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An American in Mumbai

What photographing Bombay streets taught me about myself

Tables turn when despite being the photographer, I actually become the one being watched.

 |  An American in Mumbai  |  4-minute read |   28-03-2016
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I've been doing street photography in Mumbai for just under a year. Formerly a writer, I would pride myself on being able to string a few words together to form some sort of a cohesive narrative. All that changed for me when I rediscovered photography - street photography - after taking a workshop in Bandra.

Also read: [Photo essay] Why Bombay's Bandstand is notoriously charming at low tide

My life transformed from organising words on my word processor to framing pixels in my viewfinder.

My answer to the "What do you do?" question posed to me changed from "writer" to "writer-photographer" to "photographer-writer", and finally, to what it says on my business card today: "photographer". Pure breed, no hyphens.

Why street photography?

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The short and sweet answer is, it's just plain addictive! And apart from the change in creative pace, I liked the idea of interacting with the world more frequently, outside, with strangers. It's a great way to get to know the city better and its inhabitants with the added bonus of exercise.

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My over all existence mutated from a solitary writer almost always confined to his computer, into a guy who liked exploring Mumbai for the sheer pleasure of "getting the shot". (I still spend zombie hours in front of the computer but less time is spent on writing and more on photo editing. It's a change I gratefully welcome.)

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Unlike other photography genres, street photography, I discovered, is about forming relationships with your fellow human beings, your subjects. Same goes for wedding or fashion photography (or any genre involving people or animals), but street photography is an undeniable wildcard since I really don't know what kind of relationship I'll be forming with my subject. Well, not always.

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Naturally, if I'm capturing a lot of candid shots, the relationships may be very brief indeed (and only one-way from my end) and restricted to the solitary confinement of my computer or phone. But if my shots turn out well, maybe I'll share them with the world.

My takeaway from street photography is that relationships come in all varieties and need not be narrowly defined as a photographer-subject dynamic.

Also read - How India let me photograph the story of its streets

Another wildcard issue almost unique to street photography comes into play when the photographer is "made" by his subject. The chance to capture the scene undisturbed is lost. When this happens the tables are turned and I'm the one being watched!

Getting a candid shot becomes nearly impossible without relying on a lot of time, effort and luck. But sometimes these situations work out if the subject's reaction to my presence is interesting in some way.

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There are exceptions to the rule being made. Vendors on busy tourist beats are used to getting their pictures taken and if they notice me, usually go back to work or offer-up a cheesy pose. Contrary to some of the difficulties working with children, in certain situations they have been more than helpful to me, especially if they're playing or involved in an activity that's more entertaining than talking to a guy with a camera.

Also read - Wish you had stayed a bit longer, Bombay

Another strong possibility for a street photographer in Mumbai, especially for an outsider like myself, is the photo request. If I spend an hour or more shooting I'm usually asked at least once or twice by people on the streets to take their pictures.

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I didn't care for the interruptions when I began taking street shots, but I've since learned that these images of beggars, shopkeepers, street kids, and the just plain curious, can be interesting too and I adapted to take street portraits on the fly as part of any street photography session.

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I began to think more about how to take interesting shots with static subjects as a creative challenge instead of thinking of the interruptions in a negative light. This change in thinking has lead to interesting situations and conversations with individuals whom I would have never interacted with otherwise.

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Writer

Craig Boehman Craig Boehman @craigboehman

The writer is an American activist who lives in Mumbai.

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