India. Here’s where every market and train station so fully encapsulates the human experience — where every cup of masala chai is an honest little revelation. It’s a visual place, and an ineffably sensuous one at that. Mandy Sham muses on how to commit it to photographs.
Words and Photography by Mandy Sham
On my first trip to India back in 2017, there was a moment when life’s elegance, of that incredulous yet effortless sort, simply clicked into place. I was floating on the Ganges in Varanasi, camera in hand — watching a puja, or ceremonial worship, unfold in a spectacularly musical fashion. Women in shapeshifting saris cradled sugarcane and sweet limes. Chai wallahs manoeuvred, with callous and efficient grace, across the concert hall of boats — a grand performance of life to which we were all complicit, and could not help but adore.
“In all the places I’ve been, India is still what feels most human — ripe, and rich.”
Almost exactly two years later, I returned. I was drawn to this brazen sincerity that India had impressed upon its visitors — the way it seated one at the forefront of life with an unwieldy steering wheel, barreling like a rabid tuk tuk through all manner of love and uncertainty. I’d found this same indelible presence in a bowl of Rajasthani mutton curry, and in the delightful absurdity of Bollywood movie-going at an art deco theatre.
In all the places I’ve been, India is still what feels most human — ripe, and rich, with the spectrum of our best and worst nature. It’s what draws me as a traveller, and most especially as a photographer, to capture the chaotic beauty of these contrasts and what they might reveal about us. It may be my favourite place to photograph in the world — which is why I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how best to capture its essence in images.
“I’m partial to a 35mm prime lens because it reflects presence.”
Go with the flow
The nature of India is so broad and uniquely applicable such that just about any lens you’re comfortable with using will do. I’m partial to a 35mm prime lens because it reflects presence — of having physically placed yourself, the photographer, at the scene. It also carries the perfect balance of intimacy — close, but not invasive. The 35mm invites deeper inquiry into the interior worlds of those situated in the shot, but remains wide enough to preserve exterior relationships and exterior space.
For a little more versatility (an all-important factor in shooting in India), consider bringing along a wide zoom lens — anywhere between the range of 16 to 70mm. This helps capture little nooks and corridors that are close quarters, while also getting around the constraints of being too far away. It’s especially beneficial for landscapes and architecture. To see the other items of photography gear I carry when travelling, you can read the packing list I compiled earlier.
Home is where the people are
The first thing about India — what people first notice when they disembark from the plane, and feel with palpable thickness in the air — is its density. With a current population of 1.3 billion people, there’s no way around the particular chaos of having so many humans in close proximity with one another. Life veers at a million miles a minute, and relishing India means facing this density head on.
Capturing the frame-by-frame complexity of this country is no small task, but a most rewarding one — and it’s one that begins in cities. Delhi and Mumbai are spectacular concentrations of human life. Though not as iconic as the Taj Mahal or Ganges River, they span the umbrella of an incredibly diverse social strata.
“I believe that photographing India means, first and foremost, photographing people.”
I believe that photographing India means, first and foremost, photographing people — and, more deftly, being able to relate those people to the places they inhabit. That might mean considering how the subject’s background fills in the texture of the overall story. Do they fit in? Does it look more like a menagerie of incongruous elements strung together? There are endless narratives interwoven in the fabric of everyday mundanity, and a lot of poignant storytelling comes in isolating one or two.
This in part is why I feel a particular injustice in subscribing to more ‘iconic’ and Instagrammable pictures of India — a lone traveller framed by palatial archways, for example. If you’d like to claw at the heart of this place, let it get messy; shoot people and streets, and adapt your photography to a more visceral approach.
“Make a point to visit places where you can be steeped in the hub of typical, everyday activity.”
Follow the mundane
India has no shortage of forts and palaces — a living history of age-old empires that emanate a deep wellspring of colourful, cross-cultural pollination. You’ll find this essence distilled at innumerable landmarks across the country, but recognise that a lot of India’s idiosyncrasies reveal themselves to you in more innocuous locations. Where you can, make a point to visit places where you can be steeped in the hub of typical, everyday activity.
Markets, regardless of whether they belong to the food or bric-a-brac variety, are ubiquitous examples of where culture can most be observed, and condensed, in India. Beyond being an unctuous explosion of the senses — body heat mixed with lingering notes of asafoetida and the sweetness of ripe mangoes — these are places where people can be observed at their most bored and unadulterated.
To that end, I’ve also enjoyed visiting, and photographing, places of transience and flux. The times I visited Churchgate Station in Mumbai were nothing short of magical — a foray into an overwhelming intersection of worlds, from schoolchildren on the commute home to tight-collared businessmen, jogging alongside trains that had begun to pull away from the terminal. Railway stations are the microcosmic in-betweens of this country — a roof over people who are utterly anonymous in their pursuits, and invisible to all but those who’d like to observe.
“Try to incorporate the senses in your work. Lead by pops of colour in saris, buildings and streets. Play with low-lying angles for added intimacy.”
Lead by senses
Looking back on India conjures fenugreek and cardamom dreams, a dance of silk and pashmina, and holy rivers flowing adjacent to holy banana lassi shacks. Seldom is there a country so wholeheartedly evocative and sensuous; India possesses a rich palate of experiences for artists and photographers, and plenty of opportunities to play and experiment with them. Try to incorporate the senses in your work. Lead by pops of colour in saris, buildings and streets. Play with low-lying angles for added intimacy. Experiment with shutter speed; it can imbue photos with the frenetic pace at which cities move.
Look beyond the facade
The Indian subcontinent is itself an extraordinary mosaic — encompassing such varying and ephemeral definitions of what it means to be Indian (not to mention the diaspora of many other communities within). You’ll be most rewarded by visiting a larger scope of destinations in different geographical regions, from the mountains of Kashmir to the backwaters of Kerala.
Take the diversity in landscape, culture, and people as an opportunity to showcase regional quirks of different states across India. I find that this is most felt, and showcased, in the architecture of an Indian town or city; visit the local temples, residential neighbourhoods, and historic palaces and forts. Rajasthan is known for its ornate Mughal facades, whereas Mumbai has a range of colonial-era buildings spanning Gothic, Victorian, and Art Deco.
“Capturing the frame-by-frame complexity of this country is no small task.”
One morning in Udaipur, I watched a puja unravel at the Jagdish Temple. People sang and danced, erratically waving fronds and oil lamps. It felt as though I’d been utterly swept by the crowd — floating in the insatiably mellifluous chants reverberating across the white marble hall. This distillation of pure joy brought me to tears. In the end, I didn’t have any photographs to commemorate it.
Some of the most beautiful and poignant things you’ll experience in India will be lost to the confines of memory. There will be moments you shouldn’t photograph — out of cultural sensitivity, or individual respect and privacy. My hope is that there are moments where, in the thick of the experience, you simply forget to take them. This, after all, is India — a trust fall, a renouncement of inhibitions, a subcontinental ocean of possibility. To be in it is to surrender yourself to the tide.
All photos in this guide to photographing India were shot with a Gobe 3 Peak CPL filter.