The India found in the guidebooks is a magical and mysterious place. Where exquisite palaces gleam and sparkle on the shores of majestic rivers. Where dark-eyed beauties walk demurely between crumbling temples, their vibrant saris wafting the fragrance of perfume and spices. Where monkeys play amongst statues of ancient gods and tigers stalk noiselessly through enchanted forests.
India is indeed all of those things, but modern India is also much more. It’s traffic, enterprise, tooting horns and chatter; tangles of telephone wires and piles of uncollected rubbish; call centres, shopping malls, and neon signs.
Yep, the selfie craze has hit India. Big time. Like a nation of Kardashians and Biebers, 21st-century Indians LOVE taking selfies.
The first time I went to India, in 2012, there wasn’t a smartphone in sight. Plenty of photography going on, sure, but the traditional kind, where you used an actual camera to take a photo of the thing you were there to see. Remember that? I know, retro, right?!
But just a year later, there was a selfie explosion. In 2013 ‘selfie’ was Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year – research suggested its usage had increased by seventeen thousand per cent in the preceding 12 months. And now, just like everywhere else, Indians have gone selfie-mad. In groups, couples, and solo, with selfie sticks or just with an outstretched arm, the selfie is king. Gone are the days when you asked a mate or a passer-by to grab a quick snap. Now, everyone wants to be their own photographer.
None of this had occurred to me when I stepped off the plane this time round. I still imagined I’d be able to walk around the palaces and monuments in relative peace, taking perfect, clean, unspoiled images that wouldn’t look out of place in a copy of National Geographic.
Yeah, well, we all make mistakes sometimes!
Because here’s the thing you can’t fail to notice about India: it’s FULL of people. With a population of over 1.3 billion, there are people everywhere. So when you go to the major sites, especially on weekends and holidays, it will be crowded. Those photographers who take the aspirational wish-you-were-here images with no one in them apart from one carefully posed model looking wistfully into the empty distance – they did that ten years ago at 5 am on a Tuesday when the site was closed. If you show up during normal opening hours, you don’t stand the slightest chance of getting a clear shot.
So having quickly discovered that I’d be waiting weeks to get an image without anyone else in it, I decided that if I couldn’t beat them, I’d photograph them.
And funnily enough, I soon realised that chasing selfie-takers, rather than iconic postcard-perfect scenes, made for much more interesting and far less clichéd images.
You still get the vibrant colours, and the scenic backdrops you expect from India – but you also get humour, and human stories. I want to know more about the couple above. They seem very well-suited, and they’ve got the technique down perfectly: high angle, looking up, smiling with their eyes, wind blowing through her hair. They could give a masterclass!
These guys, meanwhile, are going for a more adventurous technique. I’m not sure the low angle will do much for her, but they’ve certainly got their outfits well co-ordinated. Do you think they’re brother and sister, or are they just one of those couples that looks like each other?
Of course in India, like anywhere else, it’s not just about the selfies. Who could forget the good old-fashioned ‘make it look like you’re touching the top of the building’ pose?
Or the highly-underrated ‘sit next to a No Entry sign while looking totally bored’ pose.
So if you’re planning a trip to India, be prepared for the fact that unless you’ve got exclusive out-of-hours access to places, or you’re going well off the beaten track, your photos are unlikely to look much like the ones you saw on the website. Instead, your photo of that statue of Gandhi will look rather more like this…
But I think that’s ok, because it’s more interesting, and more real. There’s so much more going on in this photo than there would be if I’d just taken a shot of the statue. And this is what it was really like when I was there, so why try to airbrush reality?
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking the odd selfie yourself too – especially if you look as cool doing it as this guy…
Do you have any top tips for beating (or joining) the crowds in India? Comment below!