MUMBAI-Nothing comes easily in India. At times it feels as if everything from the bureaucracy to nature itself is out to thwart whatever you are trying to do. Then, somehow–if you have patience–the path mysteriously clears and things come together, usually with absolutely no explanation. You never know why you couldn’t do something in the first place and you never find out why you can do it now. It just is and you take what luck you can get.
It comes as no surprise that Buddhism developed here, with its emphasis on rising above the pain of this particular existence, of gaining merit through hardship. And I believe that the absolute epicenter of day to day difficulty is right here in Mumbai, the once and present Bombay, the metropolis described by writer Suketu Mehta as the “Maximum City”, in his book of the same name – a moniker gleefully appropriated by the Indian press because, well, it’s perfect.
I have just completed a year out of a two-year assignment to the Maximum City and I feel proud to have done so. I am honored to be here. Mumbai, population around 30 million people, is packed onto a peninsula that used to be seven islands. The land reclamation began in the 1800s and much of the city is built on the trash of the past. Mumbai is often compared to New York City. Before I got here I thought that to be another lazy comparison; a slick and easy way to explain a place without going to the trouble of explaining it. I do not feel that way anymore.
For all the significant differences between New York (specifically Manhattan) and Mumbai, the two cities have a lot in common. They both have fiercely proud local populations that provide much of the political power, police force, and service industry. They have a geography defined by water, limited space, and outer suburbs of varying desirability. People from all over their respective countries, regions, and the world come to New York and Mumbai to make their fortunes, escape their pasts, and make a name for themselves. Some succeed beyond their wildest dreams and others die in the gutter.
There are famous gangsters, tough cops, fast talking taxi drivers, heart-breaking femme fatales, business tycoons, and art stars. Each city has a unique accent and dialect born of the melding of nationalities, idioms, and languages. There is culture and its antithesis, nightlife of the highest and lowest orders. Both cities were built up out of marshland as the shipping, mercantile, and financial centers they still are.
Like New York, the foreign tourists come for a few days and depart. Unlike New York, which is often the destination, whole and complete, Mumbai is a waypoint. Foreigners fly here on their way to somewhere else. They may spend a day or two, perhaps three, almost all in old south Bombay neighborhoods like Colaba, Kalagoda, and Fort. Then they depart for Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala, the Himalayas, or some other photogenic locale.
All that means I am getting a view of a city rarely seen by outsiders in any depth (though in two years, I will barely have scratched the surface of this place). Mumbai is a tough nut to crack. It is composed of different communities, many of which live in their own, sometimes closed, neighborhoods: there are Marathas, Koli fisher-folk, Bora Muslims, Parsis, and Iranis, just to name a very few.
There is an equally bewildering collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, types of business, and inhabitants. Wandering the city you might find yourself in Lower Parel, Worli, Bandra, Dadar, Kamathipura, Byculla or perhaps Cuffe Parade, Malabar Hill, Breach Candy, Dharavi, or Mahim.
Mumbai is both a difficult and rewarding city to photograph for many of the same reasons that make it a difficult and rewarding city to live in. I am glad I spent several weeks just watching the place and adjusting to its rhythm before taking out a camera. I can’t say with any certainty that I am capturing the place comprehensively or with any level of perfection, but I am working at it. India itself is difficult both because it is a physically challenging environment and because of the preconceptions nearly all of us carry about the Subcontinent.
Then you arrive here and, lo and behold, all your preconceptions seem to be accurate. There, right in your face, are the slums and poverty you have always heard about. There is a naked sadhu sitting in front of a temple, there is a cow wandering the city streets, there and everywhere are women in saris and men in turbans. One of the great dictums of photography is to photograph interesting things in interesting light and India has both in large measure. But for all the exoticism of saris and poverty, India is also a large and vibrant economic power.
The old Bombay neighborhoods exist in the shadows of mirrored skyscrapers. There is not just the often repeated disparity between the ultra-rich and ultra-poor but a growing middle class working everyday jobs in the tech sector, service industries, media, non-profits, entertainment, and government. Just showing exotically clad snake charmers, elephants, trains, and poverty is a cliché even though these things are very real. Just showing people in western business clothes on cell phones is inaccurate, and overdoing the contrast between wealth and poverty, old and new, traditional and modern is a photographical cliché of its own.
What then, is one to do? The simple answer is to work harder. To spend more time on the streets, to study how different photographers have seen India ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, and Steve McCurry to stunningly talented Indian photographers like Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh. To learn the history of the place and begin to see how it has evolved, changed, stayed the same. To get out and walk the streets until you know how to get from one point to another on foot, have a few regular restaurants, take people’s pictures, track them down and surprise them with a likeness of themselves. To work the subject until it almost seems normal.
As photographers we talk about gear because it is a common point of departure. It is a comprehensible, definable thing. We talk about technique, composition, and assignments. We talk about other photographers and their work. We talk about photography itself but we rarely talk about history and philosophy and religion. We rarely try to get at the heart of the intangibles. My good friend Jacob, who grew up in Ohio, the son of immigrants from Kerala in South India, told me that one of the joys of India is that people not only discuss philosophy and art, they believe them to be essential subjects and ones worthy of time. Considering the underlying why of a thing is regarded as normal and even necessary in India.
Art and scholarship and faith are not separated from business and work as they are elsewhere. It is these things, I believe, that ultimately make our photos what they are. Philosophy gives our images an underpinning of reason and narrative. The greater mysteries make an image more than the literal moment it once was. Photography has the power to transmogrify the quotidian moments of life into expressions of mystery, faith, and wonder. It is subjects like this, if we want to be better photographers, which we should be studying and discussing right along with focal lengths, megapixels, and film emulsions. I believe that Plato, Buddha, the Mahabharata, Captain Sir Richard Burton, and The Bible can make you a better photographer. I believe knowledge of the history, culture and belief systems of a place will inform your photos and work to make them something more than the casual observations of ephemeral tourism.
This is why I like to stay as long as I can, to spend as much time observing a locale as I do pointing a camera at it, and why I like to return to a place. I will never blend in on the streets of Mumbai any more than I did in El Salvador. I will always be marked as an outsider by my exceedingly Western features. But after time you develop a harmony with the rhythm of the streets and the days. You begin to recognize people and them to recognize you, even in a city of 30 million. You and the city adapt to each other.
Adapting to Mumbai wasn’t easy. The first four or five months I was at least 30% sick 85% of the time. Every time I ate somewhere new I had intestinal issues. I caught one virus after another which left me feeling like death and wondering if I had malaria or dengue. Just about the time I stopped having those relatively minor plagues I developed a rash across my chest and waist and armpits, anywhere my clothes rubbed. Then there was a cough and then an undefined malaise. Add to this killing heat, torrential rainsl, awful traffic, terrible pollution, and an all new set of cultural and linguistic norms. But one day I woke up and realized I felt like I once did, only better because I was thinner and harder, heat tempered by the sun and food, baptized in the rains of the monsoon.
I was struggling as a photographer to portray India accurately after 15 years of learning the pace of Central America. I was unsure of what gear worked best, how to approach people, and even what I wanted to show. Since arriving I have worked with several different NGOs involved in public health and education, anti-human trafficking, and economic development: all similar to the groups I worked with in Central America and Eastern Europe. I have walked the streets of Mumbai and traveled a bit and hiked in the countryside and villages.
I have found that I use my Leica M-P (type 240) by far the most on the street and for documentary work, mounted with a 35mm, then a 50mm, and occasionally a 90mm lens. I also use my iPhone 6s extensively as well as a Panasonic LX7 point and shoot. I am working on some experimental projects with 100-year-old old box cameras. For interior spaces working with the NGOs I often like the 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a D800 and for things like press conferences and political events the fancy rangefinders and mirrorless cameras go away and are replaced by the working journalist’s rig of two full frame Nikon DSLRs (D3 and D800) mounted with 28-70mm f/2.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor zooms, two SB800s, extra batteries, cards, and a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor in Domke belt pouches. I am always surprised by how much I enjoy strapping all that on when I have a job to do.
I have a year to go, a year to get it right. For one thing I know my subject now. It isn’t India. It isn’t the work of this NGO or that one. It is right here in front of me, all around me. The subject I have been given, have been given access to, is this city by the Arabian Sea, The Maximum City. It is Mumbai, the once and present Bombay, its people, monuments, and neighborhoods, its seasons and celebrations, as much and as many of them as I can get in front of my viewfinder.
If I work hard enough, am good enough, and maybe a little lucky, I can show it like it is.
~ Andrew Tonn
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