic as dangerous idiots. They often are.

Has your perspective shifted?
Certainly, yes. How, exactly, might be too early to say since I’m still in the middle of it all. These things need to simmer a bit; the dust needs to settle before it clears up. Seeing all the different places, vast amount of people and brief glimpses of how their lives are has been eye-opening – it has allowed me to see a part of the global community that was previously quite unknown to me. Witnessing poverty, misery and death is also a sobering experience – a welcome reminder of how life can be.

What are the most attractive aspects of India (or culture)? 
India is a vast subcontinent that offers a limitless treasure chest to the avid photographer. Saturated colors, alluring scenery and people that are not camera shy. Landscapes vary from sandy beaches and lush jungles to barren deserts and snow tipped mountains. And it’s all available within the same country, a very affordable flight ticket away. As the scenery varies, so do the people: it’s more a matter of a group of subcultures than a national culture. Every area has its charming attributes. India as a whole is a pleasure to explore.

What was still difficult to adjust to after 190 days?
Traffic, and the ceaseless honking. You can cope with it and get where you’re trying to go, but it still gets on the nerves. The flaws in infrastructure is also something that rears its ugly head quite often: if it’s not the power going out for the umpteenth time that day, it’s the water.

190 days already? :oO WTF is wrong with the passage of time?
Time is an indefinite continued progress of what has happened, what is happening now, and what is in the future. This way to perceive the continuum is unique for us humans – animals do not think much about it: they have past experiences which they, when applicable, base their decisions on in the now. However, they seldom, if ever, worry about tomorrow. This establishes that time, as a concept, is relative. The way we observe the passage of time varies also on an individual basis and according to what the person is doing and feeling at that moment. This has resulted in such idioms as “time flies when you’re having fun”, “just killing time” and many other. So it’s not just relative, it’s also subjective.

In fact, one could argue that there is nothing wrong with the passage of time as far as we know, it’s just us being bothered about that it indeed does.

What is the most memorable photo you took during your trip? (not “the best” photographically, but the one you’ll remember)
There are a couple photos I’ve snapped along the way that carry more meaning than just the aesthetic value. The one that comes out on top would have to be from the crematorium in Varanasi, because the situation for me as an outsider was a bit flammable and the scene itself emotionally loaded. I’m glad I got a good shot.

Honorable mentions go to:

  • Flight to Lukla – Seeing the sun rise over the Himalayan mountain range from a small prop plane was surreal and moving
  • Gulab Jamun Man – A quite charismatic man with an aura of serenity
  • Hong Kong – Getting past the heavy foliage up on Victoria Peak and having the whole Hong Kong cityscape open up at once, and in the golden hour of dusk at that, was one of those rare moments when I actually stopped in my tracks and said… wow

What was the biggest thing in terms of cultural shock in good or bad and how did you absorb it?
Perhaps it was the fact that this is still a developing nation – something that is manifested both in the culture and the underlying infrastructure. Most of the things I’ve grown used to, and in that way accepted as part of the way things are here, but it still can be frustrating at times. I think the article I wrote for the JWT blog shines light on the different stages of that coping process.

Also are you learning any of the local languages? Quantity and reason why/why not.
One thing worth noting is that India is in many ways more like a huge ensemble of states than a single nation. It was not that long ago, relatively speaking, that the maharajas agreed to join the states under a common rule. This means that both the subcultures and languages vary by region. There are at least 28 different languages across the subcontinent, and as many character sets. Learning any of these regional languages would have given marginal practical advantages, especially considering that as a result of the British colonization many know some level of English here.

However, if there is any non-English language here that can be considered a lingua franca it would be Hindi. And I did learn some basic phrases in it, but in everyday life English quickly became the default. Knowing some cursewords in local languages can be useful though – especially when dealing with rickshaw drivers or pestering scoundrels.

Photo: Gulab Jamun Man

Gulab Jamun Man

While exploring the alleys and narrow sidestreets of old Varanasi, we were going down this particularly quiet street. Almost no one around – some footsteps could be heard somewhere further down.

We walked by this modest bakery. Behind the low counter, on the floor in the dimly lit interior, sat an old man. He was calmly preparing pastries and pieces of paneer. He was in no hurry – in fact he had an air about him of dignified deliberation.

As we were passing by my sixth sense started tingling: photo opportunity. I slowed down and asked Lauri to wait. I didn’t want to be blunt and just go up in the baker’s face, wielding a camera. So I decided to work my way into the situation, find my place in that bubble.

I walked up and said hello, asked him what he was preparing. He didn’t speak English, but we understood each other. There were pieces of paneer floating in one bowl, and in another I could spot some galub jamun. That’s my route. So I asked for two, and a cookie to boot. I was handed a styrofoam cup and a wooden spoon, and the baker fished out a couple from their sugary bath.

We sat down on a wooden bench across the alley and I dug in. The gulab jamun was saturated with syrup, I swear it was sweeter than pure sugar. Almost too much to bear. As I was struggling with the stuff I told Lauri about my plan, that I’d ask the man for a photo if I survive the sugary shock. He’d get a few too.

I hope you appreciate this, I said to him, I’m taking one for the team here. I’m going to get diabetes from these, so make your shots count.

After I was done I thanked the man, pointed to my camera and asked if it was ok if I took a few. He straightened up just a little bit and gave a slight nod. I took two photos, showed them to him and told him he looked handsome in them. We had a laugh about it and shook hands.

After Lauri got his we waved goodbye and continued down the street – one of us maniacally wide-eyed on a sugar high for the next half hour, but happy with the result.

Photo: Crematorium, Varanasi

Crematorium, Varanasi

Although Varanasi is a city that features many spiritual aspects, I think one of the first that comes to people’s mind is its way to handle death: few places are so open and direct with seeing a life come to an end.

In the past the deceased were sent floating down the Ganges river. However, since this resulted in high contamination levels in the water and remains washing up on shores, the practice became – for most – to burn the bodies and spread the ashes in the water. This sacred ritual is done on cremation sites, also known as burning ghats.

Most of the numerous ghats in Varanasi are places where people go to bathe, in the Ganges river. But a few of them are burning ghats – the largest of which is the Manikarnika Ghat, pictured above. Throughout the ghat enormous piles of wood lay stacked, constantly being fed into the several fires. The firewood is of a special kind and therefore expensive, and for the people who are there to send off the deceased it’s usually a big investment – not only an emotional one but a monetary one as well.

One thing that is good to know before I go on, and this is something everyone entering Varanasi are told: taking photos of the cremation sites is strictly forbidden. You could get into serious trouble, not with the nonexistent law enforcement, but with the relatives and workers at the ghat.

So as we entered the premises of the Manikarnika Ghat we politely put our cameras away. Immediately a few locals approached us, claiming to be some kind of authorities in the area and wanted to show us around. We let them know that we weren’t interested and would rather just walk around and mind our own business. They were persistent; Lauri got fed up with them and went off to the perimeter to find things by himself. Meanwhile I was stuck with the two guys, one of which proceeded to inform me that he’s also into selling opium. Not really my cup of tea, so no thanks.

I turned to the other guy, who claimed to be a foreman for the firewood workers. He told me there’s a place where I could get a good look over the area, if I wanted to. I assessed the situation and decided to follow him. A few corners later we came out to a ledge, close to the river bank, overlooking the cremation site.

People were offloading firewood from boats, carrying it up to the fires. By the water others were going through ashes and remains, looking for jewelry. Off to one side a fire was burning, at the last stages of the cremation process. Next to it a few bodies were lined up, wrapped in orange cloth and waiting for their turn.

Taking in the scene, we talked about the price of firewood, and how that’s something one could donate to. Sensing an opportunity I asked if there are any ways a tourist might be allowed to take a few photos; if the foreman carried enough weight in the community to permit that, and it actually being ok with all parties. Well, as it turned out, that was probably exactly what he had in mind, and after some negotiations we agreed that for 500 rupees I was allowed to take two photos. Being high up on the ledge, in plain sight of everyone, I knew this wasn’t going to be a few snapshots off the hip. Everyone was going to see what I was about to do, and I wanted to make sure they also see the foreman standing next to me. If it was a sanctioned exploit perhaps my intrusion would be forgiven.

I took out my camera and was as discreet as I could about it. Point, click, pan, click – done. Camera away. Gave 500 rupees to the guy and started doing a retreat while I could.

Too late.

Another guy rushed up to the ledge. Hey, you took photos, we need to go see the boss now, he said in a firm tone.

I told him of my agreement with the foreman, who was still standing next to me, and told him that whatever issue he had he could take it up with him. They started arguing between each other, in hindi, which indicated that either one or possibly both were pretending to have authority that they didn’t possess. The new guy said ok, we could solve this between us if I gave him 500 rupees too. I told him he can split the money with the foreman, I wasn’t having any of this. But they were persuasive, and I had no desire to escalate this over such a relatively small amount of money, so I handed the new guy 500 as well, and started walking.

This is where things got a bit sticky. The two guys ran after me and blocked my exit – an aggressive move that I hadn’t come across with the previous miscreants. They wanted more money. I told them no. We had an agreement and I already paid more than that, so they were just going to have to accept it. They started pleading, saying there were many ways to solve this – this being the nice way. They insinuated what the other way meant: tourists had been robbed and assaulted over these matters, cameras had been thrown into fires and such. If I paid them 500 rupees extra, each, that would make the problem go away.

Now, in a situation like this there are several options: I could give in and cough up the money, and possibly feel tricked. Or I could call their bluff and just force my way out. But the thing is, I didn’t know the nature of the community I was in, and what role they played in it. If the community’s attitude towards photographers was as unforgiving as I had understood, and these guys were some sort of leaders in it, I could get into serious trouble if I got on the wrong side of them. Or they could be just scoundrels who had no backup from the others whatsoever. I couldn’t know.

So the bottom line was I had more to loose on this than they had. Reluctantly I paid them the additional money and shoved my way through before they could come up with more bullshit. Met up with Lauri a way down the street and had a laugh about it – admittedly a little relieved.

In the end though, I got to document a sacred area and situation – a rarity that relatively few have access to. Granted, it cost me 2000 rupees, but I can live with that.

Photo: The Bhasta Gang

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During my trip to Mumbai, last weekend, I did some more walking around on the countless small streets near the bazaars – something I’ve grown fond of. This time I headed to the area north of Victoria station. On one of these streets I came across this small gang of some level of thugs. The Bhasta Gang they called themselves. According to themselves they operated within the recreational field. I interpreted that as drugs, but didn’t go into specifics.

After chatting a bit I asked if they’d be willing to do a group photo. Yeah, the guy in the checkered shirt exclaimed. The rest of them seemed quite preoccupied with whatever they were doing – especially the guy reading the paper, he was so cool it gave me the creeps.

I’ve heard that, unsurprisingly, Mumbai is filled with these kind of small gangs. They often have small turf wars, occasionally escalating to gunfights in broad daylight. These were perhaps not that hardcore, but an interesting bunch to meet nevertheless.

I showed them the photo, thanked them for their time and continued on down the narrow streets.

Return to Pashan

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Yesterday’s bull session left me feeling like I had a few cobwebs in my head this morning, so I decided that I needed to get out and do something. Pashan is a small town on the outskirts of Pune, a bit South from Baner. I’ve been there once before, and have since then wanted to explore it a bit more. Today was as good a day as any, so I grabbed my camera and a bottle of water and headed out.

If you look at the map, you’ll notice that this little rural town has some interesting, off-limits areas, such as: a Military Area, a Defense Research and Development Organization and, my favourite, the High Energy Materials Research Laboratory. Which sounds like a place waiting for a catastrophic experiment failure, resulting in a rift in space-time by creating an inter-dimensional black hole and thus irreversibly changing life as we know it. This has, to the best of my knowledge, however not yet happened.

Anyways. Pashan has some nice small market streets and alleys. Not that different from other parts of the Pune perimeter, but nice nonetheless. Good place to bike to when you need to move around a bit and happen to have your camera with you.

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