Take a deep breath. Picture it in your mind. The world’s largest gathering of camels. Taking place at a tiny Rajasthani town filled with temples, narrow streets and a picturesque lake. Men in brightly coloured turbans as far as the eye can see. Enough dust and sand to make your nostril hairs work overtime. And hundreds of photographers in every nook and cranny, taking thousands of photographs of this annual event.
My experience at the Pushkar Mela earlier this month was definitely unexpected. In all honesty, I guess I should have known better. I went there with the expectation to capture a town lost in time, an event that would bring back memories of the old days gone by and boy, how wrong I was. The Mela turned out to be a hunting ground for photographers from all over the world.
Media personnel, representatives from stock photo agencies, travel photographers, hobby photographers, student photographers, the boy next door with a dSLR, everyone was there. At first it was amusing. I tried to ignore them and carry on with my work. But soon, it became apparent that I could not continue the same way. I went there with the intention to build relationships, find a story and make a photo essay. But I faced photographers who simply looked at people as objects without any courtesy, turbaned men who demanded money for posing, and little local children who chased foreigners, armed with their limited English vocabulary – ‘Photo. Money’. The advent of reasonably priced cameras, social media and the need to get the most number of ‘likes’ on Facebook had brought the masses to the Mela. It made me question the whole point of photography and why I actually take photographs. I had to re-evaluate the meaning of my life while stuck in a town with only vegetarian food and no alcohol. That was tough.
I met a group of 30 Chinese people (they called themselves ‘hobbyist photographers’ but most still shot with Nikon D4’s and Canon 1DX’s) who were on a 14 day trip of India and had come to Pushkar for 3 days, hoping to capture some shots of the place. They were generously offering money to the turbaned men who were more than happy to pose for them. Initially, I was not sure how to react. They whole concept of capturing the atmosphere and spirit of the Mela was lost. Nearly everyone here had come with the intention of capturing a regular postcard style shot of the Pushkar Mela. And they were willing to do anything to get it. It had slowly become so commercialised over the years that most of the men there refused to have their portraits taken without a few 10 rupee notes. Some people did offer them alternatives instead of money. A few cigarettes, perhaps a roll of bidis or a pack of chocolates (I met a Dutch couple that gave a group of turbaned men a pack of imported chocolates. They proudly told me how they had bought it for a few Euros and bought it with them all the way to India. Sadly, the men didn’t realise the value of it).
Not wanting to fall into the trap of paying for posing, I decided to talk to the men, understand them and give them prints of their photos. For me, it was a very interesting experience to chat to these men. One of the first questions that they would almost always ask me was which ‘jati’ (caste) I was. They also seemed shocked when I mentioned that I was paying Rs.500 per night for my room (in reality I was paying much more but I didn’t want to shock them that much!). Some of them realized that you could see images instantly on the back of the camera but still thought it used film reels. Their lives were still lost in time and I enjoyed understanding their point of view of the world while simultaneously doing my best to educate them. In the end, I may not have gained much in photographic terms but it was priceless seeing the smiles on their faces when I returned the following day with prints of their photos. Most of them didn’t believe that I would do so. And I don’t blame them. It was a lot of effort to get the prints done seeing as there was no photo lab in Pushkar. I had to endure a crowded bus ride to Ajmer, then a long walk to find the photo lab (which only opened at midday) to get them done but it was worth the pain, so that I could stick to my word.
Coming back to my photo story, halfway through my week long trip, I wanted a new subject to shoot. I got tired of shooting camels, horses and the archetypical Rajasthani man in a red turban that every other photographer was shooting. There were only so many angles and lighting conditions that one could try to be different at. I soon turned my lens to a more exciting set of subjects. They came in different shapes and sizes, various patterns and colours, and a multitude of behaviours. It was a challenge to chase them in the right pose and light but you know that I love a challenge. And I had made up my mind. My new subject at the Pushkar Mela was going to be photographers. And it was the best decision that I had made there.
Photographing photographers is immense fun and also challenging. To be stealthy yet not voyeuristic, to capture them with the same grace and framing that they are looking to capture others with. It was definitely fun. I managed to get a wide range of shots (and weird looks from photographers) but I think this set of images does truly capture what one experiences at the Pushkar Mela. You can view a selection of them in this blog post, the full set of images is here on Flickr!
Currently listening to – Flying by Chris Isaak