Although I’ve always loved portraits, I used to avoid taking photos/videos of strangers because I was afraid to ask permission. One of my aims this year was to become more comfortable in asking to photograph/video strangers and surprisingly I found that people were either flattered (some more than ready to strike a pose) or baffled and shy. Even when I’ve asked people who haven’t wanted to be on camera, they’ve always been kind in saying no and helped me to realise that this really is the ‘worst’ that can happen, which is much less important to me than missing the chance to possibly capture moments like this in media.
Whilst taking photos of the Taj Mahal, I made a distant sign to these boys to ask whether it was okay to use my camera and I was received with smiling and those distinctive Indian bobblehead nods. This is one of my favourite moments from my travels, and one I’m so grateful I was allowed to capture. I’ve been a diligent student of Adobe Premiere/Final Cut Pro youtube videos for the better part of a year, and this being my first proper venture into filmmaking – I’m excited to fail my way to a greater understanding of the art. After getting detained in Tunisia earlier this year over my apparently suspicious Zhiyun Crane camera stabiliser, I decided to leave it behind on my subsequent travels to Mexico and India and was left with the handheld shaky look. Let’s just use the ‘I’m still a beginner’ excuse for the next few……
We had gotten up on to this rooftop in our saris, and between taking photos with a group of Korean tourists who gave us immense joy by ‘kimchi’-ing on the count of three, looking out for ravenous monkeys scuttling across the overhead cotton canopies trying to steal our paneer tikka, and trying to capture the magic of the golden hour sun through the polluted (yet annoyingly beautiful) haze of an Indian city, I noticed these boys on their rooftop flying their kites.
In Agra there is an obvious disparity between the opulence of this building in a city that has more than half the population living in very poor living conditions, the ability for tourists to come and go to see an old building representing a kind of magnificence more than uncommon in the modern city. This played into the reason this moment felt so particularly special to me is the pure innocence of it. The innocence of boys flying kites on rooftops overlooking the Taj Mahal, almost as though they could be anywhere in the world, but it just so happens they’re right in front of one of the most iconic buildings to have ever been built. That none of that matters when you’re in the middle of a kite contest with friends peppered across your city. And perhaps seeing anything every day would make it pretty normal right?
Timing was in our favour here. Even being there to listen to the prayer call moving in a daisy chain from mosque to mosque around the city, expanding across the sky with the kites, watching the dusty heat of the day almost visibly dissolving into the cool night. All details that illuminate why so much about this moment is so beautiful to me.
I’d never seen the Taj Mahal from this perspective and hadn’t expected these layers of the city to be crowded so intimately around it. Ironically it was its stillness at the centre of the life surrounding it that made the building really come to life for me. It made sense that the city would congregate around it, warm and multicoloured against the ivory marble, providing the contrast that is so central to India. It took me a while to recognise that contrast. At first, it wasn’t apparent to me – the cities we visited were an attack on all the senses in the best possible way. It was volume loud, brightness high.
This is a subcontinent, and having seen only the tiniest part of it I would never be able to say that this is a reflection on an entire country but for me, contrast took on a new meaning in the areas of India we visited. Not so much in the binary loud-quiet/traditional-modern way we might associate with places like Kyoto in Japan, but in the massive array of elements that make up Indian culture as a whole. The wide body of Indian cuisine, the visible difference in landscapes between the states, the blend of people from multiple religious backgrounds, even down to the combinations of colours seen on everything from buildings to saris. A land of everything.
It would probably take ten lifetimes to experience all that makes up India, but tiny moments like this defined an enchanting introduction for me.