Place – Bali, Indonesia
Date – Mid 2015
Mood – Dejection
Foundry Photojournalism Workshop 2015 was in full swing. I had been looking forward to being a part of the workshop ever since I had registered for it, in the beginning of 2015. My instructor was Andrea Bruce, an award-winning international photojournalist and member of the NOOR photo agency. Her expertise in covering issues across the globe was complimented by her down-to-earth attitude, always willing to help us students with our ludicrous questions.
To give you a bit of background, Foundry is a week long photojournalism workshop, taking place in a different country every year. Over hundred students from all over the globe attend the workshop, each one attempting to further their photography skills under the tutorship of some of the world’s best photojournalists. During the week, you are given an assignment – to research, find and cover a local story. And while the assignment is the primary activity for the week, there are also portfolio reviews, talks and presentations every evening. The talks are particularly inspiring and eye opening as each instructor opens up about their life and experiences.
For most of us, the assignment itself was quite challenging to complete. It’s hard to find a unique idea within the defined deadline while trying to overcome the inevitable language barrier when communicating with the locals. Fortunately for me, I had spent five years growing up in Indonesia during my childhood and had a preconceived idea for a project. One of my fondest memories during those years was eating satay (grilled chicken with peanut sauce) from the pushcart that used to come by our house every week. It was a guilty pleasure for the 6-year-old me and a memory that had become ingrained as a happy moment. Since this was my first visit back to the country in 17 years, I immediately tasked myself to find out how they made that wonderful dish.
After speaking to the attendant at my guesthouse in an absurd combination of broken bahasa Indonesia, basic English and sign language, I convinced him to take me around the town on his bike to find a satay vendor. After a few miles, I realized the he only understood the bike part of my instruction and not the satay part, and we ended up going around in circles. As fate would have it, we were on our way back to the guest house when he casually waved to a passing satay pushcart vendor. I shouted at him to stop and we met the vendor who happened to be his friend. My first act was to have a plate of steaming hot satay which brought back a barrage of memories and emotions. I eventually told the vendor (using the attendant as a translator) that I wanted to document his life and the photograph the process of satay making. He readily agreed and I was overjoyed!
I walked to his house early every morning and greeted him as he woke up. His routine became mine as I followed him doing his daily chores. I was amazed by the thoroughness of his routine, of buying chickens from the market, slaughtering them himself and cleaning them up. Chopping them into little pieces and skewering them became a family activity with all members sitting down and working through the day. By sunset, he would load up the cart and set off on his rounds and settle at a post for the rest of night while customers lined up, right until the last skewer was sold. I usually left after getting a few shots of the evening as I wanted to attend the talks and presentations.
Up until this point, I was still hanging on to my dream of becoming an international photojournalist. (Read my previous blog for the origins of that dream) A dream that I had nurtured over the past 7 years and was not willing to let go for anything. I thought that Foundry would be the perfect platform for me to build contacts and find global stories. I felt that I would have the opportunity to be commissioned by the biggest publications on earth, to cover the latest stories. Surely it would only be a matter of time before my images would be printed on the frontpage of major newspapers. But as I watched, listened and observed to each one of the professionals talk about their life, I felt my dream slowly dying. A gradual erosion over the course of the 7 days. By the last day, I think I had completely given up on it.
All of them spoke from the heart about the positive and negatives of being a photojournalist. I knew of the positives already but was completely unprepared for the negatives. I realized that the drawbacks were lost behind the apparent glamour of the profession. New barriers dawned on me every night and I eventually realized that I, being the person I am, would not be able to become an international photojournalist. I will elaborate about the problems below and to be honest, none of them are particularly insurmountable. However, it is a combination of them that ended up discouraging me from taking up the profession.
Problem #1 – Family & Relationships
One common factor that most professionals spoke about was the difficulty in meeting family members often or maintaining stable relationships. Being on the road for extended periods of time meant that you would inevitably be away from family/loved ones and miss many birthdays/anniversaries/special days. Additionally, it is hard to find a person who is willing to be in a relationship with someone who is away most of the time and even if you do find an understanding individual, maintaining that relationship is equally difficult. On the positive side, I saw that few relationships had blossomed between photojournalists/writers who could travel together and build their relationship simultaneously. But for others, it was often a solitude life of working, living and traveling alone. For me, I had a girlfriend (who I am now married to) and I found it hard to envision a future leaving her alone while I traveled. I enjoyed spending time with my school friends and like most Indians, I grew up with parents who I am quite attached to. Over time, I definitely wanted to build a family and live with loved ones.
Problem #2 – Lifestyle & Finances
Photojournalism is hardly a financially rewarding career. With the publishing industry going through an existential crisis, budgets are being tightened and photography is one of the first departments to take a hit. Most of the tutors were very open about how much they got paid for assignments and that information is also available publicly online for your perusal. With paltry payments, you are hardly going to be driving around in a Jaguar while owning a fancy apartment in Mayfair. The working life is by no means enviable. Gone are the days of staying in fancy hotels and having all expenses covered. When you go to a place which is already going through some crisis, be it man-made or natural, you are expected to focus on shooting the story while creating as little inconvenience as possible to the people over there. This does translate into sleeping rough and living out of a rucksack without any expectation of even the most basic of amenities. Success as per traditional societal norms is nonexistent and most photojournalists said that their main satisfaction comes from being able to improve lives by showcasing issues to the wider world.
Problem #3 – Freedom & Working Style
Often, I decide to shoot a documentary project purely because I am personally interested in the topic and find it inspiring. I usually take my time to do adequate research and background work before I embark upon the actual process of taking photographs. And then I take a break to review the images, get feedback and reassess my direction before I shoot again. My projects usually take more than a month to complete. On the other hand, when you are a professional, you are expected to hit the ground running, build contacts on the go and complete a shoot in a specified period of time. With the advent of the internet, you would need to write a text piece, select and send images to the publication within hours, if not minutes of an incident/event. There is a huge difference in working on what you like in your own time versus working on a topic assigned to you with a deadline. Furthermore, the life of a photojournalist is quite lonely. You are expected to be self sufficient and work by yourself without constant supervision. I, by nature, love working with people and find it motivating to be surrounded by similar creative minds. I rely on the people around me to make decisions and rarely work in solitude. Working alone would be an uphill struggle for me.
Problem #4 – Emotional Attachment
This might be embarrassing to admit but I once wept a little when I was covering a vidai ceremony where the bride was crying a lot. By default, I always build an emotional attachment with the subject of my images, be it weddings or portraiture work. I put myself in their shoes to understand their emotions and try to do what I can to make them feel better/comfortable. Not only does this allow me to capture better images, it also builds a level of trust with my subject over time. Even after the project/wedding is complete, I take the effort to stay in touch and meet them when I can. But when you are covering multiple stories on a regular basis, extended contact with the subject becomes difficult. While on assignment, the primary motive for speaking to them is to get information for the story and staying in touch later on is rare. And you often have to approach stories without any emotional baggage to ensure that you are able to capture it from a neutral perspective.
Problem #5 – VISA & Travel Restrictions
An Indian citizen can visit 58 number of countries without a VISA/get a VISA on arrival. If I am called at a moment’s notice to visit any other place, I will waste a lot of time filling out forms and getting approvals from embassies. To put that in contrast, citizens from the major western countries can visit 170+ countries without a VISA. Their freedom of movement is far ahead of us and while some people may not openly admit this, it is definitely a factor when publications hire staff. Of course, the blatant solution is to only work in the countries where travel is possible (and there are many excellent photojournalists that do this) but it does impede upon the dream of being able to travel freely across the globe.
Having said all that, Foundry was a great experience and I would fully recommend it to aspiring photographers of any genre. It teaches you a lot in a short span and gives you an opportunity to personally interact with some amazing photographers. I thoroughly enjoyed my week there – shooting, networking and partying in Bali. On the flight back to India, I spent a lot of time scribbling in my notebook, putting together all the points that I’d picked up during the workshop and concluded that perhaps the life of a photojournalist is not for me. I found it quite ironic that I went to a workshop to train photojournalists and conversely ended up deciding not to become one. Such is life.
Currently listening to – No Man Will Ever Love You, Like I Do by Raghu Dixit
Currently reading – The Superstar Syndrome by Myra White & Sanjay Jha