Having been photographing Theyyams, the religious rituals indigenous to Northern Kerala in India a couple of weeks ago, I thought it’d be timely to share my approach when I photograph such public (and possibly sensitive) events such as those I witnessed.
The most important tip is a no-brainer. Employ the best fixer you can find and afford. I’m not talking of tourist guides who trawl tourists in their wake, but of fixers who are adept in solving problems, who can get you to where you need to be in less time with less hassle than you can on your own, and who have the requisite connections. Good fixers are not easy to find, and must develop a personal connection with the photographer. If you don’t like your fixer, chances are that he or she won’t do a good job.
I’ve had many fixers help me during assignments and travels. When we first meet, I try to spend at least an hour to get to know them better…and to see if they have what it takes to be fixers. I want someone who can watch my back when I’m busy photographing, someone to make sure that I’ll get where I want to be at the right time…someone who has the flexibility and street smarts to suggest alternatives if something doesn’t work for me…and to suggest what I haven’t thought of.
So as always, the first thing I did in Kerala was to interview Vinay, the prospective fixer. A young man with a ready smile (always important since smiles open doors that are otherwise closed), he solemnly informed me that he was a secondary school teacher of English, and showed me a ream of pages he had printed off the Internet explaining the intricacies of Theyyam rituals. I was briefed as to what I could and could not do whilst photographing, and advised to use my flash as little as possible.
He then passed his second test as a reliable fixer when we arrived at the temples, and immediately introduced me to the chief organizers of the Theyyam rituals. These rituals usually take place at temples of small villages, and involve all the villagers and their headmen. Introducing me as a foreign guest, and translating what the hosts were saying and my responses is key to the success of my photo shoot, especially when the extraordinarily difficult Malayalam is the language of the area.
Now, here’s where new technology comes in to help me in a big way. I carry a ::amazon(“B0015KICJK”,”Marantz PMD 620″)::, with which I record ambient sound, interviews and music during my photo shoots. These recordings are used to accompany my photographs should I decide to eventually create multimedia. I started to record an interview with the two headmen of this particular village, not only because it would add aural texture to my eventual photographs, but because I knew that interviewing the “official” persons at these rituals would enhance their status in the eyes of the congregation, and by so doing, would probably allow me to circulate more freely had I not done so. I was right.
Another gadget I find very useful in such situations is the Apple’s itouch. I showed some of my portfolios to the headmen, and this broke the ice with the congregation, it enhanced my stature as a serious photographer rather than a tourist, and people were keen to have their photographs taken (although I made it clear that this would only be possible when I returned in the following days….and it did).