Fake Saddhu in Katmandu


Politics of photography

We had only been in Nepal for three days, right at the very beginning of our trip, when we discovered that what we were expected to do as tourists was take photographs, and that if we were not taking photographs, we had no reason to be in a place. In planning my trip to India, I had quite deliberately left out Varanasi. The idea that other family's funerals should be my tourist attraction was repulsive to me. In any case, I was not really sure that I wanted to see a corpse.

Imagine our embarrassment, when on our very first day of touring, we were taken to the burning ghats at Pashupatinath in Nepal. Of course, the site is fascinating, and I had no objection to being there really, as long as I was allowed to behave in a respectful manner. I was quite happy to stand on a bridge over the river, surrounded by shrines, and see the funeral pyres through the smoke. The problem was that our guide immediately invited us to start snapping pictures. We refused and he seemed extremely surprised. We explained that we did not think it was a suitable subject, and Mike even asked him how he would feel if strangers came and took pictures at his family's funeral. He agreed with our point of view and even seemed quite pleased with us, but immediately whisked us away, as though, if we were not taking photos, we had no more reason to be there.

In India we discovered more about the commercial aspects of photography. Firstly you have to pay to take your camera into a site. I am not quite sure what the rationalisation is: perhaps they think if you take photos you will not buy postcards and books, perhaps they think you may use your photos commercially to make money, perhaps they think that as you are taking something away you ought to pay for it, or perhaps it is simply an arbitrary reason to raise money. I also wonder why a video camera is so enormously more expensive than a still camera. A 'rich' westerner can fork out a few rupees for a still camera three times a day without flinching, but the cost of a movie camera on our trip would have been prohibitive, I suspect.

When we did get our camera into the site, our guide was always at some pains to ensure we got our money's worth, as if mere looking at an object or building was insufficient. If we protested that the light was wrong, that it couldn't come out, or that we would look around first, they shrugged their shoulders in a way that suggested they did not know what to do with us.

The other 'big business' connected with photography in India is Indians dressing up so that tourists will take photographs of them for money. We have seen fake saddhus, chair-porters, musicians, dancers, costumed women with water pots on their heads, for whom this is a main source of income. Indians seem to take it for granted that if you photograph them, you must pay. One of our guides even said that if we took a photo of her, we would have to pay, I wasn't really sure if she was joking or not, so I didn't. Generally, we found the idea of photographing people we didn't know, dressed up in artificial costumes to be a bit strange. Eventually, we took a few photos of musicians who were particularly good and of craftspeople. The saddhu at the top of the page was taken from such a distance that I never even realised he was in the photograph until I got home and blew it up, so on this rare occasion, I did not have to pay

On the other hand, Indians, especially young ones, love to have their photos taken with tourists, and the idea of THEM paying US for this service does not seem to pass through their minds. We had quite a time at Ellora with a bunch of schoolchildren. First they begged their teacher for a group photo of them with us. That was OK. Then the boldest little boy wanted an individual photo with just him and us. Then the second boldest boy demanded the same. The clamor was starting to rise, when, very fortunately, the teacher's film ran out, or so he said!

Next we were accosted by a family who didn't speak English but were waving a camera at us with one hand, and a baby with the other. Naturally, we thought they wanted us to take picture of the whole family in Ellora with the baby. But no! It turned out that they wanted a picture of us holding their baby! Mike and I were utterly bemused by this behaviour. It is not even as if we were such good specimens of foreigners. There are plenty of Indians in the north with skin and hair fairer than either of us.

India is said to be a very photogenic country and I can confirm this. The camera has tunnel vision, it picks out a tiny fragment of the kaleidoscopic scene that is India and pulls it into focus. It cuts out the noise, the smells and a surprising amount of the people. No matter how chaotic the scene, our photos came out looking serene and beautiful. Nevertheless, it took us a little while to learn how to get the most out of photographing India. We became more and more confident and took more photos as our trip progressed. That is why in this site, there are actually a majority of photos from the later part of the trip, whereas most of the text concerns the earlier part. I eventually got too busy and tired to write much, but in total we took some 800 photographs, of which only the best or most interesting are included in this site. I was also happy with the results I got when I decided to enhance the detail selecting properties of the camera and really hone in on tiny details of architecture or ornament. Some of my favorite of these 'motifs' are used alongside the text in this travelogue.

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