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Rickshaw Driver 101: The Crash Course In India

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

Little girl from the 1st village I stopped at

While in Mysore, India I wanted to focus on getting some people shots, while using my light kit.  I had no real plan ahead of time on how I was going to do this or where exactly but knew if I could find one person to get me access to people willing to pose, then everything else would fall into order.

On my second day in Mysore I happened to meet a local guide, named Vicky, and used him the next day to take me around Mysore and see the sites.  He wanted me to hire him the next day again to see other tourist sites but I told him I wasn’t interested in any more temples… I was interested in people.  I asked him if he knew where a good place was, that I could go with my big camera and light set to photograph people.  He thought for a moment and replied, “Yes sir, I know small village not far Mysore.  People there I know.  This place is good, I take you yes?”

We agreed on prices for the day and I explained exactly what I was looking for.  I didn’t wanted to just show up and shoot a few random photographs but needed people to actually pose for me, while I used my lights.  I was willing to pay them but on the condition they actually pose and not just stand there for 1-2 photos, grab the money and leave.  That I can get on the streets anywhere and wasn’t what I wanted or needed.  He said ok and we set up a time to meet the next day.

0900 Vicky and another guy show up at my hotel.  I thought we were ready to go but first I needed to stop by the bank to exchange some larger bills for smaller ones.  I didn’t want to hand out 1,000Rs notes to everyone and needed something smaller.  As in India, nothing runs like it does in the Western world and we had to wait till 10:30, as this is when all the banks opened.  Ok, whatever I thought, so we did.  Then afterwards Vicky sent us on a wild goose-chase looking for a petrol station to get fuel.  This took another 45 minutes with circle-backs, wrong turns and stations that didn’t have any, until we finally found one that did, which happened to be about where we started when we took off.  Remember thinking “I hope this whole day doesn’t turn out like it is so far Troy!

Finally with fuel and money taken care of we took off to the countryside.  I guess I need to mention that I didn’t go to bed the night before as well.  Somehow I got myself on some weird sleeping schedule the last week or so and I ended up staying up all night working on blog posts for an upcoming series I’ll be featuring (be on the look out for it, called “Featured Artist”).  So I have been up now for almost 24hrs and I quickly start to feel it.  I’m laying my head against the rickshaw trying to catch a quick wink of sleep and the other guy keeps hitting me.  “Sir is you ok?” while he puts his hands together and lays them across a check to simulate sleeping.  “Yes” as I grumpily reply, “I love India!” and try to go back to my happy dream for another five minutes.  Didn’t happen as he kept asking me why I wanted to sleep and if I was ok and happy.  Indians crack me up at times and aren’t bashful about asking the obvious.  I get a total of six minutes of sleep but I feel awake and ready to go.

Vicky starts to slow down the rickshaw and asks me if I want a drink.  Which really means he wants to have some brandy or beer.  “Vicky, it’s noon!  I don’t want to drink I want to work.  Keep moving, time is money”, to which he replied quickly (and I love this) “Yes you’re right sir, we get a drink afterwards!”  He might not be the only alcoholic rickshaw driver in Mysore but at times like this I think he is the worse one of bunch… how do I find guys like him all the time?

We finally show up at the first village and it looks about what I need.  I tell Vicky the layout of what I need and off I went to find a location and do a few test shots to see the lighting conditions.   I walk back and ask if he found anyone who was willing to get his or her photograph taken and he says no.  I ask him if he asked anyone and he says no.  I see where this is going, so I tell him lets go find someone and off we walk.  I see an older lady and ask if he thought she would be willing to.  He says something in Hindi and she replies something back, looking a little lost.  I show her my iPod with photos on it that I have taken before but she doesn’t get it much.  Vicky tells me she’s not interested and that this village is no good for photographs.  “Then why did you bring me here man” I reply, “…if no ones is willing to be photographed?  I thought you knew these people?”  He shrugs is shoulder and I realize I’m going to have to do this all myself and he’s basically just going to be an assistant to hold the light and translate.

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

I walk to the end of the village, smiling as big as I can and find a family looking quite curious at us.  I have Vicky translate what I was hoping to do and the father smiles and says I can photograph him.  He’s not really what I’m looking for but think “It’s a start and hopefully it will lead to something more!

I get the lights out and by then I have him and about 10 kids surrounding us near the edge of a field.  I take a few shots of him but quickly found out all he wanted was for me to photograph all eight of his kids.  Ok, ok, I won’t complain but if it gets me closer to what I had envisioned then great.  I work through all the kids willing to stand there and then some.  I get laughs and snickers when I show them the LCD screen afterwards.

I finally ask if I can get a photograph with his wife and their smallest child.  He says yes but when I look back to see her, she is shaking her head no with a half grin.  I make a sad face but her only response is “Children photo.”  I give up and pay the man some rupees, thank him for letting me take my time and photograph his family and leave.

Vicky assures me the next village will be better and off we go down the road looking for it.  We drive five minutes down the road and all of a sudden Vicky does a 90-degree turn left into a side road, about flipping us over in the process.  Now I have figured out his system.  It’s called driving around in a rickshaw and randomly pulling into people’s lawns, hopping out and saying “Hey I got this American who wants photographs, who wants to get photographed!”  Smooth operator this guy, maybe I should buy him some brandy!  Oh well, maybe I’ll have luck this time.  Nope!  I again get the same response of it’s cool to photograph the kids but none of the ladies are willing to.  I did find one who wanted some money but said I would pay her 100Rs but she actually had to pose for me, where I wanted and earn it.  She laughed and said, “Ok sir!”  I get one style of photos from her but she quickly ran off after the first pose. Fail #2!

At this point I am about to give up but Vicky is saying he knows another “village” that will be better.  I say I doubt it and can see this going on and on all day, resulting in nothing but kid shots.  This wouldn’t bother me so much but I personally would find it a bit creepy if a foreigner showed up in my town taking nothing but kid photos everywhere.  In my opinion Michael Jackson ruined it for photographers like me in that aspect (joking but you get the point).  Kid photographs are easy to get in India, as they are always curious and want to.  Getting adults to, as in actually pose in front of a light set and try different things is something else.  Yeah I could have just as easily not used the light kit and just shot off hand like I normally do but my mission for the day was to use it, learn and get my skills better while building my portfolio some.

Vicky wanted a drink but told him I didn’t, so he said he’d just get a chi instead.  I wait in the rickshaw while him and the other guy have one.  I’m feeling the sleep deprivation by this point.  I just want to go back to the hotel and crash, happy with that I tried but lesson learned.

Vicky finally comes back and off we go.  I tell him I’m done and he agrees with me as he noticed I put the light-set back in the bag.  We’re driving along and again Vicky does another hard 90-degree left turn and I almost loose the camera bag out of the right side of the rickshaw.  “What are you doing man!” I yell, while trying to pull myself back in.  Before I could get an answer he’s out of the rickshaw and talking to some old man sitting down.  He comes back to the rickshaw 30 seconds later and says, “You take photos here, is ok.”  “Ok, ok Vicky, I get that you want to help and all but I don’t want to waste anyone’s time and just get kids shots.  I want to shoot adults, use the lights exc.”  He shakes his head and starts to grab my gear out of the rickshaw, “Is ok, you take all photos you like.  Old man say is ok.  You take his first photo, then everyone will see and want to sir!”  Humm we might have struck gold!

I get out and to his word, the old man let me photograph him.  He was all cool, laid back and wore a half smile.  I did about five shots before breaking out the light kit.  I start pulling it out and now I got four other guys around me asking questions, wondering what I’m doing.

Long story short, we ended up staying at this place for an hour and as fast as I could shoot I had someone else wanting their photo next.  It was like a title wave compared to before.  Kids, women, old men… EXACTLY what I was wanting!  And the kicker was, no one asked for any money, they just wanted their photograph taken over and over.

We finally finished up and by this time I was dead tired, my flashes were hot and I needed something cold to drink.  I thanked everyone, shook 30 hands over-and-over, and then we left.

Vicky was more excited then anyone, as he kept looking over his shoulder while driving and asking me “You happy sir?  Good photos you get?” all the way back.  I finally asked him what he said to the old man to finally get us access and he replied “I tell him you a famous photographer from America working for a magazine and that you wanted to put photographs of them in magazine.

Ahh, and I thought paying money or the truth would work!

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

This was a man at the 3rd village.  He begged me to take his photo and actually became a real camera whore before it was over with!

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

One of the 10 kids I shot photos of at the first village.  Not sure why but he gave me this real serious look for the photo.  Everyone wants to be a gangsta these days I guess… even little Indian boys.

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

The 3rd village where I had fun.  Hardest part here was trying to get single shots of the kids, as they all wanted to jump into every shot.

Mysore, India and its people in photographs

The old women at the 2nd village that I paid money to.  This was the only pose I got and she quickly ran off after that.  Still money well spent I think, as it turned out great. I guess I should note though, that in this picture where I placed here next to the tree was an ant hill I didn’t see, which might explain why she ran off and had such a serious face.  My bad :(

For you camera geeks out there:

  • I used a Canon 5D Mark II with a 24-70mm lens (my photography gear is here)
  • I shot in Tv mode, setting the speed at 1/200 sec and adjusted my aperture up and down from there.  ISO about 200-400
  • 1  Canon 580Ex II Speedlite shot through a Westcott 28″ soft-box, mounted on a stand that my driver held for me. Triggered with PocketWizards.
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  • http://www.lostaruban.com Nestor

    Wow, great story and even better photo’s. I love how you light the people, somehow feels natural. I admire your determination, I think I would have given up after the first village and gone for those drinks with the driver.

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    Drinking with the driver would have just costs me more money! lol I was hell bent but the lesson here is be prepared and have a GOOD guide (or driver) with you if you don’t have an introduction to an area. Case in point; not everyone is impressed with a big camera and light set, as here it was only 1-3! :)

  • http://www.shenventure.com Adrienne @Shenventure

    Wow, thanks for sharing the backstory. Great photos, and now I appreciate them even more knowing what went into getting them. I’m just starting out in photography and am only taking candid people shots at the moment. Perhaps I’ll muster up more boldness and determination down the road…glad you finally struck gold ;).

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    People shots are the hardest and even for me it can be a challenge at times, but trying it out you’d be surprised at how it’s not as intimidating as think. Make it a plan for a day and i promise you, you will get at least 1 photograph that made the whole day worth it. I checked out your photo-essay about the street graffiti, NICE shots! :)

  • http://www.rebeccaandtheworld.com Rebecca

    These are absolutely stunning photos! I only wish I could capture a portrait like that. What photo editing program do you use?

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    I didn’t edit them much (other then to fix a few blemishes and add a little extra color to make it pop). But for 95% of all my photos I use Adobe Lightroom3 for my edits. Hands down the best software I use! The light kit has really helped in making my portraits better and glad you liked them!

    checked out your blog, Chiang Mai was great for me (except I did get the worse case of bed bugs there but I don’t hold that against them!). Added you to my Twitter account and look forward to reading more of your updates! :)

  • http://www.shenventure.com Adrienne @Shenventure

    thanks, appreciate it! alright…one of these days i’ll make it my plan and will hold you to your promise haha. will let you know how it goes when that day comes.

  • http://twitter.com/OdysseusDrifts Melanie Ehler

    Beautiful! Love the first photo of the little girl and the later photo of the man holding the flute, especially. I wish I wasn’t so shy/awkward about taking people’s portraits. 

  • MUGS_aza

    GREAT SHOTS. love the color intensity/ and contrast. especially on the flute holder. Do yo do much photoshop retouching?

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    I don’t use Photoshop at all to edit, only Adobe Lightroom3.  Everyone keeps saying the guy with the “flute” but it’s actually a spade for digging.  Kept seeing people saying stuff about the man with the flute and I was racking my mind on which photo they were talking about as I didn’t remember taking any photo of someone with one! lol  But yes, I agree I really liked that one as well but I think the old lady (last photo) was my favorite.

    If you liked these, check out next week when I do a series on Black & White photos, as a lot of them are the same people. :)

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    I was reading your website and seen you were at Jaisalmer to, which is where I am now as well.  Liked your post about India but sorry to hear about the broken foot.  After reading your post though, you almost had me talked into buying a blanket here… but thank god I’m not easily persuaded into such acts! lol  Anyways, you have a nice blog and enjoyed reading it, esp the India parts! :)

  • http://www.rebeccaandtheworld.com Rebecca

    Even more impressive then! I actually won a copy of Lightroom from Matador a little while ago and have been working to figure out how to use it best. It’s a great program and I’m finding it easy to use so far.

    What a shame about the bed bugs – youch! Thanks for checking out my blog – appreciate it!

  • http://colehaber.com/ Colehaber.com

    these are amazing photos. i’m always very shy about asking people – i appreciated hearing your technique. beautiful stuff, its always worth it.

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  • Jean Wethmar

    Wowie.. amazing black/white photography..  your pictures would make a stunning coffee table book! A new challenge?.. I look forward to it being published.. keep them flowing.. Ps.. I lead tours to Vietnam.. want to join a small top end group?.. see my website for details.. http://www.thecapeclub.com – still 4spaces left in Oct.. Vietnam is amazing for photographs as well..

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    Thank you for the comment Jean and not sure though about a coffee table book though, as they seem to never sell.  Go to any book shop and those will be the ones you find 75% off because they can’t get rid of them! :)

    Also, putting a link to your website about tours in the comment is the quickest way to get your comment marked as spam, on most sites I edited the link out and section out).  Not sure if yours was or isn’t (as I have seen 1 other comment form you before) but I edited it out.  Please refrain from it, as it would be like me adding my RSS feed link to your site in the comments (which wouldn’t be cool). And no, sorry I don’t do high-end tours as I am a long term traveler and it’s not something I can justify when traveling but know that not everyone is like me and there is a market for it. :)

  • http://www.foggodyssey.com/ Anonymous

    I’m not sure it’s a technique but it all boils down to “if you don’t ask, you won’t ever know” and find that some days it’s hard to get a response but when you do, it’s worth it!  Just make it a point one day and try… let me know how it goes when you do.  (like your site by-the-way!)

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