Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2000/08/15

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Subject: [Leica] India report #2
From: "Robert Appleby" <>
Date: Wed, 16 Aug 2000 04:38:38 GMT

Another week in Dharavi, "the largest slum in asia". It's raining again, 
after a two week break, and doesn't look like stopping soon! This means 
running about with Mahendra, my assistant, following me with an umbrella in 
true Steve McCurry style, the only problem being that half the time the 
result is a persistent drip of water down my neck. The streets are flooded 
and muddy, and my feet look like a drowned man's feet with deeply ingrained 
dirt at the end of the day. Still it's better than sitting in the office!
I've been photographing in Kumbarwada, the pottery colony in Dharavi, an 
eleven acre piece of land near the Central Line railway tracks. This is a 
flourishing trade with lots of export, mainly to indian communities abroad 
and the far east. The people are of the Kumbar caste from Gujurat, are 
traditionally potters, and are extremely friendly and amused at the sight of 
a photographer paying them so much attention. A highlight was the aftermath 
of a funeral, at which the women, who cannot accompany the corpse to the 
cemetary, pray and then have a rowdy waterfight with buckets and hoses to 
wash away their tears and refresh their spirits. All in a downpour. Changing 
film in these circumstances was hairy, to say the least! The women in 
particular are extraordinarily friendly.
Another interesting area is the leather colony, where the old tanneries 
were. Again, this is an export trade, but the tanneries are now banned from 
operating and the leather factories have to import skins from Madras, Kanpur 
and other parts of india. Still very interesting and challenging to 
photograph. Most workshops are pitch dark and require at least one eighth of 
a second exposure at 1.4, so a bit of flash is required. However, Im trying 
to use just a touch to prevent the flash from dominating the exposure and 
just using it to give an edge to the motion blur of people working at 
breakneck speed. Paradoxically, with flash my exposures are longer than 
without! The results so far are very encouraging.
One more interesting and rather moving incident. The first day of heavy rain 
I came across a woman building a shelter with her brother-in-law. Tabassum 
had a pukka (brick) house in Dharavi until five years ago when her husband 
lost both legs in a car crash. The medical bills forced her to sell the 
house and move to the footpath on Matunga railway bridge. I photographed her 
building her shelter out of bamboo sticks and plastic tarpaulins, and then 
with her children. Her husband now works as a watchman or receptionist at a 
highrise residential complex in nearby Andheri, and only sees his wife and 
children on Saturday evenings. He earns 700 rupees a month for this fulltime 
live-in job, which is equivalent to 16 dollars or so. Believe me, in Bombay 
this is an insult, and even my Indian friends could not believe how little 
he was getting paid. A minimum wage would normally be about 2,500 rupees. I 
shall be continuing to photograph Tabassum over the next few weeks. Although 
my subject is not poverty, this is an important part of the documentary for 
me, as a counterweight to the general middle-class, upwardly mobile tenor of 
the piece.
Finally, I've started photographing along the railway tracks where the 
houses are about 2 meters from the passing commuter trains. It's 
hair-raising trying to keep an eye out for trains while photographing people 
from the tracks themselves! But good fun.
So, that's it for this week. Next week I intend to rent a room or find a 
hotel near to the slum to be able to photograph at night and early in the 
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