An Afternoon in the Dharavi Slum
Dharavi Slum, Mumbai, India

Jun 11th

2012

CategoryPosted in India
Comments Comments 22

An Afternoon in the Dharavi Slum

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

On my meandering journey through the Dharavi Slum, which lasted around four hours, interesting subjects were everywhere – but great light was not.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

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?

So true.

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Mumbai, India ©2012 Ian Mylam

Comments (22)
  1. 11 June 2012 at 1:20 AM

    Hi Ian,

    Another fantastic set of images. These are some of the best ‘street’ portraits I’ve seen for a long time. Beautiful colouring, pin sharp and all captured at just the right moment.

    There isn’t a ‘weak’ one amongst them.

    Steve

    • Ian

      12 June 2012 at 3:30 AM

      Steve, thank you very much for your generous comment – I appreciate you taking the time to look through them, and to respond here. I loved making these photographs. Great to hear that you enjoyed looking at them.

  2. 11 June 2012 at 2:03 AM

    Hi Ian,

    I really love how the light in each of the portraits creates a contrast that makes them come alive. I also marvel at how you have managed to get so many individuals, individually.

    I have done a little street photography in Old Delhi and unless I was right in some one’s face, there were always others lurking.

    I guess what I am saying is it does not seem like a crowded slum. You truly went in deep.

    Thank you for the inspiration.

    Rob

    • 11 June 2012 at 2:48 AM

      Rob, thank you for taking the time to comment and for your kind words.

      With regard to the light, I really went after it here. As I mentioned in the post, I chased the light first and the subject second, because I was confident in quickly finding a great subject once I had found the good light. I am sure since you have photographed in Old Delhi, you will have experienced the same with regard to having a multitude of interesting subjects – Old Delhi is another place I love to photograph. When I found a spot in the slum with good light, I staked it out until I had a subject, and I rarely had to wait long.

      You are absolutely right – it is often hard to make individual portraits in urban India, because as soon as you show the camera, a scrum seems to form both in front of – and behind – the lens! I certainly experienced that many times on this shoot in Mumbai. However, I found through patience and perseverance that there were also plenty of places where I could find children playing in ones and twos in relative solitude on the doorstep of the family home – and these were the children I was able to photograph.

      Great to hear you found some inspiration here.

      All the best, Ian

  3. 11 June 2012 at 2:23 AM

    Wonderful images and interesting piece. I too get lost while photographing.. So far the best place I’ve found to get “lost” in is Venice, but you have indeed peaked my interest in Mumbai!

    • 11 June 2012 at 2:57 AM

      Thank you Susan, glad you enjoyed the post and the photos. I will try getting lost in Venice some time – I have seen some wonderful photographs from Venice courtesy of David DuChemin. The challenge in Mumbai – as Rob Durkin pointed out in another comment here – is being able to photograph without a sea of faces in front of the lens; I imagine that the challenge in Venice is rather being able to avoid the other tourists.

  4. Suzanne

    11 June 2012 at 12:50 PM

    Thanks Ian – stunning images. I particularly enjoy the first and third one – simple images filled with the BIG character of those little people!

    Having worked in travel its refreshing to see a pilot truly engaging with a ‘destination’ & it’s people – photography is the perfect instrument for it… and is much appreciated by those of us grounded for a while :)

    Suzanne

    • 11 June 2012 at 11:05 PM

      Suzanne, thank you for stopping by the blog, and taking the time to respond – I appreciate it. It’s a valid point you make about engaging with a destination and its people: my ‘day’ job flying aeroplanes is enriched immeasurably by the enjoyment I get from photographing the places I fly to and the people I meet there. Photography and flying complement each other perfectly – I feel very lucky to have the opportunities that I have to photograph on my travels around the world. Hope you won’t be grounded for too long!

  5. Lisa Brockman

    11 June 2012 at 3:35 PM

    Ian – Really, really lovely images. Fantastic actually – every one. Looks like it was a terrific afternoon. Thanks for letting us all see these. Lisa

    • 11 June 2012 at 11:10 PM

      Lisa, thanks for taking the time to comment and for your kind words – it was a fantastic afternoon spent photographing some wonderful people. Glad you enjoyed the photographs.

  6. Norma Garton

    11 June 2012 at 9:57 PM

    You are an absolutely amazing photographer!

  7. Patrice Flesch

    13 June 2012 at 2:21 PM

    I can’t believe you took all those fabulous photos in one afternoon! You are really talented. If you ever stop being a pilot, you have another career waiting for you.
    I’ve photographed in alleys in slums of India myself. We you ever afraid of being lost or having your cameras stolen? I was, but I did it anyway. Brave or foolish? Fortunately, nothing happened.

    • 13 June 2012 at 11:18 PM

      Patrice, thanks for the words of encouragement – great to hear!

      I have been lost on numerous occasions – I walked around Delhi in a very heavy monsoon downpour for an hour and a half, and could find no-one who could tell me how to get back to the hotel I was staying in. I had my camera with me, and it took the full force of the Indian monsoon – even the locals were running for cover! That was the day which convinced me of the quality of the weatherproof sealing on my Nikon D700. After an hour and a half, I had the good fortune to ask someone for help on the street who happened to be employed by the hotel I was staying in. Without the help of that person, I would have been out on the street for several hours more, without a doubt! I was literally soaked to the skin when I finally made it back to the hotel. I now never leave the hotel without my cell phone, and I have an app installed on it called “CityMaps2Go” (http://ulmon.com/) which is absolutely fantastic – you can download maps for your destination before you leave home, and it superimposes your GPS location on the map once there – so no data roaming charges. Before I leave my hotel to go out on a shoot, I drop a pin on the map showing the location of my hotel, and bookmark it. That way, even if the auto-rickshaw driver doesn’t know where my hotel is, I can direct him.

      With regard to theft: I am more worried about not being able to photograph than I am about having my gear stolen. I try to stay very aware of my surroundings, and of who is in my vicinity when I am photographing. I am also fully insured. But I would never not take the camera and lenses out with me for fear of theft: that, for me, would be the real tragedy.

      I feel generally pretty safe in India, also in the slums. Of course something could always happen anywhere, but in general, I find Indian people extremely friendly, courteous, and welcoming. I love India and its people, as you can probably tell from my photographs.

  8. 13 June 2012 at 8:40 PM

    I love this set of pictures, Ian. I also really agree with your statement about shadows and HDR. Some HDR enthusiasts aim to make absolutely everything in every spectrum of light seen and defined, but their images sometimes turn surreal and lack drama, form and depth. Knowing how to use the shadows as well as the light is part of the continuing art of photography.

    And it’s a knowledge you possess and use, Ian! Keep up the great work.

    • 13 June 2012 at 11:31 PM

      Josh, great to hear from you: thanks for stopping by the blog.

      I am not anti-HDR by any means, as I think there are many HDR images which are fantastic. But there is definitely a lot to be said for ‘LDR’ – I do love the drama and mystery of deep shadows, and the sense of volume, modelling and three-dimensionality they can create.

      Great to hear you liked these pictures – thanks for the endorsement!

  9. 22 June 2012 at 7:25 PM

    Wonderful work – really high class!

  10. 26 June 2012 at 7:59 PM

    So many great street portraits. I really like how you keep attention to keeping them clean – not too much clutter and colliding colours around.

    My favourites are:

    No.1 – You wonder why he his standing there – what is going on and I also like the lines.

    No.7 – Woman with curtain – because of the flirty smile.

    No. 11 – Kid in pink and blue shirt – The light and pose is extraordinary and you are so close and yet still the kid is in its own world. I would definitely use this in a competition if you like competitions :-)

    No.17 – The colour combination makes it timeless and he has a funny pose.

    • 8 July 2012 at 12:59 AM

      Eli a.k.a. Frøken Norge, thanks for taking the time to comment – and for your encouragement. Interesting to hear which images resonated the most with you. I think No. 11 is my favourite also – together with No. 2. I also found it hard to believe that the boy on the ladder in No. 11 was unaware of me – he really must have been far away with his thoughts at that moment. The light was certainly beautiful – I could feel my pulse quicken the instant I saw the combination of light, composition and gesture, and tried to slow down so I wouldn’t screw up the shot – although I was worried at any second he might notice me and change his wonderful stance and expression. Fortunately for me, I was lucky, and he did not!

  11. 8 September 2012 at 12:21 AM

    Nice candid portraits. Unfortunately, few adults. Indian adults are so typical even in a westernized city like Mumbaï !

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