An ordinary life under extraordinary conditions?

Once again, I went to Belgachia in Howrah. A place next to the deadly smoke of burning trash, but also a place of life and joy. Staying there for a few days, I found the ordinary life under extraordinary conditions and tried to capture the contrast between the two worlds.

 

Extraordinary living-conditions are just part of the whole picture.

In my photography, I am focussing on normal lives in extraordinary situations: Places and spaces which are unimaginable for most of us to live in. For some people, they are nothing more than the everyday life. People live in different environments and besides all the differences, they are human. They share the same emotions, just under different conditions.

The garbage dump: A life without colours

Almost a year ago, I went to Belgachia in Howrah, which is close to the Indian Metropolis Kolkata. I wanted to take images of the working and living conditions of the scavenger community. Yet, I felt uncomfortable to publish them in an article, describing the life of the people. I published them in a different context about the ethics of shooting in such environments. The article got republished by prestigious websites and I received an offer of a big editorial agency but denied selling them as a story. I felt that the images were too imbalanced to give a true idea of life in Belgachia. Life is not black or white, it also comes in colours. Besides all the struggle, people were also enjoying their lives. They had a family, played, cooked and laughed like everyone else does.

Learning from mistakes

As a logical consequence, I had to go back to the place to draw a better picture. I called my friend and asked him if I could stay in the area for a little while. I intended to get to know a little more, live even closer to the people, stay with them from morning till evening and even at night. The last time, I also spent the night there. The experience was a little one-sided, though. I was overwhelmed by the burning mountains of trash, which filled the air with poisonous smoke, that burned in my eyes and lungs. As expected, my friend was happy to host me. This time, the wind blew into a different direction and the mountains of trash were less present, even though their silhouette was always there.

I did, what anthropologists do; I hung out with people.

A colourful life: Children are playing everywhere in the world.

After my arrival, I gave my favourite images of the former stay to the people. I was happy to see that they enjoyed looking at them. Before everyone had his or her own portrait, they passed many hands and people were discussing the images. I also got questioned. “Why do you take all those pictures?” I told the truth: I am interested in different lives and I want to build a portfolio. Some people, especially children, loved to take more pictures with me, but for the beginning, I kept my camera in a house (which was not locked, but I found the area was more than safe). I first wanted to get to know more, before I would simply portray my first impressions. I did, what anthropologists do; I hung out with people. In fact, hanging out is one of the main things that I witnessed. With a lot of unemployment and good weather outside, people spent the day outside on the street. They were chatting, playing, cooking and relaxing.

Understanding before shooting

Even though it seems like doing nothing. Simply sitting and chatting with people makes you understand more.

To be accepted as a guest and not an extraordinary human, I stayed even for the night. Because of a lack of space, my friend and I took some of the beds, which were in front of every house and covered it under a mosquito net to protect us from the little blood-sucking demons. I was completely exposed to the area, but I had trust in the people. Trust, because I know that stereotypical ideas of the dangerous area of poverty were totally misleading. I have met the nicest people, which were not disturbing me in a malicious way. At most, they were disturbing with an unimaginable amount of hospitality. I ate well, was offered too much tea and everyone wanted to invite me. As a consequence, I had a better sleep on the streets of Belgachia than in any hotel.

When I woke up in the morning, life was already going on all around me. People took water from the nearby fountain, which was running for an hour three times a day. Without water-supply in their homes, people had to carry buckets to the open fountains and tabs, shower in public and manage the water accordingly to the time. I also took my shower in public and soon felt that I became more connected to the area. Not completely as a part of the community, but someone who truly shares their space. That was the time, when I started taking images.

Patience pays off

Showering in public is less problematic than it seems.

Waiting for a while to take images, needs patience. Every minute that I do not take pictures is a little torture. Sometimes, nice light appears, a great composition, intimate moments, playing children. And I could have captured it. I didn’t and it also payed off.

At home we are happy, but at work we are nothing.

People started seeing me as a normal guest, instead of a pure photographer. Many still posed, but I was also able to get more candid moments. Maybe I could have shot more images if I started shooting from the first day, but the quality would be different. I would also have missed the time to talk and understand something essential. “At home, we are happy, but at work we are nothing.”  Was the essential statement that made me develop a new concept. Colours versus black and white. Humanity vs inhuman work. Normal life versus abnormal conditions. That is the broader picture of life in Belgachia.

Many people asked me, why I even visit these areas. I think that our preconception about life are often misleading and unfair. Sure, I would not want to be in the position of the people in Belgachia and life is tough at many times. Yet, going deeper into the place and human life is one of my goals to get a more holistic view, even though it will never be complete. I want to understand how people live and how they can survive in such hostile environments. Because after all, they are human just like me.

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Shivam Balmiki

It’s really gd my dear friend and all the best for your new journey… Shiva Balmiki Howrah belgachia

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[…] using it. Not everyone has to go to take life-threatening bus rides, visit fishermen-communities or stay at garbage-dumps. I however recommend that you think about what your aim is when roaming around. If you have made up […]