Student life can get monotonous, with constant preparation for exams and endless assignments. A breath of fresh air is sometimes needed. That’s exactly what some friends and I decided one fine Saturday. After forty-five minutes on a train, ten more on the metro and a brief walk, we arrived at one of India’s largest flower markets – Koyambedu Market.
Nestled in the heart of the southern capital Chennai, Koyambedu serves as a work place for traders hailing from all across the southern subcontinent. At the break of dawn, people fill the market with vibrant life and energy. Over 3,100 shops fill an area of 295 acres, serving everything imaginable to over 100,000 visitors a day. It stands as a testament to the people running it and their dedication. What started out as a small market for perishable goods in 1996 has turned into one of the largest markets around. With infinite colors in every direction, it’s a powerful and humbling sight, and one worth capturing on film.
I’d been conservative in the gear I was carrying, trusting only my workhorse of a camera, the Nikon FM2n and its 50mm f/1.8 AIS lens. The FM2 has always been a sort of no-nonsense camera used by professionals, often as a backup camera, in the toughest of scenarios. It has a ‘get the job done’ kind of feeling to it. Loaded with Fuji C200, it’s perfectly suited to capture the vibrancy of the market. At least that’s what I thought initially.
The most exciting aspect of the market also happens to be a nightmare for a photographer. The pace volatility of the place serves up new scenes every second. This makes for variety, a street photographer’s dream. At the same time, it quickly becomes difficult to carefully compose and take a shot. Any given scene only presents itself for an instant and then disappears into thin air. This energy is the soul of this place.
After a quick adjustment to the process, pre-focusing for my subject and choosing settings which would provide decent latitude in terms of exposure, I pushed through, quite literally. That’s the beauty of color negative film, compared to slide film, I suppose. Its forgiving nature truly helps in such situations where we need our complete focus towards making the photos.
Film, for me, has always been about color more so than some sort of physical tangible feeling. Don’t get me wrong, film’s analog nature is inviting for sure, but it’s an added bonus for me and not its main highlight. Film’s perfect balance between the tones and its shades never fails to surprise me. The vastly contrasting light and color matched with the dimly lit environment make this place a mecca for any photographer wanting a challenge for themselves.
Settling in, I realized that it wouldn’t make sense for me to try to capture everything in front of me. Being limited to only 36 exposures per roll, I set out to best summarize the energetic place that the market is. And the best way to do this, I decided, was to focus on the people.
One never feels out of place here, everyone is so welcoming and kind. When we asked them if we could take a few pictures they were overjoyed with excitement. This is truly a departure from the usual expressions a street photographer is used to. Moving around from dimly lit alleyways to bright sunshine, adjusting my exposure and compensating for the sudden increase of light – there’s surely variety to be had in terms of the scenery offered. Seeing the shutter count increase by the second pushes you to be more conservative and think before pressing the button.
There is something special about old school markets and their warmth. And it’s similar to the difference between film and digital photography. When compared to modern shopping centers and their fancy shops, bazaars often offer a more analog approach to things. You interact more, learn more, see and smell and feel more, and the visuals are just breathtaking.
Street Photography for me has always been about being “there.” It’s about being present in the moment, both mentally and emotionally. Understanding people’s sentiments and capturing what goes unnoticed to the untrained eye. There’s no right or wrong way to do street photography, there’s just the art form in itself, and the photographer making that art. Following any presumptions or rules for street is as I feel, not fair to the genre. Each scene demands its own attention and its own unique way of freezing the ephemeral locale. Go ahead break some rules, underexpose a few shots and find your own style, all while getting lost and exploring your local communities and markets. The experience will be worth it.
After about five hours of scouring the market, our dead feet suggested that we call it a day, especially considering the long journey that lay between us and our comfortable beds. Sitting in the train and thinking back to the day’s experience made me realize many things, most important of which is that the world that we live in is a constant reminder of the saying “The best photographs move you – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. There’s almost a visceral reaction to a really striking photograph that communicates on all those levels”. With two rolls of exposed film in hand and countless memories, it was almost certain that I would be back for more.
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