How much would you need to earn to make photography a full-time job? On a recent visit to India, I was strolling through Mumbai’s colonial-era neighborhoods when I was approached by a young man with a Nikon DSLR and a backpack. He offered to take my photo against the backdrop of two of the city’s landmarks, the Taj Hotel and the Gateway of India.
Instant prints were available, and examples in a clear plastic file were offered for inspection.
A number of other young men in the area were making similar offers to other tourists, foreign and Indian alike: 30 Indian rupees, about $0.50 US, per print. Curious about how and where prints could be delivered, the young photographer opened his backpack and showed me an Epson PM245, about the size of a toaster.
Amit allowed me to follow him around and document his work, and then sat with me for a while and explained his business. He comes from Agra, famous for the Taj Mahal. Surely this same kind of work must be available there?
“It is,” he says, “but it is more organized.” To work there, one must join a photographer’s guild to acquire a license that costs approximately 20,000 INR, or about $320 US. Here in Mumbai at the Gateway to India, he explained, anyone can do photography.
It turns out, though, there are expenses. Amit has to wear decent-looking clothing to make a good impression on clients. While he owns his own camera, he rents the printer from another capital-rich photographer.
He also has to pay the police to allow him to work the area. In return, the police enforce pricing and insist on flat rates. Gouging and haggling, presumably, invite complaints and cause more work.
Amit is responsible for his own paper and ink, and when all expenses are taken into account they amount to half his sales. He is now in his sixth year on this job, working 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In high season he says he sells perhaps 50-60 photos per day, in low season 20-30. Monthly he takes home $160.00 US, of which a quarter is sent home to support his family.
“It’s a job,” Amit says. “How else can I live?”