Gripping poverty from the streets of India are often seen in the pictures taken by the photographer as in this picture of an Indian boy sitting on the pavement in Mumbai. Because children are at such a young and impressionable age, the scars they gain from experiencing poverty early in life inevitably carry on into their adult life.
I came across the incredible India pictures taken by the Danish travel photographer Kristian Bertel. His bold and colorful portraits from India caught my eye online when I was browsing the Internet. So I decided to contact him to hear more about his photographic work. This is an interview by Eric Daniels for Getting the Pictures.
Your work is much dependent on light. Can you explain more?
One of my favorite locations to photograph is in India. And yes, the light especially in the early morning and in the late afternoon is this glowing almost orange light. It gives some my portraits an almost movie scene look. There is something in the photographic world we call 'the golden hour', because the contrast is less during the golden hour, shadows are less dark, and highlights are less likely to be overexposed. In landscape photography, the warm color of the low sun is often considered desirable to enhance the colors of the scene.
So, you mean that as a photographer you have to wait to that time of the day to take your pictures. And only take pictures in the golden hour?
No, when traveling it would be a shame not to photograph during the day as well. In India there are so many travel moments during the day that I would not miss to photograph during the day too. In the middle of the day, the bright overhead sun can create strong highlights and dark shadows. The degree to which overexposure can occur varies because different types of film and digital cameras have different dynamic ranges. This harsh lighting problem is particularly important in portrait photography, where a fill flash is often necessary to balance lighting across the subject's face or body, filling in strong shadows that are usually considered undesirable. You have to remember that this golden hours in the morning and in the late afternoon are spending over a very little time, actually a very short time to get the pictures that you want and suddenly it is dark in the evening.
Most seeds come from fruits that naturally free themselves from the shell, unlike nuts such as hazelnuts, chestnuts and acorns, which have hard shell walls and originate from a compound ovary. The general and original usage of the term is less restrictive, and many nuts in the culinary sense, such as almonds, pecans, pistachios and walnuts as in this picture from a street market in Mumbai.
I can see on your recent pictures that they show a lot of poverty. Howcome?
I have always been drawn to take pictures of daily life, both in the good times and in the bad times. When I walk in a street with my camera I am always on the lookout for something which sparkles my interest. I have developed a more humanitarian approach to my photographic subjects. Where I notice people that are standing out in the street scenery. I'm interested in photographing things which have a story and some great history. For instance I find a wrinkled face on old Indian man more fascinating to photograph than a pretty woman. A wrinkled face has a story to tell.
The world outside your own home is so big and so full of life conditions than your own and your own habbits. To travel and to take pictures in some kind of way opens up and broadens my view on the world. I think everybody should have that chance or do that once in a while. To get a little out of your own comfort zone and take the pictures that you really want to take. And for me that is in the incredible country of India, with is mesmerizing culture and cities of millions. Where the daily life is rushing by you with such a variety and in such a massive way that is peaking your senses, which is hard to forget.
So, do you always ask people before taking their portrait?
It is balance I work with, when I'm out in the streets. Sometimes I ask before and sometimes I don't ask before taking the portraits and the pictures. Earlier, I used to think that if you ask people before the photo, the picture will be too staged and to staged to look at afterwards. However, I have experienced that on my latest India journey to Mumbai and Maharashtra, that if you wait the face will be changing in a couple of minutes. A change to the better and to what I am looking for in a great travel portrait. Where the expression is more real and authentic.
So you are looking for pictures where people are not smiling?
When I'm taking pictures in India I work within the same ethical approaches to objectivity that are applied by journalists. What to shoot, how to frame and how to edit are constant considerations. Photographing poverty is one of the most ethical things I as a photographers have faced. As a traveling photographer and as some of my pictures are photojournalistic motivated I have a moral responsibility to decide what pictures to take, what picture to stage, and what pictures to show the public. I have experienced that some controversy is arising among poeple from India when my photographs only are showing poverty.
To travel and to take pictures in some kind of way opens up and broadens my view on the world. I think everybody should have that chance or do that once in a while. To get a little out of your own comfort zone and take the pictures that you really want to take. And for me that is in the incredible country of India, with is mesmerizing culture and cities of millions. As with this picture of poverty photographed in Mumbai.
You are photographing poverty in many of your pictures. Why?
I have always been interested in photographing in the society and the which are not wealthy. India actually accounts for one in three of the poor population worldwide I have heard. Nearly 800 million people lived on less than one point ninety dollars a day a copiple of years ago, around 100 million fewer poor people than in the year before. India accounted for the largest number of people living below international poverty line a couple of years ago, with thirty percent of its population under the poverty measure. When I walk around there, it is easy to see that India is by far the country with the largest number of people living under the international poverty line. India had thirty percent of its population living below poverty line at 224 million, I've heard. Poverty refers to that social condition in which a part of the society is unable to fulfill its basic requirements. When a big portion of the population is deprived of the minimum living standard and survives only on the survival level, then it is said that poverty is widely spread in the population. India is recognized as a poor country even after around seventy years of independence. Especially in the rural sector of India, the condition is worse. Though during the planning periods the national income of-India and the per ca-pita income has increased, social welfare has increased, literacy level has risen and people have been able to fulfill more and more of their requirements but poverty and specially rural poverty is still present in its alarming form.
You understand why so many people are so poor in India. What do you gain, achieve by photographing them. What attracts you in poverty?
- As a traveling photographer in India, I am of course interested in taking photographs of the country as a whole, whether it is temples, landscapes or its people. I was recently in Mumbai's many slums and streets where the poverty can be seen and where the homeless are living, sometimes for generations, along the city's pavements without a roof over their heads. It was grieving for me to see that a life in poverty means living deprived of sufficient food and nutrition, education, proper shelter, sanitation, clean water and so on. Photographing and telling the stories of poverty in India, I think, can be an effective and educational tool so the viewers of my photographs in the Western countries can become aware and therefore remember these people's life conditions in comparison to their own lives back home. Moreover, I think stories of poverty can be a kind of travel knowledge and create bridges both culturally and motivationally toward a solution and possibilities for reducing the poverty in India. Both for the traveler in the streets and on the society level in the offices.
- Many travelers already know that when we give money or gifts that can be resold, such as pens, we perpetuate a cycle of poverty and give children a strong incentive to stay out of school. But also on the society level as well, I think the stories of poverty can hopefully bring the conditions in focus. In a way, I think that the Indian society cannot fully progress if certain sections of people are left-out simply because they happen to be from the "wrong" class, caste or ethnic group. Lower caste people have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream society in India governed by the so-called upper caste communities. And as a traveler in the country I learned about that they have historically lived isolated in the villages and townships and subsisted doing only those tasks considered "unsuitable" for the other castes. Portraying these society conditions give my viewers of my photographs an insight into how this untouchability is still present in India. While it has been said that there have been considerable changes in people's attitude over the years, the "lower caste" communities are still not satisfactorily absorbed in the mainstream society.
Have these photographs every got you into trouble. People now call such photos as poverty porn. What do you think of this label?
- No, when I was photographing a begging woman with a child in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, I was though approached by a man from India that was angry about that photographers in general always were portraying the misery and poverty of the country. I was friendly and listened to what he had to say. This situation gave me the impression of how many inhabitants of India may feel of their own country's poverty. Yes, they acknowledge the poverty, but we as photographers should use our time to photograph all the good and beautiful sides of India instead. Poverty as a label is used in media through visually miserable photographs, in order to obtain some sort of emotion amongst its audience for charity organisations. The label itself I can understand, can be controversial because it mainly displays and tells only one side of a story. Stories which have become more and more interesting for tourists as well, where they want to visit slum areas as an attraction on their India journeys. One of the main reasons for this may be because people and photographers feel that these places have a sense of authenticity and that these places and poor people are fulfilling the contrasts of India that they have heard so much about from travel books in their home countries.
Have your images actually helped a person or persons get out of poverty?
- I have unfortunately no such statistic.
Do you have an advice for photography beginners?
Yes, one of my advices is that you have to stick to what interests you to take pictures and where you find your passion. As a beginner in a photography it is important to try out a lot of things, to photograph a lot of different things. After a while I recommend people to then try to find their own specific path in photography. You can decide if it should be travel photography or other kind of fields of photography. And when you have you have found your field then develop yourself in that field. Always try to get better each day. But also respect and know that your interest and field of photography naturally can change over the years.
What I also see is that beginners are all very focused on having the right gear and the right camera. Of course a good camera is important and how you technical use it, but over the years it all ends up with how you see things through the lens. You can use all your money on an expensive camera, and still take bad pictures. What matters and what counts is how you are getting the pictures that people want to look at and to return to look at. Something that moves the viewer and something that can make them think about your picture.
So, how are you getting the pictures you are talking about?
One of my conclusions so far is that it is not in my home country I can always get the pictures I want. And that can also be a good lesson for other photographers. If you are out of photographic inspiration where you live, then traveling is the way. By traveling you see and can get pictures of things, people, landscapes and historical monuments that you do not see everyday. My camera bag is almost full of dust when I'm home, and I hardly photograph anymore in my own country. You can say it is sad that I don't photograph all the time, but I use the time when I'm home to edit my pictures and to read travel articles to know more about the world. When I'm out in the field in India I carried two cameras one with a wide angle lens and one with a telephoto lens. When the photographic moment is just in front of you, the time to change lenses can ruin the moment of the picture in that specific situation. Another thing is that I use a lot of time on research before I go to an area or a neighborhood in India. And use my time on the location to wait and I examine from where I best can get the pictures.
And I also think about getting the pictures from different angles, so I have something to choose from when I'm going to pick out the photo from that specific scene I want to edit. I click a lot of pictures of the same subject so I'm sure that I have what I want. For instance it can be picture number seven which has something. It is not about closing eyes on the pictures. Even though the first six pictures are allright there can be something extraordinary in the expression of the seventh picture that leaves an impression on me. But of course there can be moments where you don't have the ability to take several pictures of the same subject. Then you just have to hope for the best and that have got the picture that you want.
All the pictures in this blog post are kindly borrowed by the photographer with his permission. If you are interested to see more pictures from India by the interviewed photographer, you can visit his website here:
Kristian Bertel | Photography