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Pushkar Mela: A Fair for Camels or Photographers?

My experience photographing the world's largest gathering of camels... or was it photographers?

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Take a deep breath. Picture it in your mind. The world’s largest gathering of camels. Taking place at a tiny Rajasthani town filled with temples, narrow streets and a picturesque lake. Men in brightly coloured turbans as far as the eye can see. Enough dust and sand to make your nostril hairs work overtime. And hundreds of photographers in every nook and cranny, taking thousands of photographs of this annual event.

My experience at the Pushkar Mela earlier this month was definitely unexpected. In all honesty, I guess I should have known better. I went there with the expectation to capture a town lost in time, an event that would bring back memories of the old days gone by and boy, how wrong I was. The Mela turned out to be a hunting ground for photographers from all over the world.

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Media personnel, representatives from stock photo agencies, travel photographers, hobby photographers, student photographers, the boy next door with a DSLR, everyone was there. At first it was amusing. I tried to ignore them and carry on with my work. But soon, it became apparent that I could not continue the same way. I went there with the intention to build relationships, find a story and make a photo essay.

But I faced photographers who simply looked at people as objects without any courtesy, turbaned men who demanded money for posing, and little local children who chased foreigners, armed with their limited English vocabulary — ‘Photo. Money’. The advent of reasonably priced cameras, social media and the need to get the most number of ‘likes’ on Facebook had brought the masses to the Mela. It made me question the whole point of photography and why I actually take photographs. I had to re-evaluate the meaning of my life while stuck in a town with only vegetarian food and no alcohol. That was tough.

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I met a group of 30 Chinese people (they called themselves ‘hobbyist photographers’ but most still shot with Nikon D4′s and Canon 1DX’s) who were on a 14 day trip of India and had come to Pushkar for 3 days, hoping to capture some shots of the place. They were generously offering money to the turbaned men who were more than happy to pose for them. Initially, I was not sure how to react. The whole concept of capturing the atmosphere and spirit of the Mela was lost. Nearly everyone here had come with the intention of capturing a regular postcard style shot of the Pushkar Mela. And they were willing to do anything to get it.

It had slowly become so commercialized over the years that most of the men there refused to have their portraits taken without a few 10 rupee notes. Some people did offer them alternatives instead of money. A few cigarettes, perhaps a roll of bidis or a pack of chocolates (I met a Dutch couple that gave a group of turbaned men a pack of imported chocolates. They proudly told me how they had bought it for a few Euros and bought it with them all the way to India. Sadly, the men didn’t realise the value of it).

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Not wanting to fall into the trap of paying for posing, I decided to talk to the men, understand them and give them prints of their photos. For me, it was a very interesting experience to chat to these men. One of the first questions that they would almost always ask me was which ‘jati’ (caste) I was. They also seemed shocked when I mentioned that I was paying Rs.500 per night for my room (in reality I was paying much more but I didn’t want to shock them that much!). Some of them realized that you could see images instantly on the back of the camera but still thought it used film reels. Their lives were still lost in time and I enjoyed understanding their point of view of the world while simultaneously doing my best to educate them.

In the end, I may not have gained much in photographic terms but it was priceless seeing the smiles on their faces when I returned the following day with prints of their photos. Most of them didn’t believe that I would do so. And I don’t blame them. It was a lot of effort to get the prints done seeing as there was no photo lab in Pushkar. I had to endure a crowded bus ride to Ajmer, then a long walk to find the photo lab (which only opened at midday) to get them done but it was worth the pain, so that I could stick to my word.

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Coming back to my photo story, halfway through my week-long trip, I wanted a new subject to shoot. I got tired of shooting camels, horses and the archetypical Rajasthani man in a red turban that every other photographer was shooting. There were only so many angles and lighting conditions that one could try to be different at. I soon turned my lens to a more exciting set of subjects.

They came in different shapes and sizes, various patterns and colours, and a multitude of behaviours. It was a challenge to chase them in the right pose and light but you know that I love a challenge. And I had made up my mind. My new subject at the Pushkar Mela was going to be photographers. And it was the best decision that I had made there.

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Photographing photographers is immense fun and also challenging. To be stealthy yet not voyeuristic, to capture them with the same grace and framing that they are looking to capture others with. It was definitely fun. I managed to get a wide range of shots (and weird looks from photographers) but I think this set of images does truly capture what one experiences at the Pushkar Mela. You can view a selection of them in this blog post, the full set of images is here on Flickr!


About the author: Kishor Krishnamoorthi is a wedding and travel photographer based in Hyderabad, India. He has covered events across the globe with nearly a decade of photographic experience. His passion for capturing the world around him with a fresh perspective takes him to places around the world and brings new experiences every day. You can find him on his website, Facebook and Flickr. This article was originally published here.


 
  • http://www.postlinearity.com gregorylent

    you’re a photographer?

    yeah.

    what do you shoot?

    cliches.

  • Eugene

    Oh God! Greatest comment ever!

  • devtank

    I loved my time in India, but the locals had become so attuned to cameras that as soon as they saw one they were asking for money, even in the really remote areas far away from tourist areas.

  • Fergal Megannety

    India is a huge country, you don’t need to go to these fairs to get great pictures of people etc, in my experience the further off the beaten track the better.

  • Brian Carey

    Looks crazy huh!

  • Black Light Shoots

    Most of Kishor’s subjects here have ‘humps’ on their backs too.

  • Hrm

    I’m sorry, I don’t understand how this photographer is any different from any of the other photographers that were there. Oh, he talked to his subjects? Sounds like many of the other photographers also talked to their subjects. Oh, they paid with some chocolates or some money? He paid with some prints. This article makes it sound like the photographer thinks he’s different and better than all the other photographers that were there, who probably arrived with the same expectations he had. I understand the frustration of being surrounded by a billion other people with cameras when you want an authentic picture…but you’re there, too. You’re one of the people with a camera.

  • lsi

    Its interesting that you think as yourself as soo different then the other people there taking photographs.

  • Guu

    fantastic story

  • guu

    he’s the one who didn’t get carried away with ‘I NEED to get those men in turbans and those camels’ and I love the story about photographers (if everyone starts doing it it will become a cliche but in this case it works – the juxtaposition between old india and modern world where everyone had a 4d)

  • Jáco Herbst

    Very funny indeed.
    “I got tired of shooting camels, horses and the archetypical Rajasthani man in a red turban that every other photographer was shooting.”

  • Hrm

    Except that you can see by the last picture of his prints that he did “need” to get those pictures.

  • Stanford Ullner

    Was there one month ago. (Badnor) Loved the Camel Fair but was lucky that not as many photographers that day. Never gave money for posing (advice of travel companion of Indian descent). We were at a Jain Temple previously and were overwhelmed by a bus load of photographers with huge cameras. They disturbed the the mood as well as the people. (I travel in small groups 2 to 5 and find I get just as good an image with small quiet cameras). Was in Siem Reap year ago and set up a guide to shoot the sunrise. I arrived early and set up my tripod and waited as what seemed like 20 buses pulled up and hordes of people flooded the area with multiple cameras and flashes etc.
    Needless to say a I packed up and returned to the hotel for an early breakfast.

  • Adam Fondren

    You sir, win the interwebs today……

  • Jack Siegel

    In 1968 or thereabouts, Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, and Steve Stills released Super Session. The linear notes say it all: Want to hear great music? Then go to a club that no one has ever heard of except musicians who want to jam at 3 o’clock in the morning. Inevitably, you will strike out many nights, but once in a while something magic will happen. Same can be said of photography: Don’t follow the crowd and just keep showing up. Your best photographs are often in your “backyard” when you are by yourself. Photography is not a group activity.

  • Ceri Foster

    I went to Pushkar back in 2006. With 2 of us being redheads, we were a novelty with the locals, which enabled us to have interactions that we may not have experienced otherwise. Thankfully there were few Westerners or photographers there at the time. I am glad that you turned a frustrating situation around and made the most of it.

  • superduckz

    Get a copyright… I want this on a T-shirt. Seriously.

  • http://www.kurtlanger.com/ Kurt Langer

    When we were there 5 yrs ago, and American came up with a beauty of a quote: “This is just one big spectacle of spectators”

  • sell_him

    Actually you are wrong Guu. He DID want the same pictures as everyone else there, and he did take them. But he mixed up his approach throughout his time there to try and get different photos to everyone else once he got frustrated enough with the situation.

    It’s almost as frustrating as when you are looking to make a nice shot of something and suddenly a tourist bus pulls over and all the little nippers jump out to take a quick 2 second snap of the same area. It ruins the feeling you had of making your own picture with time and care.

  • Inder Kant

    hahahha lol ..awsome article new perspective of puskar camel fair (photographer’s
    fair)

  • NancyP

    First prize: the butt shot of camel and ‘tog in green shirt.

  • Dk Chauhan

    Sir, We are photographers not painters. Once a moment is gone we can’t paint it again. You have mentioned about capturing stories from pushkar fair. I prefer capturing stories as a surprise. If you talk to people and make them pose with smile thn that would not be a real story which I really want to capture. That will be a scripted story , a fake smile and a fake emotion . They look good in posed photos but that is not the emotion I want to capture. And because of these reasons I have to consider them as a subject for a moment.

    Not all the photographers were professional there, I met a few photographers who capture memories as a hobby so they can live those moments again. Since it is very hard to find such moments in day to day life in big cities and that is the another reason you saw a crowd of photographers at puskar.
    I think after investing so many years in photography as a professional , you have started thinking too much. You went there with an idea to capture some rare pics, but you got frustrated seeing a big crowd of photographers at pushkar. Sir , I prefer capturing the moments myself rather than watching photos from other photographers and that was the reason I went there.

    You gave them printed photos to make them smile which I really appreciate . But I don’t think giving chocolate/money to those people is wrong in any way. If you had really talked with them ,then you must know the reason why few(only few) of them asked for money. Rs 10 from 10 people will give them food for a day. And I don’t think their could be better reason of happiness other than filling your stomach with good food. A few or maybe most of them spend their whole year on earning from the pushkar. It is not easy to live with a printed photographs if none of your animal were sold .After clicking, I used to show them photos from camera LCD and if they asked for money I gave them. I had conversation with one guy on second last day of pushkar fair and he was not able to sale any. So from my point of view its not just money(Rs 5-10) which I gave him, I just tried to help him as I can’t buy his camel.

    P.S : Your SUBJECT was great .I wish you had talked to photographers also to get their point of view when they were clicking the people as a subject.

  • Kaybee

    I enjoyed the photos. Lovely and apt! I have a tendency to take photos of other photographers too…it is simply amusing to see a reflection of me…
    …You, me, we are all alike, just that we have different approaches like you mentioned. You got your work done with interacting with the locals and giving back photos while others with money and chocolates… Different methods but same purposes; that is to take pictures. You did a great job! Just hope you have a bit more respect for fellow Photographers as well…

  • deepak

    i totally agree with DK Chuhan….

    We are photographers

  • Dipak Kumbhar

    absolutely correct……he is doing his job prfectly

  • rajat Ghosh

    very interesting POV, loved the images

  • Harshit

    Giving money isn’t justified!!..many in fact 80% were hobbyist there!..those photogs who earn from photography and live on it!!..who work in News agencies and magazines, will lose that genuine opportunity, and due to habits of these hobbyist!, it’ll become more common that everyone will ask money for portraits!, that hobbyist wants it for his fb page to get likes and stuff, while his habit spoils chance of a genuine photographer on a job!

  • Akif Sattar

    voted (Y)