Photographing Hemlta’s family

As I said in another post, I love ethnic portraits, and now that I’m in India I have a lot of beautiful exotic people at hand to photograph. Taking street portraits on the go is not a problem anymore now that the ice is broken, but I had another wish (some people I spoke with before I left know this already) – to actually get to know a local family, connect with them and photograph them inside the most natural context: their home.

A few afternoons ago Romana and I were exploring the old town in Jodhpur, while yet another young girl asked if we could take a picture of her. I prepared my camera and took two or three shots, but the shooting conditions weren’t ideal. The sunlight was too strong and it was difficult to isolate the subject from the background with the ultra-wide angle lens I had on my camera. We took the shots, as I said, then smiled at the girl and started walking away ready to erase her picture, when unexpectedly she invited us into her family’s home. We didn’t let her repeat twice and with another big smile we followed her. My wish was coming true.

As we got in, I was struck by the emptiness and the simplicity of the home. The rooms were small and relatively naked but with a sort of elegance to them. We were invited to sit on a carpet on the floor and served some chai.

It wasn’t long before we came across some of the other members of the family. Two kids, Tanyia and Punit, a baby girl, Nohita, and the mum, Kiran. The girl’s name, we found out, is Hemlta and she is 12 years old.

After the chai I took more pictures. I kept the ultra-wide lens on my camera because I didn’t have much space and I raised the ISO to obtain a higher shutter speed, given that the light indoor wasn’t that intense. I started shooting the children, which were overexcited and were smiling and playing with each other like crazy.

Hemlta went to brush her hair and came back to us ready to be photographed. She really looked like she was playing a game. She started posing for us like a real model and Romana and I were amused by Hemlta’s attitude in front of the camera – after a while she also changed dresses and put some necklaces.

While I was shooting Hemlta I had to dodge Punit who was always trying to either come into the frame one millisecond before I pressed the shutter, or touching the lens with his fingers. On the other hand Tanyia kept saying “hello, un photo please” and pulling my t-shirt. They were so sweet!

At some stage I detached my ultra-wide lens and put my zoom lens on, because I wanted to do some close ups and change approach – this zoom lens is a 24-105mm and gives me a degree of flexibility, plus on the 105mm end I can have some control on the depth of field and isolate my subjects.

Kiran, Hemlta’s mum, wanted to be photographed too so I took a couple of shots of her, and then some family group shots including a few with Romana in them. Here is a selection of the shots:

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

More pictures can be viewed on our facebook page.

We had to leave because it was getting late, but we promised to come back the day after, with some pictures printed. Once back at the guesthouse I started working on a selection of the pictures taken in the afternoon and the morning after I was ready to take the full resolution files to our host’s cousin’s photo studio in the old town. The studio wasn’t able to print the pictures by that afternoon, so we ended up going to Hemlta’s house with our hands kind of empty. We just stopped on the way to buy some sweets for the children and once in Hemlta’s place we were invited to drink some chai. We also met Hemant, another of Hemlta’s little brothers, who, probably disappointed for having known that he had missed out on the shooting session the day before, almost immediately after the introductions ran away in tears. Hemlta’s father, Amolak, was there also and we were introduced to him too. Amolak is a cook and has a street food stall right downstairs from the house. When he heard that we mentioned that we love indian food he suddenly disappeared, only to reappear a few minutes later, with two delicious Kachori for us. When the kachori was finished we left almost immediately.

Communicating was not easy as neither Hemlta nor any member of her family can speak proper English. One of the few things we managed to understand is that Hemlta loves Romana and called her “my best friend”.

The day after, we went back to Hemlta’s home with the pictures finally printed, as promised. Hemlta was very excited and when she saw us she ran downstairs to welcome us into her home again. Because we had been to some villages near Jodhpur in the morning and shot our ‘daily quota’ of pictures already, I left my camera in at the guesthouse. After all our third visit was supposed to be brief, and we were supposed to drop the prints and then leave. But we were invited in again.

Kiran, Hemlta’s mother, made some good chai. When the chai was finished she and Hemlta dragged Romana toward the cloakroom. After a while the three women reappeared wearing beautiful sarees, bangles and necklaces. Romana was so happy: she always loved sarees and wanted to try a real one. Kiran also dressed Punit and Hemant, the two little children and it didn’t take long before the Bollywood scene in front of my eyes made me understand that I’d made a big mistake leaving my camera locked in the room.

What did I do then? I used my iPhone’s camera. Perhaps not the same as a digital reflex, but still enough to capture some nice memories. I finally could make it up to Hemant, and to compensate I took a lot of pictures of him and let him play with my iPhone too. You should have seen how happy he was.

Romana's Bollywood moment. I had to take this picture with my iPhone.
Romana's Bollywood moment. I had to take this picture with my iPhone.
Romana wearing a saree. Another picture taken with my iPhone.
Romana wearing a saree. Another picture taken with my iPhone.

Finally my iPhone battery died and I couldn’t take any other picture. Amolak had just returned from work and he look tired, so we finally said goodbye and left. We exchanged contacts with Hemlta and her family and promised them to write to them some time.

Now, there may not be much to see in Jodhpur apart the magnificent fort and the markets in the old city. If you probably talked to a travel agency they’d tell you one day in Jodhpur is enough. But that’s definitely not the point. Stories like this make me understand that some of the most meaningful experiences you can do when you’re on a long term travel have little to do with the tourist sights (which are also important, by the way), but about the people you meet along the way and connect with. There is no one place where one day is enough if you’re not a tourist. And in this travel we’re not being tourists, so that’s one more reason why I’m happy Romana and I decided not to buy a tour of Rajasthan back in Delhi (see our Delhi, first stop high impact – part I post) – exploring Rajasthan on our own is proving way more rewarding. If we had been on a tour with a driver, probably we would not have had a chance to have a similar experience.