Learning about Local Life in India

Greg Boles headshot Greg Boles

Greg’s love of photography began in high school when he took a B&W film photography class as an elective. Seeing the image magically appear before his eyes in a dark room got him hooked. He’s been taking thousands of pictures annually ever since. He recently rekindled his love for street photography and foreign travel with a 17 day trip through India. He now plans on taking a street photography vacation every two years and is thankful that digital photography allows him to delete all the bad photos taken along the way! You can follow Greg on Instagram @street_images

What motivated you to do the GivePhotos project?

I qualified for a company paid sabbatical to travel anywhere in the world for a few weeks. The only requirement was that I had to do something for myself and others. I chose GivePhotos because it was a great way to combine my love of street photography with giving back to those who lack photographic memories of their loved ones. I wanted to interact with real people, from all walks of life, and GivePhotos was the perfect way to share something of value with others. It gave me the chance to get know over 50 families in India across 7 cities on a personal level.

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“One of the biggest slums in India is located in the capital of India in Delhi. The entrance to the slum is strewn with trash. These boys were rummaging through garbage to locate a large piece of wood they could use as fuel to cook their family’s dinner. The children were playful, happy and eager to have their picture taken.”              – Greg Boles

Can you share some memorable stories with us of your experience giving photos?

I have four standout experiences:

New Mom – I gave photos to a woman who gave birth in a tent village the day prior, on a sand floor, no doctor, no drugs, no midwife. I found her the next morning, dressed in a beautiful purple dress and just having completed nursing her one day old baby boy. She was so happy I could document the birth.

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Crumbling Walls –  I met an elderly couple who lived in what looked like a bombed out, single room home, but really was just crumbling bricks and a partial wall. They had a single cot as their only material possession, which doubled as a bed and place to sit. Despite their lack of comforts, they seemed happy to have each other and their local community which brought a richness to life that seems lacking in the US.

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Anniversary Couple – I also met a couple who asked me to document their 30th wedding anniversary. They asked me to photograph them in front of a Hindu “temple” which was really a makeshift shrine where they worshipped with their neighbors.

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Family of Five – I met a family of five that lived in a cement 9’x6′ room, no windows, no electricity, no running water, no furniture, no bed, no toilet, no place to cook. They had the clothes on their back. Had you not seen them in their home, you would have never believed they were so poor. They invited me in to take a photo in their home with their three young children. I learned that if all you have are clothes, you take care of them and use your dress as a way to convey pride, self respect and follow traditions.

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How did people react? Did the experience change your outlook on people in any way?

When you give the gift of an instant photo, it creates a human bond between you and those you meet that is instantly warm and friendly. The resulting pictures are priceless and often candid. In India I learned a common refrain, “Guests are like a god,” and so they treat strangers with the same kindness they would extend to a friend or family member. I was often invited to have tea and partake in the little food they had, which was remarkable. I learned that those with less (food, material possession, money etc.) often are the ones willing to help others and share what little they have. It was powerful to experience this first hand. While I did the GivePhotos project mostly among the poor, I did also give photos to a few others I met along the way and the connection I had with them as a result was special.

India is rapidly industrializing so now is a great time to go as you can see see how agrarian and poor people lived 300+ years ago right next to a modern, educated, mobile phone carrying business person. Cows, goats, camels alongside motorcycles, tuk-tuk taxis and trucks co-mingling in the streets of India was not uncommon at all. India is a colorful melting pot of people, colors and regional and ancient cultures.

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“In India, the women dress so beautifully that you often cannot tell who is middle class and who is poor. This family was having a picnic in the park. The family had little to eat so I bought them some potatoes from a nearby street vendor and gave them a photo too.”             – Greg Boles

What photography equipment do you usually use?

I used an Olympus OM-D EM10 Mark II mirrorless digital camera with 2 kit lenses, 14-42 mm and 40-150 mm for zoom. I found I used the regular 14-42 mm lens the most as I was usually in close contact doing street photography. I travelled alone, and simply kept my spare batteries (on most days I used 3-4), lenses, snacks, facial towel, chargers for phone & camera etc. in a light photography backpack as I walked the streets about 8-10 hours a day and rarely returned to my hotel during the day.

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“The grounds of Homayun’s Tomb are a tranquil and peaceful respite from the busy, honking streets of Delhi, India. It was on these grounds that I found an older woman tending a small patch of shrubs that were her day’s work. She did not smile for the photo as she had few teeth. Despite her shy nature, she took great pride in her job and was grateful for the photo which she put in her small purse.” – Greg Boles

Do you have any suggestions for people who would like to give photos?

1) Just do it. It is the most unique & incredible experience. I prioritized my day based on where locals would congregate. Don’t under-estimate tourist locations as locals are often there as tourists themselves or selling their wares. I found the #1 most common tourists in India were other Indians, so I had plenty of people-photography opportunities in open markets, parks, monuments, forts as well as in slums areas.

2) Do not worry about approaching people. A warm smile is all that is needed to be disarming. A sample instant photo can convey your intent. In the slums and villages in India that were self-contained or a short 10 minute walk from the outskirts of town, I hired a local tour guide interested in adventure (the cost was $15-$25 for half a day). This allowed me to be even more accepted into the community. The local guide’s approval of me added a comfort level which allowed me to take photographs inside people’s homes.

3) Expect to have overwhelming demand once word gets out you are giving away photos. I found myself often attracting 5-10 kids, teenagers and adults flanking me wherever I walked, wanting me to make a family portrait for them. I never felt unsafe, just very popular! I typically gave away 30 photos in each village I visited over several hours. Bring more film and spare batteries just in case.

4) Take a photo with the Fujifilm Instax camera. Then while it is developing, take your digital photos. Get candids of the people watching the photo appear before their eyes, laughing and showing it to others. Finally, get a digital photo of you and your family holding their instant photo (guide/translator can take the digital photo). For photos and people I thought were particularly special, I would take a digital close up photo of the instant photo which helped capture the memory I gave to them so we could both enjoy it for years to come!

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“The grounds of Homayun’s tomb are vast and require daily upkeep, most by poor grounds workers like this gentleman. He was removing the tiniest leaves and sticks from a small water irrigation path beneath him in 100 degree heat and harsh direct sun. He took several poses and was happy to have a photo as a keepsake.”                          – Greg Boles

Would you do it again?

Yes! Enthusiastically. I hope to make GivePhotos and street photography vacations a bi-annual experience. It brings me closer to local culture and people. It’s among the most rewarding and memorable ways to do foreign travel.

 

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Greg Boles with boys from Shadipur Slum, Delhi, India

 

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