As I type out this piece, on board a flight to Ahmedabad to attend Makkar Sankranti, the kite flying festival, one I’ve been wanting to photograph for years, I can hardly contain my excitement. But I must admit, the excitement is accompanied by the just the slightest hint of trepidation, at a thought that troubles me every time I attend one of these huge, popular, imminently photographable festivals or fairs.
If you spend time on the internet, you will see that a lot has been said about the impact of social media, selfies and the relentless pursuit of that perfect Instagram and its detrimental effect on the entire experience of travelling and exploring. This is largely due to the overexposure of locations and travelling just to tick off locations on a bucket list.
This article is not about that.
This article is about a question I’ve been grappling with for a while now. Are we, as photographers, inadvertently ruining the festival experience, not only for other photographers and travellers, but even for those we are there to photograph?
I have always been fascinated with documenting Indian culture and festivals. Since we started the reDiscovery Project three years back, I have tried to capture as many as I can, starting with some of the more popular ones like the Pushkar Mela in Rajasthan, Kumbh Mela, Lathmal Holi in Mathura and more recently Mahashivratri in Banaras, the Sonepur Mela in Bihar and the Kulasekarapatanam Dusshera celebrations in Tamil Nadu. I absolutely love the energy, colour and unique beliefs on display at these gatherings and this year, starting with Sankranti, I hope to capture festivals I haven’t been to before and perhaps revisit some that I have.
There is no doubt that festivals are exciting events to shoot. Not only because of the dramatic scenes and emotions on offer, but also because they present the opportunity to document century-old traditions that have an increasingly uncertain future. More than anything else festivals are a showcase of the incredible diversity of faith in India, always full of drama and colour. Add to that the fact that Indians are, by and large, friendly and enjoy being photographed. The posting of images on social media and the more recent proliferation of photo tours to popular destinations and events have accelerated the trend.
All this means that the number of photographers, who are attending these events in recent years, all hoping to get that fantastic photo has increased exponentially. My first experience of this was in the villages of Barsana and Nandgaon in Uttar Pradesh in 2016 which are famous for their colourful Holi celebrations. Whilst the celebrations were energetic and chaotic as expected, and I absolutely loved the vibe, the sheer number of photographers there was staggering! I’m talking in the hundreds if not more. So much so, that whilst getting a good shot is always a challenge to look forward to, here the challenge is getting a shot without another photographer in the frame!
This theme is played out again and again in different festivals around India. The Pushkar Mela is a prime example of this where is recent years the proliferation of photographers has increased to such an extent that many comment that there are now more cameras then camels at Pushkar! It’s not unusual to find in places like Pushkar and Barsana, or Dev Deepawali celebrations in Varanasi, dozens of photographers all crowding a subject and taking the exact same photo, which will inevitably show up on Instagram the next day on a number of feeds… where’s the joy in that?
I am not for a moment suggesting that photographers should not document these events. There are brilliant photographers who attend the same festival year and year, building a body of work, and manage to avoid the madness and cliches and return with extraordinary images. Indeed I am also on the lookout for unique festivals to attend and it would be hypocritical to expect that photographers will not show up in large numbers. My issue is not with the number of photographers but increasingly with the inconsiderate attitude this seems to be encouraging.
Side note: Also i must admit, some of what i talk about in the following paragraphs are thing i have myself been guilty of in the past, attending many of these events for the first time and am still occasionally guilty of, though i do make an effort to try and correct this every time i shoot at a festival.
In the crowd of “shooters” all vying for that perfect shot, boorish and rude behaviour becomes the norm. Jostling for space, occupying a prime position and refusing to yield it even after getting their shots, coming in front of other photographers to get a better shot, whilst ruining others compositions, are all slowly becoming normalised. I have seen lens men shouting at each other, elbowing and shoving, all of which completely ruins the experience of being in these magical spaces. The focus seems to be solely on getting that dramatic shot at all costs, rather than involving oneself in the festivities or trying to understand the culture, both of which for me are incredibly important parts. In a nutshell, photographers tend to forget why they are there in the first place – enjoying the people and moments they are photographing!
Festivals are closely linked to faith and whilst for photographers, the key may be documenting that faith, for the devotees or pilgrims the sanctity of that faith is above all else. It is important for us as photographers to represent them in as sensitive and honest a manner as possible. That is, or should be, our prime responsibility. Most importantly for me, while documenting an event it is critical that we stay out of the way and not become a nuisance.
I get most dismayed when often I see photographers displaying a startling lack of empathy and respect and a misplaced sense of entitlement. They pose subjects (sometimes talking harshly to their subjects) , to create perhaps visually more pleasing, but essentially less authentic images. What’s worse is that often times, photographers take their shots and move on, without so much as a smile, a word of thanks or even a nod of acknowledgement to the person they have just captured in their lens.
Many photographers will not think twice about being disruptive when rituals are on, firing flashes literally into peoples’ faces or getting too close, often times violating the sanctity of the moment or the personal space and privacy of the individual. In places like Pushkar, people have responded to this behaviour by demanding payment from photographers, and banning photography at the bathing ghats around the lake. The feeling amongst locals is that those taking photos unfairly exploit their images to make plenty of money (whether the perception is true or not) is pervasive. In extreme cases people respond aggressively to what they feel are intrusions into their personal space and faith, threatening photographers to keep their distance.
This situation is unfortunate because I feel that photographing people’s celebrations and acts of faith is an invitation into their most personal space. This is not a right but a privilege, one that many are abusing. As photography becomes a more and more popular pursuit, and the feelings of self-importance and entitlement gained through followings on social media gets more ingrained, this trend will only get worse, until eventually we as photographers may no longer be welcome to such events. If this happens it will be a terrible travesty for which we as a community will have only ourselves to blame. I hope this does not happen and we as photographers develop a culture of mutual respect not only for each other but also for our subjects, the ones who make these events so special.