Under the dusty sun of North West India, in crowded cities and quiet villages, the story of Rajasthan is told in the faces of its people. Lined faces tell of a lifetime of toil while retaining a contentment that comes with a hard day’s work. Elders appear proud of their wrinkles and sun-cracked skins, understanding them to be symbols of what is important to them: to care and provide for family and community.
The above is an extract from a new article on my time spent with people from cities and villages of Rajasthan, India. To read the full story and view more images, click the link to the full story on Maptia.
Under the watch of Mehrangarh Fort, within the twists and turns of medieval laneways and alleys, Jodhpur’s Blue City feels a world away from the chaos of Rajasthan’s second largest city. An oasis of calm in the midst of the noise and calamity that is India.
Under the clock tower, a bustling market signals the beginning of the old town. This is the unofficial border between modern Jodhpur and the city’s origin. Indeed this is the part of the city that attracts most tourists, however as I make my way uphill slightly and through streets that become narrower with every turn, the clatter falls away and a sense of calm begins to take hold. It is as if the Brahmin blue painted cube houses themselves are having a soothing influence. The streets smell of spices and burnt votive candles.
After a few minutes I’m lost. In a good way. I have a map I could check, but somehow it doesn’t seem important. This is a place to wander, the ideal setting for being lost. I wander up and down, taking a left turn here or a right there, with no other intention than to see what might be around the corner. I pass children playing in the street, old men and women sitting on doorsteps, sleeping dogs, tiny neighbourhood temples and shops. Occasionally the peace is disrupted by a motorbike barrelling through the narrow lanes, but soon returns to normal. The day is warm but it feels cool in here, partly because only shards of sunlight filter down through the buildings, and partly because the coloured walls soak up the heat.
Around one corner, a grandmother sits with her grandson on her lap, playing a game of peek-a-boo. I wave as I pass and they both waive back, both surprised that a foreigner has wandered this far away from the tourist area.
Around another corner, two boys are blowing bubbles, watching them float upwards into the sky. So engrossed that they don’t notice me at all.
Along another street, women in bright saris pass on their way to buy supplies for home, their colourful dress exaggerated by the soft blue walls. Some are curious I am there, others pay me no attention.
Finally and suddenly, and quite by accident, I am back near the clock tower market. It is dusk now but the market is still trading, bargains being struck and goods and money changing hands. This will go on late into the night, but back in the neighbourhoods of the Blue City quiet prevails. Occasionally their is the bark of a dog, or sound of a rickshaw, but they are short interruptions to the peace that exists in the midst of the chaos.
Something is tugging at my leg. I’m oblivious to it at first, concentrating on making a photo of the surrounding landscape, then become dimly aware as the tugging continues. I look down to see a pair of big brown eyes above an even bigger grin, too big for the small face that contains them.
“One selfie please,” she says. It’s more of a demand than a request, I’ve learnt from experience over the past week of being in India. In a sign of the times, I’ve also learnt that “selfie” is one of the first words of English anyone learns. If someone knows no other English, they know “selfie”.
“Ok,” I say, knowing full well I have no choice in the matter. Not that I mind. It is refreshing as a photographer to visit a country where people, children especially, are not only open to having their photo made, but often bluntly insist on it when they see camera in hand. There is an openness about people here. Where we in the West are instinctively guarded around strangers, having been told of dangers posed since we were old enough to understand what our parents and teachers were saying, most Indians have no hesitation or fear in rushing over to a foreigner and asking for a photo. I’ve taken a few thousand photos while I’ve been here so far, but I think I’ve been in even more.
I kneel down to the girl’s height and start making photos as she poses confidently. This isn’t the first time she’s done this. Probably not the first time today. We pause for a moment so I can show her the images on the back of the camera. She giggles happily. All of a sudden we’re surrounded by many more eager little faces straining for a look, and more delighted giggles. Inevitably, everyone wants to be in a photo too. Little bodies scramble over each other and shove others out of the way to get in front of the lens. Poses are struck, and costume changes made. There is much laughter and use of the “ok” hand sign, a universal expression of approval. A few aren’t entirely happy with their result though and insist on another try, to which I oblige until a satisfactory outcome is achieved.
This scene goes on for a while (there is a small army now) and could go on all evening, but friends are waiting for me. I start to move away and the crowd moves with me. They’re not done yet. Fortunately, I’ve now had some experience in extricating myself from these situations. Whereas a week ago I would have been stuck there until they lost interest, now I put the camera back in its bag and simply keep walking. The cries of “Selfie, selfie, photo, photo,” gradually turn to ones of “Bye, bye.” Turning to waive before leaving I see that no one looks too upset, not even those that didn’t get their chance to be in a photo. Instead they waive, and begin to scatter, presumably in search of the next foreigner with a camera.
Just before climbing back in the jeep, I hear faintly a small voice speaking to someone else: “Selfie please…”
I’ve been in Mumbai the past few days before heading onto Delhi and Rajasthan, and was fortunate to meet some of the happiest, friendliest people I have ever come across. These are the people of Baiganwadi slum, a slum in West Mumbai of around 200,000 mostly Bangladeshi residents.
Many assumptions are made of the living conditions and people to live in Mumbai’s slums, which have existed for centuries but have come into a more worldwide consciousness only recently due to movies like Slumdog Millionaire. Rather than the despondent, disconnected and lazy people they are stereotyped to be, people here are happy and exuberant. They are industrious and hard working. Some travel outside of the slum area to work long hours of hard labor, while others set up business in their homes tending to the needs of neighbors with services such as tailoring or furniture making. Others collect and sort the city’s garbage for recycling.
Children play happily in the street at marbles, hopscotch or cricket, improvised with fence paling bats and bound rags for balls. They are exited to see a stranger, especially one with a camera, and jostle and shove each other out of the way good naturedly to have their picture taken.
Below are just a few of the many wonderful people I met here.
Earlier this year I visited Christchurch at the end of a trip around New Zealand’s South Island. Although I was only in the city for a few hours, the small part of it I managed to see carried the weight of the recent tragedy that befall the city, but also a sense of optimism amongst the rebuilding of the downtown area most effected.
In September 2010 Christchurch was hit with a 7.1 Richter Scale earthquake, devastating much of the city’s east and surrounding area and causing mass power outages. This was followed by several aftershocks, the most damaging being in February 2011 which measured 6.3 and resulted in the deaths of 185 people. Christchurch’s CBD had 80% of its area demolished in total.
Today, walking around the effected area, the devastation is still apparent, but so is the rebuild. It is often hard to see which buildings are coming down and which are going up. City blocks of nothing but rubble sit across seemingly untroubled green spaces. If the saying that adversity breeds character is true, then then the character of Christchurch and her people is one of resilience and ingenuity. Tragic as they have been, these events have given the people the opportunity to create a new way of living by the repurposing of old materials and use of green, renewable energy sources.
Perhaps the best example of this resourcefulness is the Re:START mall. A mall constructed of disused shipping containers in an effort to encourage retailers and customers back to the city centre as soon as possible. Since beginning with 27 businesses, the mall now houses over 50 permanent businesses as well as food stalls and buskers.
The Cardboard Cathedral was built after the destruction of the original cathedral and is one of a kind, being made substantially from cardboard and shipping containers. Described as a transitional cathedral, the building will eventually be replaced by a more permanent structure, but in the meantime serves as a reminder of Christchurch’s bright future.
185 empty chairs is both art installation and memorial to those lost. Amongst blocks of grey rubble and a few crumbling office buildings, sit 185 white painted chairs of all shapes and sizes. Dining table chairs, wheelchairs and children’s chairs amongst others represent the people from all walks of life who lost their lives to the earthquake. It is a somber but beautiful sight, and an insight to how a community has come together to both remember and move towards the future.
Arriving pre-dawn at London Bridge, I can hear the ocean rumble from the carpark. It sounds both distant and very near in the way of a building storm. Nature in surround sound. The still black sky seems to amplify the effect.
It is hard to imagine the magnitude of the cliffs below me, even though I have been here many times before. The giant sandstone cliffs of Victoria’s coastline have always seemed unreal to me, seen from the viewing platforms. Like looking at a miniature model. Only when down on the sand beneath do I appreciate their true size.
The land and sea around me are ancient, and feel all of their years. Leaving the Great Ocean Road and pleasant seaside villages that dot it, it is easy to feel like time has somehow missed this place. Like nothing has touched this terrain for thousand’s of years. Ancient rainforests of fern tree, redwood and myrtle beech grow in the Otways hinterland. This land strips away all pretence of significance, and reminds me that our lives here on earth are but fleeting. These forests and coastline were here thousands of years before us, and will be here for thousands of years after.
Slowly the black curtain lifts and the source of the rumbling becomes visible. The Southern Ocean seems angry today, bashing away at the sandstone as it has done for all time, wearing it down little by little and causing great chunks to break off and fall into the sea. To feel the glass smoothness of these rocks is to understand the power of the ocean.
The rock that is unveiled by the dawn is called London Bridge for the arch that has been worn into its belly. This outcrop was once connected to the mainland until part of it fell victim to the ocean’s rage, just as many of the original 12 Apostles have done at various intervals.
The gathering light seems to diminish the power of the ocean, though I know this isn’t the case. The sunny morning belies the danger in the swells and reefs just offshore, which have famously claimed many ships caught in their swirling power.
Heading back away from the clifftop, the roar once again fades into the distance and I am again back amongst the scrub and bushes that cover the area. The contrast between this peace and what is happening only a few short metres away is hard to ignore, and is perhaps the perfect example of this area of Australian coastline; where both nature’s power and finesse are on display.
In southwest Tokyo, where the subway station opens its mouth and spills the city’s commuter masses onto the street, lies Shibuya Crossing. This is where all roads meet. Shibuya is the Tokyo of our futuristic dreams. A place of towering buildings, blinking lights, pinging pachinko machines, giant screens, neon and lasers. Surrounded by the glass skyscrapers is Tokyo’s and possibly the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection.
Like a dam that fills and breaks over and over, Tokyoites pour from Shibuya Station, from shopping boutiques and games parlours onto the curb waiting for the lights to change. While they wait, they watch trucks pass carrying advertising billboards with images of a chart topping J-pop group and blasting their latest offering. They watch and listen to a football player tell them why they should buy the newest Honda. Then the lights begin to change, the traffic that had been buzzing through the space slows and stops and rows of headlights shine like spotlights onto a stage. There is a brief pause. For a moment it is calm, almost peaceful in this city of over 30 million. A collective deep breath is taken before the lights change from red to green and the scramble begins. Pedestrians break from the teeming curbs and make their way to the other side across one of several zebra crossings, ducking and weaving through other people heading in every direction with casual dexterity, narrowly avoiding a swinging shopping bag here and a foot there. It feels like the entire city is here. They have come dressed in their finest to eat, to shop, to see and also be seen. On this Saturday night, Shibuya is the centre of the world.
Eventually the crowd on the street thins, the lights go green again and the cars and busses that had been patiently waiting, watching the performance move off again. As vehicles pass through Shibuya Crossing, the crowds on the curbs begin to replenish and the humming of friends chattering starts to grow again. By the time the lights change again, the dam has been refilled and the show repeats itself as it will throughout the night until stores, bars and restaurants finally close and it is time to catch the last train home.
This photo took me two years to make. Let me explain.
“Is it left or right”
“Um, not sure,” said Amy.
“What do you mean, not sure?”
“Well, the map says go left, but the sign says go right.”
“The map isn’t that clear. Lets follow the sign.”
This, as it turned out, was the wrong option.
We were in search of Wreck Beach, a stretch of coastline at Moonlight Head along the Great Ocean Road, infamous for being the final resting place of the Marie Gabrielle (1870) and Fiji (1890), two cargo ships bringing tea from China and supplies from Germany, and most of their crews. It is one of the Great Ocean Road’s most sought locations, yet one of the most difficult to find.
As we drove along in the late afternoon, the road became narrower and sandier and littered with deep potholes. By the time we realised our mistake there was no room to turn around so we had to keep going to find somewhere we could manoeuvre the car into what became a somewhat awkward, bumper scratching 9 point exercise in patience. This done, and despite the now fading light and increasing chill, I noticed that we were on a ridge above rolling green hills and a beautiful vista and the dusk had started to pick up a pale pink colour. I decided to set up my camera.
“Um, don’t you think we should be getting back?” Amy was getting nervous.
“Yes. Just give me a few minutes first.” Clearly we weren’t going to make it to Wreck Beach today, but I was a photographer dammit, I wasn’t going to leave without making a photo. Amy just rolled her eyes.
It was dark by the time we started back again, and cold. It was the kind of winter day where the morning dew never really lifts. The abundant potholes were still filled with water from earlier rains, which was good since it made them easier to see and avoid. Becoming increasingly paranoid about these craters, we slowed to a crawl, steering one way then the other to creep around them and at the same time stay out of the brushes. Then it happened. Thunk, scrape. Metal on gravel.
We both stared at each other for a moment, neither able to find the words. Then we did. The car exploded in a series of expletives and fists pounded on dashboard. The accelerator was tried, and tried again knowing it wasn’t going to work. Pushing didn’t help either. We were stuck. Stuck on a potholed country track in now pitch blackness. There was no mobile phone signal here either. The only thing to be done was to start back to the main road, which we did first by torchlight and then, when the battery failed, using the light from a mobile phone. We walked mostly in silence. I didn’t dare say a word for fear of having my eye socket rearranged by the end of a torch.
After what seemed like hours, we finally came to a house and amid barking dogs, knocked on the door and asked the owner, Tom, to borrow a phone to call roadside assistance.
“Shouldna taken the right fork,” he offered after hearing our story. I bit my lip to stop from mentioning we were well aware of that now. The guy was trying to help us after all. He shook his head to himself as if to say “Another one”. Tom was typical rural Australia, complete with flannel shirt and the kind of accent that blends all of the words in a sentence into one long vowel.
Roadside assistance turned out to be 3 hours away. Seeing our faces as we processed this, Tom shrugged and started to reach for his keys, “Guess we’d better shift ‘er ourselves then. I’ll just get me truck”, and with that shuffled off to his shed. After much clanging about, there was a cough and splutter of a car engine and Tom reappeared in an ancient Toyota Landcruiser with torn vinyl seats and a cracked windscreen.
“Sorry took s’long. Hadda find a tow chain. In ya get.”
Seconds later we were tearing back down the same gravel roads we’d just trodden along so carefully, the springs in the Landcruiser creaking with each bump. Tom didn’t seem at all bothered by the dips, bumps, squeaks and creaks. Picking up speed even as the road deteriorated. This, I decided, must be how the windscreen cracked.
Eventually, after much cursing and tyre spinning the car was hauled from its ditch and we followed Tom back towards the house and civilisation, only getting stuck once more on the way.
After a warming cup of milo and a quick chat we headed back to our rented cabin, grateful and looking forward to a hot shower. The car fine apart from being covered in mud.
It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I made my way back to Wreck Beach. This time in early morning in the middle of summer and making sure to take the left fork. I walked the beach for the hour or so that the tide allowed and made the above image. Driving down the beach road and back I passed Tom’s house and thought about stopping. I doubted he would remember me though, if he still lived there. For him it was probably just another Saturday night rescuing some idiot tourist who’d taken the wrong turn.
This young Vietnamese man is a tailor at Ba Chiu Market in Saigon’s District 6. All day, every day he works away at his ancient Singer machine stitching trousers and shirts for his neighbours and attending to repairs of old garments brought to him by those who simply cannot afford new clothing.
Ba Chiu Market is not on the tourist trail, and the locals here are surprised and curious to see a white face. The tailor looks up from his work as I pass for the first time his small tent stall, raises an eyebrow in surprise, then smiles broadly, genuinely. I give him a self conscious nod as I pass. He goes back to his stitching.
After a time wandering aimlessly through the narrow market alleys, I end up quite accidently back outside the tailor’s shop. I’m so focused on photographing other stall holders and the goings on of the market that I don’t even notice that I’ve been along here before. But the tailor notices me. He’s stopped work completely now and when I eventually look up and see him, he beckons me over and offers me one of the fried rice crisps he’s been snacking on. I take one gratefully and, not knowing a single word of Vietnamese, make the appropriate mmm noises and gestures to indicate a tasty treat. All I have to give him in return is a few pieces of fruit I’d bought earlier in the food section of the market. Knowing that he likely eats this stuff every day, I hand over some rambutan and sour star apples which he accepts graciously and puts away for later.
We spend a time trying to communicate through the ancient system of hand signals and body language and I manage to convey that I have come from Australia, at which point his eyes light up and he starts making the internationally recognised gesture for Australia: a kangaroo hop. His friend, who has been watching our little slapstick comedy show the whole time with an ever widening grin, finally can no longer contain himself and bursts out laughing. A loud, honking laugh that stops the tailor mid hop and he sits down again a little self consciously.
We continue on and he tells me his name: Còng (which I later find out means skilful or industrious), he also says he has two little children and has been working at the market since he was 16.
Finally, I sense it is time to move on and thank him for his time with another nod, which he returns in kind. On my way down the narrow alleyway heading out of the market I glance back and see him again bent over his machine in concentration.
“Do the penguins know we’re here?” asks the little girl.
“Yes, they do,” replies Dan, our tour guide and penguin expert. “But because we’re looking at them through such a small hole in the wall, the penguins can only see very little of us and so they think that we’re smaller than them and not a threat”.
Our group start to laugh at this little nugget of penguin logic before remembering we have to keep quiet so as not to scare the incredibly shy bird that has waddled up the beach and is now standing and preening only a couple of metres away.
I’m sitting in a camouflaged wooden hutch on a private beach at The Penguin Place on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula. The temperature is dropping fast as dusk creeps up, but no one seems to mind. We’re here to see the Yellow Eyed Penguin, the rarest and most elusive of all penguin species, and the first has just waddled up out of the ocean and begun to climb the slope and head inland. These penguins nest on land and they will spend the night here before heading back out into the ocean at dawn to fish and eat. It is April and Dan explained earlier that this is their fledgling period, where last season’s chicks have begun to go out to sea, and adult penguins need to eat and put back on weight they lost before being confined to land while they moult their coats and grow new ones in preparation for a new years courting season.
They have only a few weeks to do this and it is a dangerous time for the penguins as energy levels are low and they are exposed to starvation and attacks by predators, which include foxes and ferrets on land, and sea lions, fur seals and sharks in the water. It seems like everyone is out to get them, and indeed only 20% survive to adulthood.
There are only around 3,000 Yellow Eyed Penguins left, and The Penguin Place offers a sanctuary free from predators for these rare and elusive animals who otherwise may be too afraid to venture back to land because of who might be waiting for them. Their numbers have been gradually increasing since 1990 when there were estimated to be only about 300. This is due in no small part to the dedicated team at The Penguin Place, who fund their conservation work entirely from the informative and entertaining tours that have run daily since 1985 when Howard McGrouther gave over his own farmland to care for the penguins and provide them a safe place to raise their young.
Also to be found on the grounds are New Zealand fur seals, blue penguins – “the smallest penguins of all but with the biggest attitude,” offers Dan – and the occasional yellow crested penguin who are more common on the west coast but occasionally take a wrong turn and end up on the Otago Peninsula.
The penguin outside our hutch cranes his neck, stretches his wings outwards and with a wiggle that starts at the neck, gathers momentum as it travels downwards and ends up in his tail, lets out the kind of squawk that could be expected from some giant, prehistoric ancestor. Then, as if he just realised he’s forgotten his house keys, turns around and waddles quickly back down the slope from where he came. His little head dips below the horizon and we can no longer see him, but we can hear more squawks. Everyone looks around at each other, confused, wondering if we’ve scared him away. Then we hear the same squawk from another voice, and the response from our penguin. A moment later two little penguin heads bob above the horizon and our friend returns with what Dan explains is his penguin girlfriend. Still squawking at each other, they sound like a bickering married couple. Which I suppose may not be far from the truth.
Despite the apparent argument, the two penguins seem happy to be in each others company and spend a few moments circling each other before continuing their waddle along the small hilltop and into the brush to find their nest.
No one speaks for a moment, just a lot of silent grins at the rare sight just witnessed and the similarities to humans in the way these little birds interact and communicate with one another. Then a moment later, a whisper: “Look, there’s some more!” and we all turn to look out onto the beach again as more Yellow Eyed Penguins, a whole extended family this time, hurl themselves out of the water, bellies full of fish, onto the sand and begin the long amble back to the safety of home for the night.
The Penguin Place is located outside of Dunedin on New Zealand’s Otago Peninsula and is a privately owned and fully self funded conservation reserve dedicated to the survival of the endangered Yellow Eyed Penguin.