I was in one of Mumbai’s slums. I had made a point that I would visit slums and photograph. I would go into slums with an Indian friend and start speaking to families randomly, asking questions about how they lived, what they did for a living and asking to photograph inside their homes. Each one had an interesting story, each one was mind-blowing. On one of my slum trips my friend and I had gone off the beaten track to inspect a suspect-looking hump of discarded metal shreds. This particular heap of metal looked so out of place, it was such an oddity, that I spent a good 1/2 hour trying to understand why it was there and trying to communicate how ominous it made the place feel. There was a pool of horrid looking acid, an unbelievable stench and a general feeling of despair that was very much contrary to my experiences in the slum so far. I had encountered upbeat, hopeful, graceful people.
So anyway, there we are, standing in this muck trying to figure it all out when two young slum boys approached us. They can’t have been more than 10 years of age. I noticed them out of the corner of my eyes. They just stood behind us and waited. What for I did not know as yet. I kept looking around and they were just looking at us. They didn’t say or want anything. I kind of tried to say ‘hi’ but they didn’t communicate back.
After about 5 minutes of them standing there, I turned around, walked up to them, took a picture of both, checked that the pictures came out and nodded to both in turn. They nodded back and walked away. I didn’t think about it further.
When I returned to the hotel room that night as I was through my photos for the day, it dawned on me what had happened and realized ‘these boys know more about photography than I do’.
What had happened was this – these boys had been following us on our little tour around the slum, seeing that I am a westerner with a camera. When we go to the area that they called their home (the area in the vicinity of the metal scraps), they approached me and wanted only to achieve one thing – to tell their story in the way that they knew I could. They wanted to communicate the despair, they wanted to communicate the hope, the pride and the optimism of the slums, they wanted to show that it was serious business but there was a grace to it, they wanted to have their life’s hardship documented in a photo. They didn’t want to speak to me, they didn’t want to have an autograph (that happens a lot in India!), they didn’t want to even have their picture taken just for the fun of it. They were there to TELL A STORY. And that they did.
When I came upon the photo that I had taken of these two, I stared at their pictures for what seemed like an age. They are my favorite capture from more than 4000 exposures on my India trip. I learned what it meant to communicate non-verbally, and through a medium as restrictive as photography.
The photo that resulted from that encounter is below: