Sunday, 20 December 2009

Friday, 11 December 2009


I was in Singapore for a couple of nights recently, and in my view, this island nation is as close to Plato's Utopian society can be in most respects, without being communistic in the process. In fact, far from it, it is the one of the most capitalistic society on earth, and where dedication, competition and efficiency is the norm in most industries. I lived as a student in Singapore in the late 70s and its always great to come back here for short visits.

I took a walk through Chinatown and found it garishly touristy, so I wandered into the surrounding housing blocks of Tiong Bahru to discover a different world, a world where living in tight confined apartments is the norm, and close quarter communal living is rather pleasant, I might add, with playgrounds and public spaces provided, which are well maintained, clean and well kept. Every thing has its place and in its place.

I see retired old folks sitting around during the day in public areas, chit chatting, playing chess, and sleeping even, or simply mingling amongst friends and neighbours to pass their time, instead of being stuck in their apartments.

In the commercial district, the situation is different. In December, Orchard Road lights up with its Christmas decorations and thousands of light displays. Giant baubles of light and faux ribbons stream down huge shady trees, lamp posts and shop fronts.

Some displays take on a 'Disney' sort of tackyness that seem to invade most Asian shopping malls, Kuala Lumpur included. It seems that bigger is better. Subtle isn't cool, which I find is the complete opposite in Western Europe. Maybe its a perception thing or the recession. London's Christmas lights are pathetic by comparison.

Reindeer and sleighs seems to be all a rave for 2009. Christmas trees must be at least 50 feet high, 100 feet is better!

Decors must be even larger and more innovative than last year. Not a Nativity crib and even Santa in sight yet, perhaps he is being fattened.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A passion rekindled

(Click on the photographs to enlarge)

I recently 'acquired' a vintage 1971 film camera from eBay, an 35mm Olympus 35RD rangefinder and just had it back from Camera City repairs in Fitzrovia, just off Museum Street. It had taken them, actually, him, Pany, a stocky built, possibly Greek descent-of-a guy 3 weeks to clean and service the sticky shutter blades, and now it triggers smoothly with a purposeful 'click' you can barely hear. Just perfect for street photography.

I still have several rolls of expired (read 2007) colour and black&white film stored in my fridge sharing the same compartment with my acidophilus tablets, so I promptly loaded a roll of Fuji NPH400 and went out with no expectation whatsoever, except I had 36 shots to prove the worth of this little charming camera.

It was a Saturday and possibly the worst Saturday this year. The winds blew horizontal rain pellets across your face, and any umbrella opened was rendered useless within minutes. Still, the brave must shop, and we ended up at Primark in Oxford Street (which is another story) bargain hunting for Christmas goodies, (yes, we shop cheap). Incidentally, one can buy a full tuxedo suit for £14 and 6 pairs of socks for £2, trendy 'Che' T-shirts for £3.50. I kid you not. (Hah! Petaling Street, you've got a serious rival).

The focusing on the 35RD is accomplished with a 1/4 turn, short and smooth and the rangefinder patch is still bright and clear of fungus etc. What I find great about using this machine is the size and stealth ability, that is, I can be right up against people's faces and no one really notices me. Ah, it's just a toy camera, its an old silvery thingy, its retro. Most of all, its quiet. Much more quiet than the clunky M8 but not as low pitched as the M6, which I think is still the third king of stealth of all time. (The quietest and quickest camera I have used is the Konica Hexar 35, followed by the Digilux 2)

I am presently in KL and just managed to get the roll of film developed and scanned onto a CD. for £4.00. The scan was way too over saturated by the film quality came through as expected. I was astounded by the sharpness and clarity of the 40mm F1.7 lens! Exposure seemed to be accurate as well and the selective focusing technique produced great bokeh too. The shots reproduced here were grab shots, pre-focussed and random, to capture the shoppers with their umbrellas on Oxford Street, so there are lots of movement and fluidity in the photographs. Most were shot from the hip which is a technique I often use in street photography.

Since then I have loaded another roll of film to finish off, possibly today in KL. Hmm, perhaps this little film revival of mine may just last a little longer, a passion enkindled 30 years ago by the draw of the tiny Olympus Trip 35 my late father gave me.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Chai with friends

On the last evening in Jaipur, our auto-rickshaw driver, Ram Hotla invited us to meet his family, in his home, just outside our hotel. Earlier during the day, Ram drove us around Jaipur, up to the Amber Fort and stopping at a few places of interest before leaving us at the City Palace. He also acted as our guide, briefly at the King's Tomb on the way to Amber Fort. He speaks great English and was a very informative guide.

He lives in a community of buildings including his extended family, all with the Hotla surname, some 200 members in all.

That evening, we met his 3 daughters who were all watching a Hindi soap on satellite TV, his wife and son. Mrs Hotla made us freshly brewed chai and posed for photos.

We chatted about his daughter's schooling, his son's job and his other extended family members. Ram has been an auto-driver for 35 years, and his wife is from Delhi. His daughters go to a local private school and are taught English there. He takes them to school every day in his auto-rickshaw which I thought was great!

He also invited us to visit his home village situated on the road to Agra. That will be for another time. Ram, we hope to see you again next year in Jaipur.

(Click on the photos to enlarge)

Friday, 6 November 2009

Waiting to exhale

Back in London, as I shake the Delhi dust off my shoes, and still fresh to my memory, I want to put finger tips to keyboard, and post some thoughts about my short 7-day trip to Delhi, visiting Jaipur and Pushkar.
Andy Craggs and myself made a brief exploratory visit to India to connect with local contacts and friends, with the plan of holding a photo-workshop in Rajasthan next year, complimenting the other 3 destinations on our 2010 program. We stayed with Poh Si, ( an Award winning energetic videographer and multimedia journalist, and Mayank, a Supreme Court lawyer and awesome ping pong-er.

On the way home in a taxicab from Heathrow, I contemplate my past week spent in the dry and dusty climate that surrounded Delhi and Jaipur in North India. It is eerily quiet, cruising on the M4 motorway. So different from riding the open auto rickshaw cabs that toot their hoots at every possible opportunity, their little 2 stroke engines throbbing along in earnest, whilst zigzagging in and between overloaded lorries, decrepit buses, other auto rickshaws, the odd private car, and camel carts. Camel carts?

Yes, this is India and the streets aren't paved with gold, but mounds of garbage, decaying vegetation, dirt, dogs, pigs and street people. For Delhi, with its 13 million inhabitants, you would think the draw of India's financial and administrative capital would offer the many millions that come to find solace, shelter and jobs there, its share of the pot, however infinitesimally small, it may be. But it appears that the pot is near empty. Many have nothing apart from the loin cloth they wear around their waist.

Air India has projected a loss for 2009 at USD1 Billion and is expected to cut its loss-making routes by the end of the year. The city is straining to complete its Delhi Metro subway system in readiness for the Commonwealth Games to which it plays host in 2010. Not having read up on India in detail, I cannot even begin to delve deeper into the social, environmental and financial let alone the religion and caste practices that makes up the ever-so complex fabric of Indian society.

I just observe. As a first time visitor and with my camera. A week of casual observation is insufficient to make general statements in a country that is home to 1 billion people, but first impressions and gut instincts help. Some figures are staggering.

Indian Railways apparently run 14,000 services every day, shifting over 20,000,000 passengers from north to south and east to west, and everywhere in between. Granted, many do not pay but ride the roofs of carriages precariously as we discovered on our train ride back from Jaipur the other day. Just like the Chinese, Indians are survivors.

We took a walk down some side streets in Jaipur and saw all manner of trades, from meat sellers, carpenters, metal workers, mechanics and 'chai' vendors working away. Stalls carts spring up from no where, selling samosas, chapati and lime drinks, every one it appears is selling something or know of someone that sells something.

One evening in Jaipur, we met up with some local English contacts at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, a magnificent historic palace set in acres of lush green and sprinkled lawns, with own polo field. The Maharani of Jaipur still lives there, in a separate annexe. We had G&Ts and Singapore Slings, made plans and chatted over wasabi crackers, canapes in the dimly lit air conditioned Polo Bar. In contrast, on the way there by auto rickshaw from the old city, we passed by many destitute homeless street people who had no faces, and witnessed a scrawny frame corpse being carted away in what looked like a municipal vehicle. Such is Life and Death in India. It is probably impossible to come to terms with the situation that is the Cycle.

My fondest memory of the trip was in Delhi on second evening. Poh Si brought us to dine at Connaught Place or CP as it is better known. This is 'downtown' Delhi, and is the place to hang out in the evening for food, cinemas and watering holes. We went to an Indian Restaurant called Amber and ordered tandoori chicken and briyani rice, sweet nan topped with chopped pistachios of which the name escapes me (delicious,...Poh, I want that name..) and Kingfisher beer.

After chow, we hopped on and off several auto rickshaws (another story.. video below) and made our way to India Gate, a sort of Marble Arch or Arc de Triomphe. It was a pleasant evening, and the light was good. The streets radiating from the monument were lined with ice cream vans and foodcarts, and the whole place was radiating energy.

For the first time, I saw there were more women than men outdoors, families, old and young were simply enjoying the sight, men were selling glowy, flashy twinkling toys, bubble-machines, bangles, bead necklaces, balloons, it was great! The journey home was equally enthralling. Trying to hail an auto-rickshaw at that time was near impossible, and when one did appear, trying to get the driver to 'unbreak' the broken meter always ensued with shouts of "meter-ON!, meter-ON now!, nen, nen you cheating hah! Nen!" Our tenacious and principled host Poh Si always attempts (and succeeds!) to threaten them by logging an immediate call to the Auto-Complain hotline, which she has programmed to speed dial on her mobilephone.

All this makes for great comedy for us visitors, but I can imagine the frustration setting in if it is a daily occurence, even for local Indians, as Mayank confirmed.

All is not lost however, and there are promising signs. The nation's future is in the hands of the Indian youth and we had first hand experience of this. Cliche as it may sound, this seems to be the only way out. We were lucky to come across an honest auto rickshaw driver by the name of Ram in Jaipur. He acted as our 'tour guide' whilst driving us to the Amber Fort 11 kms north of the pink city, without seeking more 'baksheesh'. Ram is 44, and have been driving rickshaws for 30 years, he tells me. On our last evening in Jaipur, he invited Andy and I to visit his humble rented home, which is situated just outside our hotel compound, on land owned by the hotel owner. Pretty basic but cosy, Ram lives there with his 3 daughters, wife and son of 20. The girls go to private school nearby instead of the local government school because English is only taught in the former. The fees are naturally higher but he values their ability to speak the language of the 'farang' or white skinned people.

Delhi is also home to many outsourced call centres, and these jobs require a good command of English.

We also made an impromptu day trip to Pushkar from Jaipur. Pushkar is a small town north or Ajmer and hosts the world famous camel fair ever year around November. Hundreds of thousands of visitors descend on this town along with thousands of camels from all over India. Trading is the keyword. Camels and horses also.

Tourists flock there to witness the sight in the surrounding desert landscape. The town also houses the (apparently) only Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Brahma. We had missed the festival, and the Pushkar lake was dried out. It felt like a travellers town, a cowboy outpost for backpackers and hippies. Hell, I even saw a turbaned Caucasian on a Harley.. We will definitely add Pushkar to our desitination for the workshop.

Colour is the second keyword in Rajasthan. The saris are deep red, blue and yellow and most local women wear them with pride, often adorned with glittery accessories. I wonder why the menfolk have adopted simpler or Western attire. If the women we saw mending the roads and tending the fields can do it in their saris, surely the men too?

My Indian experience then, is only a glimpse, a starter course, a blink of an eye. Delhi's Red Fort, the serenity of Humayun's Tomb, Lotus Garden, the alleyways of Chandi Chowk, the blue city of Jodphur, the sand fort Jaisalmer, the magnificence of the Taj Mahal in Agra, there's plenty more. It has made me even more curious to see and photograph the rest of Rajasthan.

India, we will be back for more. The Rajasthan workshop will be an interesting one.

Rajasthan! 12-Day Photography Workshop is planned for November 2010. See
For more images and videos please visit the facebook group page. Click on photos to enlarge.