Tall, White, Bald and Inspiring - Visiting the first ever Hyderabad Photo Festival

The photo festival scene in India is still in it's infancy. There are times when one regrets missed opportunities for not just the individual but for the whole fraternity. This is usually followed by rants of personal and collective struggles but then, a time comes when you smack yourself in the head, pack your bags and leave. A few weeks ago, along with fellow photographer Nishal Lama, I went to the inaugural Indian Photography Festival - Hyderabad. Though our trip was very brief we intended to make most of it by attending talks and discussions and a photowalk with the likes of Ben Lowy, Barbara Davidson and others. Given below are the pictures I made along with some observations and inspiration that I got in the process.

Boy near Charminar

Boy near Charminar

Ben with his strategically placed tattoo

Ben with his strategically placed tattoo

Volunteers of the festival regroup and take a break between two sessions

Volunteers of the festival regroup and take a break between two sessions

Nishal at the main gallery

Nishal at the main gallery

On the first evening, we witnessed a panel discussion like no other (more on that later). It was on the topic "Formal Education in Photography" - Importance ???' Barbara Davidson reminded us here to learn how to feel and not just how to see. How do you get feeling into your pictures? Learning how to see in a cookie cutter way gets boring. It doesn't say much about the depth of the intent and content of the subject. You have to learn to SEE how you FEEL.

Fall in love with the craft and have an appreciation for it. Technical skills is not that which takes a lot of time. The wisdom which comes from experience and commitment to the craft is that which is important. You have to learn to SEE how you FEEL
~Barbara Davidson
Street Vendor near Charminar

Street Vendor near Charminar

Cops coming to check out why there are 15 people hanging out in one spot with cameras in their neck

Cops coming to check out why there are 15 people hanging out in one spot with cameras in their neck

Attending Ben's talk and doing a photowalk with him was quite an experience. Those who have spent event a short while with him know that his style and humor is as uncanny and fun as it gets. Ben described himself as this tall, white bald man trying to navigate his way during assignments in countries and situations where he's pretty much like a chicken entering a KFC joint.... And what we know from the last few years is that he's done a fantastic job at getting excellent photo stories back from the field. Now talking about shooting, though Ben showed us how he used a whole lot of varied gear to do his projects... Everything from medium format film to iPhones... He brought us back to the fundamentals saying that "the camera is an amazing tool... Not just for photography but to learn. You can use the camera as a shield to learn and have empathy with what's in front of us." 

There is one topic that Ben touched upon that I would like to share here. The question of avoiding clichés and fear of standardization in photography. How do we make sure that what we shoot is not cliche? Doesn't this fear often stop us from even attempting to photograph a scene? This is how Ben wonderfully answers it:

"Everything has been done before but not everything has been done by you. Before you press the shutter, all experiences of your life play into that moment as to why and how you will shoot that picture. So in that sense it's worth it."

Often we worry about shooting the same thing over and over again when we shoot. We feel stuck in a rut and we freeze. We're burdened with shots which are different than ours. Shots made by or heroes and photographers much more accomplished than us. Paraphrasing Ben here: As artists, cliches are something we should not worry about when we shoot. When you see a scene, shoot what ignites your soul. At the moment of the shoot, do not think of cliches. Just shoot what you want at that moment. Do not stop yourself from shooting fearing clichés. A frame may be cliche for someone else but it's not for you because this is your artistic moment. You can think of other methods of shooting before and after the shoot (when you go through your edit). Also something that is extremely important that ties in with this topic, a photographer is judged not by single images but by a body of work. Over time, a few shots which represent your style may turn out to be a great body of work even if it looked cliche at the time it was shot.

Everything has been done before but not everything has been done by you. Before you press the shutter, all experiences of your life play into that moment as to why and how you will shoot that picture. So in that sense it’s worth it.
~Benjamin Lowy
An animated Ben sharing his tips with photowalk attendees.

An animated Ben sharing his tips with photowalk attendees.

The entire photowalk group stuck on to a by lane where we saw a man purifying silver. Though we probably wasted 20 minutes of his time (with all the people hounding him with cameras), this was a great opportunity for Ben to teach us some stuff.

The entire photowalk group stuck on to a by lane where we saw a man purifying silver. Though we probably wasted 20 minutes of his time (with all the people hounding him with cameras), this was a great opportunity for Ben to teach us some stuff.

Old school silver purification. This method looks (and smells) very poisonous but the man doing it told us about how this was an occupation which he inherited form his father and his father from his grandfather. A school dropout earning minimal wage doesn't have the luxury of engaging only in medically safe jobs.

Old school silver purification. This method looks (and smells) very poisonous but the man doing it told us about how this was an occupation which he inherited form his father and his father from his grandfather. A school dropout earning minimal wage doesn't have the luxury of engaging only in medically safe jobs.

Street scene near Charminar

Street scene near Charminar

Alley near Charminar

Alley near Charminar

Ben... Just being Ben

Ben... Just being Ben

Portrait of Nishal shot just after our photowalk

Portrait of Nishal shot just after our photowalk

Visual feast inside the train we came back in. Indian Railways never ceases to amaze me.

Visual feast inside the train we came back in. Indian Railways never ceases to amaze me.

Two not so pleasant observations which will hopefully turn into learning experiences for me and others who attended the festival:

  • The definition of a 'Panel Discussion' and an 'individual's' talk is very different for Indians. Apparently the person with the loudest voice and most aggression wins. And the very idea of Panel is kind of meaningless because we have our own homegrown local superstars within the audience (both established professionals and students... yes students) who find it their duty to interrupt and tear down the discussion with their unsolicited comments. What could have been a great learning tool and an opportunity to get valuable information from these wonderful photographers who are more than ready to share is pathetically turned into a chaotic mess. Never mind that these photographers and instructors have flown thousands of miles and come here just to share their knowledge and inspire people. Their genuine interest and humility is torn down by what seems to be a typical parliament session. Less the flying chairs... I'm reminded of the quote by J. P. McEvoy "When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new." Apparently this idea doesn't look attractive to most people.

  • Another unfortunate anomaly my country treasures is putting people on a pedestal for their years of experience and connections more than for their quality of work or what they have to offer. A senior photographer is always a great photographer. Right? In many ways, I'm thankful for events like these where there is a level playing field and a person can make up their own mind about someone's work and go beyond the usual blabbering of 'I've been to so and so country on assignment and I have such and such awards under my belt'. Is it just me or do Indians specialize in saying and enjoy listening to such stuff? By comparison, Barbara Davidson didn't even mention that she was a Pulitzer Prize winner during her introduction at the festival during the Panel Discussion. And not to mention how many extreme countries and situations she and people like Ben have been to! I mean guys really? Sometimes it's just plain embarrassing. At the end of the day... Or your career... All that matters is your work and your humility in character. Note to self and other fellow Indian photographers: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time." - Abraham Lincoln

So in a sense this festival was eye opening in many ways. I'm also glad to have connected with old friends, new friends and friends I haven't met in person. Mahesh Shantaram, Madhavi Kuram, Russell Hart, Swarat Ghosh and many other people who added that special zing to my trip. Considering that this was the first attempt, Swarat and the team did a pretty good job getting all this together. The photography community in the country sure did benefit a lot because of this event. Big thank you again to Benjamin Lowy, Barbara Davidson and Russell Hart. Your genuine interest in helping and sharing with fellow photographers in the journey goes a long long way.

Customary parting shot

Customary parting shot

Let me end with something that Ben said when he was asked (after a heated crossfire) about what he would like to be known as 100 years form now.

100 years from now I want to be known as an awesome father.
~Benjamin Lowy