India is an endlessly fascinating place to visit. Life is difficult for the vast majority of its 1.3 billion people, very difficult for most and seemingly intolerable for many. Yet its people figure out ways to survive and live their lives despite their circumstances
The first time you see a cow wandering down the middle of the road, you think, “Hmm, there’s a cow wandering down the middle of the road. You sure don’t see that in Boulder.” The second time you see a cow wandering down the middle of the road, you think, “Hmm, another cow wandering down the middle of the road. I guess maybe it’s not unusual here.” By the fiftieth time you see it, you hardly notice it and, before you know it, the unusual has become normal.
Unfortunately, much of what you see in India is not as easy to “normalize” as cows in places where you don’t expect them. The extreme poverty that so many people live in is unimaginable. Seeing people living on the streets, sleeping on filthy pavement, dressed in rags, many with young children, is a dilemma. It’s horrifying, tragic, overwhelming and fascinating.
Should you feel guilt, horror, relief or sadness? Should you try to do something about it on a global level, try to help the individual, ignore them, acknowledge them, photograph them? Does photographing them shine a light on their plight, thus allowing others to step in and help? Is it creepy voyeurism?
The trip that I took in 2018 was my fifth time in India. This photo is from my first trip, in 2013. Between the first and fifth trip, my feelings about this subject have changed.
This photo was taken in Delhi as we were just walking around. It wasn’t a slum or particularly destitute area — this scene is everywhere. It remains one of my favorite photos for the story that it tells, but also one of my most cringe-worthy ones. What is their story? Her hair is gray. How old is she? How old is the child? Why is he swaddled on the ground like that? How long have they been there? Is that where they live? How do they eat? How could I have been so callous as to stand there and photograph her desperation? At the time, it was still such an unusual sight to me that I felt the need to capture it.
I wouldn’t take that photo today. My taking it wouldn’t make their lives better and I believe that what dignity they have left is more important than an image in my portfolio. Having said that, I’m glad that I did take it because it is a constant reminder of what life can be.