During a motorcycle trip around Gujarat, India I chanced upon a few sugarcane plantations. I decided to spend some days documenting the work and the lives of the people there.
There were many great characters at these plantations. Beautiful faces, strong faces, faces that embodied struggle. It made a lot of sense to create some portraits of these hard-working individuals. However, I didn’t want to create the kinds of portraits that were posed, idealised, artificial. I wanted slices of life, reality, frozen moments. This is where things got challenging.
I started photographing this girl with a wider lens. She had a great face that represented much of what I mentioned above. I started with a wide lens, which meant I needed to be fairly close to her to show the face well. The problem was that she was too shy to be herself with me at such close proximity. She kept laughing, turning away, or shyly covering her mouth.
I switched to a telephoto lens and made a few steps back. This changed the dynamics of the situation. I was no longer in the girl’s space and she got back to being herself. I framed my shot and waited. At one stage the girl glanced my way. For just a second she paused what she was doing. I managed to get the frame.
Main reason I think it works
To me the effectiveness of this photo is in its simplicity and realness. From a practical standpoint it was all about capturing that split second when the girl looked at me and adjusted her headscarf. This is what gives the image a sense of story, depth.
She’s not smiling, not acting. Her expression – the tired eyes and the sugarcane husks on her face – they say a lot about her state of being. The hand adjusting the scarf says even more. It’s bony, it’s covered in scratches and residue of sugarcane, yet there are bracelets on her wrist – she still wants to look nice doing this tough job.
I’ve taken countless portraits throughout my photographic journeys and I’ve come to understand that little details matter a lot. I’ve also come to know that in certain situations you can’t ask your subject to pose, to re-enact things, to fake it. This was one of those situations. The important little details came together and I made the photo just in time.
Most important tips
Robert Cappa famously said “If your photos aren’t good enough, you aren't close enough.” Robert was likely talking about being right there next to your subject. This situation was a perfect example of me initially being too close.
When it comes to physical closeness, some people will have their thresholds. At a certain distance things become awkward, even uncomfortable. In this case the girl felt really weird about a camera pointing at her face from close up. She wasn’t herself. Sure, more time might have put her at ease, but sometimes there isn’t more time.
It’s important to find the right balance, as far as space between subject and photographer and at times, just the right lens too. A few steps back and my switch to the telephoto (90mm equivalent) lens changed everything.