On sugar & story-telling

I liken much of my travels to one giant scouting trip. I want to see as many places around the world as possible. But my ultimate intention is to come back to the best of the places and shoot in more depth. I have realised however that with the amount of places I’m seeing, I might not be able to come back to all the ones that interest me in one lifetime. 

My solution to this strange dilemma has been to find some kind of balance. Once I’m interested in something, I slow down and dig deeper. I explore the subject from different angles. I shoot one, two days, look at the images, see what I could have done better and try to do better if I have a chance. Sometimes I might realise there's so much potential for a photo story that I must stay longer. Other times the scouting trip simply gets extended by a couple of days.

I only planned to stay around the sugarcane region for a day or two, but that turned into a week. I kept finding more to photograph. A lot was happening at the first farm we went to, then we met the nomads and then... we found another farm. 

Often I don’t know whether what I shoot will turn into a photo story. Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned, the potential becomes obvious and I'm compelled to stay. Other times I might realise that I have enough photos for one after shooting. I do however always shoot with a photo story in mind. 

When you hang around a place for some time, certain elements start to stand out. When you shoot with a story in mind, you want to build your photos around some of those elements.

When you hang around a place for some time, certain elements start to stand out. When you shoot with a story in mind, you want to build your photos around some of those elements. 

In the case of the sugarcane farms, one element that stood out was the dark smoke. It came out of the chimneys of the ovens that power the vats where sugarcane juice is turned into jaggery.

The smoke looked incredibly atmospheric and dramatic when it filled the blue sky. It also added to the sense of place and said something about the impact on the environment, so, it was an element in a story. I consciously tried to include the smoke into the frame whenever possible. 

Above you see girls putting sugarcane into the processing machine. I positioned myself so that the smoke could be clearly seen behind them.

A worker carries sugarcane towards the processing machine. I have quite a few similar images, but I chose this one because the smoke was more prominent. It helps me say more with just one frame.

Girls chewing on sugarcane during a short break. These girls were shy and of smart-assess at the same time. A talented photographer named Deepti Asthana who joined us for a while asked how old the girl in the front was. "Are you about 10-11?" asked Deepti. Her estimation seemed very naive, so the one in the front just nodded. Then she asked the girl in the back. She replied "Yeh, I'm 10 too!" laughing.

I've noticed that there is often a difference between the humour of the tribes/lower castes vs. the higher castes. The sense of humour of the tribes in particular is sometimes pretty crude. I guess a bit more to my taste. When we asked a tribal guy and girl at the other sugarcane farm whether they were married or not, the guy replied "Only at night" and the girl giggled. This is unusual for much of the India that I've seen, which I've found to be much too conservative to make any kinds of inter-gender jokes.

Again you see the element of smoke as a boy rakes in used-up sugarcane husks. Everything from sugarcane is used and re-used.

The husks are laid out to dry. Later they are collected and taken to the giant oven which powers the vats where the jaggery is cooked. The above shot was made with the drone flying very low, about 3 meters/10 feet from the ground. 

The oven room is located below the ground. Inside it is, as one might expect is very hot. This young man spends much of the day by the oven, controlling it. When I climbed in some of the workers didn't notice me in the corner and threw a pile of sugarcane husks on top of me. Lots of laughter when they saw me covered in the stuff. Nothing like making a fool of yourself and making people laugh to establish rapport. Whenever people ask "How do you establish rapport?" I'll often answer "Make a fool of yourself."

Flying the drone always gives new perspectives. It's hard to imagine the scale of the sugarcane plantations from the ground.

A tired sugarcane worker basks in the sun. I have no idea how the workers have the energy to do what they do. I got tired just photographing them every day. My hours were not even comparable to theirs and of course, clicking a camera button is hardly physical work. 

I've finished shooting the sugarcane workers now. Do I have a photo story? I feel that I do. If you take all the images from the two locations. It's not as elaborate as it could be, but, I do think I achieved the kind of balance that I was talking about. I stayed long enough to get deeper, below the surface, but clearly not long enough to get something truly intimate. The positive side of not staying very long is of course the fact that I'd still had enough time to visit another place. One that I visited 9 years ago! Stay tuned for that photo diary entry.

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I'd be posting these photo diaries even if no one was looking at them. They're a personal record of my journeys. However, I've always believed that photographs truly become "alive" only when they have an audience.

I enjoy sharing my journeys through images and short stories. If you enjoy looking at them, please spread the word. Help the photographs come to life and share them via whatever social media channels you use. Thanks!