An Afternoon in the Dharavi Slum
Last week, I spent one day in Mumbai, India, and had the afternoon free to go out and explore and make some photographs. Armed with two lenses, a 17-35 mm f/2.8 and a 70-200 mm f/2.8, together with a TriGrip Reflector/Diffuser, I headed out of my hotel with the intention of photographing some of Mumbai’s vibrant street life.
The early afternoon sun was beating down relentlessly, so I made for the huge Dharavi Slum close to my hotel to try and make some street portraits. I hoped that the narrow alleyways and cool stone walls of the slum might offer some respite from the oppressive heat and humidity, and I also guessed that the natural light in the slum would be more suited to the kind of photography I had in mind than the furnace of direct sunlight on the larger traffic-carrying roads outside. The harsh afternoon light from directly overhead gave way to open shade as I entered the narrow lanes of the slum and the sunlight was bounced and reflected multiple times from the high vertical walls on its way down to street level.
This softened the light dramatically, and transformed the searing hard light into a very large, primarily overhead, indirect light source augmented by multiple fill lights from the walls directly on either side. Great light for street portraiture, in other words.
In places, the lanes of the slum became so narrow that I was obliged to turn sideways in order to pass through them. When they narrowed still further, they were impassable and I was often forced to turn back and retrace my steps. I found myself frequently asking the residents by means of a quizzically raised eyebrow and an outstretched finger whether I could proceed further in any given direction, and after a short while I became hopelessly (and wonderfully) lost in the labyrinthine passages.
I am a firm believer in getting lost with a camera: serendipity can be a wonderful thing. Not knowing what turning the next corner might bring in terms of photographic opportunity can be very stimulating, exhilarating – and a lot of fun.
There are definitely places in the world where getting lost can be bad news – but as a general principle, I am firmly in favour of it: some of my favourite photographs have been made when I had no idea where I was. As long as you have the address of the place you are staying in, and enough cash for a ride back, I have found that you can generally get lost with impunity. If you want to know where you were shooting, shoot with GPS tagging enabled. If your camera does not have GPS, there are apps which enable you to do this on your mobile phone and link the timestamped GPS location information to your images retrospectively. The one I use is called ‘gps4cam‘ and it works very well. If I am making landscape photographs, I will attach a Nikon GP-1 GPS geotagging device to the camera hotshoe; however, with street photography, anything which reduces the profile of the camera is good, and so if I want GPS data attached to the images, I use the smartphone GPS app instead.
In places, brilliant shafts of light penetrated the slum like spotlights on a stage.
It is easy to forget that the camera sees the world differently, and becoming aware of this is a key step on the road to better photography. The camera has a vastly more limited dynamic range than the human eye, and is significantly more sensitive to contrast and colour. This can often create problems, causing shadows to plug and highlights to blow in lighting situations in which the eye adapts almost instantaneously and unconsciously, allowing us to see detail almost simultaneously in the deepest shadows and brightest highlights. However, if harnessed carefully, this sensitivity to contrast and limited dynamic range on the part of the camera sensor can also be a powerful ally in the creation of dramatic images.
By exposing for the highlights, the shadows are plunged into inky blackness, heightening the drama of the image. Exponents of HDR (high dynamic range) photography aim to eliminate these plugged shadow and blown highlights, ensuring that every area of a photograph contains detail – but often, less is more, and the best thing you can do is to embrace the darkness of the deep shadows: don’t nuke them – let them live! Darkness often equals drama: what we cannot see gives the image a sense of mystery and intrigue, and provided that the loss of detail is not in a critical area of the image (i.e. it does not detract from the ability of the image to communicate what it is that you want to communicate), allowing shadows to plunge to blackness can work well. Furthermore, reducing the volume of information in the image allows the photograph to speak its message more clearly and communicate more effectively. Details in uninteresting areas can often be a distraction.
On my meandering journey through the Dharavi Slum, which lasted around four hours, interesting subjects were everywhere – but great light was not.
I therefore made a conscious decision to first look for good light: for example light which was dramatic, or soft, wrapping light in open shade, and in either case, of sufficient quantity that I could make an exposure at shutter speeds I could hand-hold. Once I identified an area of great light, I would only then begin my search for an interesting subject to photograph in that light. I was, to use a well-worn photographic phrase, chasing the light.
I had a fantastic experience in the Dharavi Slum. The people I met were almost without exception welcoming, friendly, and a lot of fun to engage with.
Even without the joy of a camera in my hand, I would have had a great afternoon there.
I read something recently by photographer Dorothea Lange which resonated with me:
“You know, so often it’s just sticking around and being there, not swooping out in a cloud of dust: sitting down on the ground with people, letting children look at your camera with their dirty, grimy little hands, and putting their fingers on the lens, and you just let them, because you know that if you behave in a generous manner, you are apt to receive generosity in return, you know?