A walk on the trash mountains
My eyes are filled with tears, because of the smoke. The plastic-particles in the air are itching in my lungs. I am climbing this mountain with my two friends. The ground under my shoes feels funny. It softly cushions my steps, like fresh and loose soil, but I also tangle my feet every now and then. It is an awkward mass, this mountain of pressed trash. It consists of very different material and yet is an entity. A mountain of poison. Not only for the body, but also for the soul. And everywhere pigs! I think I have never seen so many pigs walking freely in the wild. Is that appropriate husbandry? I somehow start to understand, why some religions do resist to eat pork. If, by eating pigs, I eat what pigs ate, then abandoning might be a better choice.
These are my thoughts, while I am climbing this giant mountain. I am cold, numb and have to keep up my emotional wall, to be able to stand what I see. Children are climbing everywhere on this mountain, to collect plastic bottles in giant trashbags and later sell them for a starvation wage, which is even in an Indian context far too little to justify the health hazard of the work. Women in colourful Saris walk around and create an abstract contrast to the brown-grey mass of garbage. Three young men fill a bag with trash and I ask them “Ey Bhaya, kya main aapka tasvir kheech sakta hun?” Can I take a picture of you? „Nahin!“, I am baffled. It rarely occurs that Indians reject your request for a picture. But I also understand why. The feeling of shame sits deep in the members of the Safaikarmchari-Community. The self-esteem suffers from the vicious cycle, in which those people are trapped, who were born at the wrong time at the wrong place. My companion tells me: “Don’t need to ask. If you ask, they will say no. Just make picture.”
Tutorials for photography
Tipps and tutorials for travel photography are various. I have read books, watched videos, listened to Ted-talks and researched on blogs. My favourite Youtuber is Thomas Heaton. He does photography very calmly and focussed. I learned from him how to set up my camera for landscapes, how to find the right light by getting up early and how a good composition works. My images are probably not as good as his, but I am on a good way. However, I am more interested in people. I am fascinated by the closeness of images of Oded Wagenstein, whose books, Ted-Talks and podcast-interviews I read and listened to. His portraits tell stories and that makes them outstanding. I also love the portrait of Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, because it also tells a story. Before shooting it, Karsh pulled the cigar out of Churchills mouth, to break the walls of that famous world politician.
My idol however is Sebastiao Salgado, whose project Genesis has been my first step towards photography. I remember how I saw his images in the souvenir-shop in the London Natural History Museum, regretting that I did not have the time to visit his exhibition. But I finally got his book as a present and a little flame started to burn. I finally could, accidentally, see his exhibition in Ljubljana and became fascinated. I already understood a little more about photography, but what I found there, was unimaginable for me. Salgado’s book Exodus made me cry, while the story of his life showed me, that photography is more than just taking pictures. It’s taking stories.
Travel photography and ethics
All these experiences have taught me how to shoot good pictures. But they did not tell me one thing: How do I deal with my position as a photographer? Photography can be just aesthetic. Portraits, fashion, landscapes. People join for a project and part again. Or you hike up a mountain at the right time and shoot. That is one thing. But it is a different thing to take pictures of the life of humans. Especially in travel photography.
I do not like the word “travel photography”, by the way. It is a western term and often means that a white man goes out and takes pictures of exotic people and places. What is travel photography for us, often is the everyday life of others. You will hardly find a portrait of a German with the hashtag #travelportrait. But the business is big. Travelhashtags run crazy on Instagram and after all, it suits somehow. At least, I am travelling. But I would be happy to one day find an image of mine on Instagram, titled as a travel portrait. Maybe the West should be exoticised as well. We are strange people, after all.
But the debate about that title unveils another topic. The asymmetry of power between photographer and photographed. In most non-western countries, the right about one’s own image is widely unknown. And if it is known, it is hardly implemented. I could theoretically upload pictures of anyone here and no one could complain. The photographed people would struggle to file an action even if there was rule of law. I could do what I want, without consequences. Do I want this? How do I get consent in photography? I did not find a tutorial for that.
I am quite straightforward in the communities, in which I live, though. It’s a kind of exchange for me. I am permanently forced to take selfies. There are videos of me, dancing on weddings, which are shown to me by complete strangers. In India, do like the Indians do. These are my friends, whom I take pictures of and put online and who took pictures of me and put them online. At least I try to take care that people would not be looking too bad on the pictures. But what about strangers?
Photographing the slum
I am now living with the Safaikarmchari Community for more than four months. I know their stories, know the lethargy, which influences their life. The doubts, alcoholism, work with trash and dirt and the vicious cycle in which the people are trapped. I know that the people are smart, friendly and most of all unimaginably hospitable. They are open for talks, invite you and love selfies. Private sphere and the right on one’s own picture don’t bother anyone. Except from me. Because I have found my own project. We have visited a Slum in Kolkata. A friend of my friend Vimal. The scenery was impressive, in a photojournalist’s perspective. I have seen a lot in India. That happens when you live with the lowest subcaste of the lowest caste. I have seen families, whose house consisted of nothing more than a cupboard, TV and a bed on which all seven family members slept.
But the Belgachia-Slum was different. It showed the situation from its most inhuman side, in images that spoke for themselves. I am still coughing from the burning plastic, which has invaded my lungs two weeks ago. The slum is located directly next to a giant dumping ground, which burns day and night. The smell, smog and trash are the main part of people’s everyday life. And yet, guests are welcome, cared for in the best way and treated with care. It is easy to make friends here. If you want.
A week after my first visit, I decided to go back to Belgachia, to take pictures. I knew: This is something like my project. I want to visually capture the life of the communities, which I have already theoretically captured in the past months. My project would have a topic. The lives of the lowest caste in India. No travel photography, but photojournalism. One topic, many pictures. Maybe a message to the people, who see the images. But how do you capture misery with respect? How do you get consent for images, that some people might see as shameful?
First of all I must not listen to my companion and just shoot, but I have to ask or at least take a picture that obviously, that it would be easy for people to reject the picture. If people say no, they say no. Then I have an image less, but I can sleep better at night and did something good. That’s the most important rule. The argument that I just get staged images that way, does not count. With a little bit of patience and experience, you can take pictures without posing. Or you use the pose as a form of character and narration. That is the art of portraiture. The second thing that I can do is to listen to the people, to get in touch. Not to go to the scenery, shoot and run away, but to stay overnight, drink tea with the people and talk. That is miraculous and provides trust, which will also affect the quality of the images. I cannot get to know all people on my photographs, but if I deal with the community, I have done my best.
Poverty tourism vs. Photojournalism
There is a danger of becoming a poverty tourist. Or worse, to exploit it for business purpose. It became quite obvious to me during a conversation at the tea-stall. “You know, many people come here in a car, get out and shoot many pictures. This Slum is very famous. They just come, shoot, leave and sell the pictures. This is why many people here are suspicious about people with cameras.” I felt bad. Was I one of many, who used their position to take good pictures? Yes and No. My position definitely is of great use. But my motivation is different. I do not want to sell images of poverty, I want to present stories. I sit with people and try to find out more. I do not want to picture them as poor as possible, to sell the image to fund raisers. I want to meet people with respect. Maybe I do not always achieve that, but to try is all I can do. Somehow it is important to show these stories. We need to permanently get reminded of the realities of hunger, war and modern slavery.
I will definitely shoot images, which the people will not like afterwards. That also happens without photojournalism, with friends or passport pictures. I am not perfect, I can just do my best. But when I consciously act and decide that I did not unrestrainedly misuse my position, I can say, I acted in a morally good way. Every situation is different and there are not tutorials for ethics and moral. I want to meet people with respect. I show them my images, check if they are happy and try to get a feeling of what they like and what not. That is often difficult, because their ideas of aesthetics often differ from mine. I am happy when I hear comments like „Wow. Hero pic.” Or when people see my images and want to be portrayed themselves. Then I know, that I have consent, that people trust me. And as long as I am aiming for that, I know that I do it right.
The end of the story
The following pictures are a glimpse into my two days in the Belgachia – Slum. I would love to read your comments, suggestions and critique.
About the Author
Nils Heininger is a camel-lover, anthropology student, author, photographer, and actor. He is currently working on his Anthropology M.A. thesis, exploring the culture of India. He lives with the Balmiki community and enjoying the simple life. If you’d like to see more of his work and read his blog, check out his website and follow him on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.