Trains have always fascinated me. From columns of smoke billowing from the engines of old steam engines as they carve through ever so picturesque settings, to the modern marvels that trains are today, there’s just something raw and beautiful about a train journey. The sounds, the smells, the crowd, and the visceral experience. Trains transport you to another place in more ways than one.
But I’ll be honest – I thought I had lost my fascination for trains. After moving to a city with access to an airport, flight was the obvious solution to travel. Afterall, aren’t planes supposed to be more efficient? A faster and cleaner way of getting from point A to B? In reality, though the whole experience of flight feels like an elaborate act. You move when you’re told to move, and you sit where you’re told to sit.
It was almost two years ago, when I moved from home to pursue my higher studies that I got my chance to reconnect with the idea of a train journey. With a station within walking distance, there was no reason to shy away. And I rediscovered a gorgeous world that I’d like to share with you – traveling with the people of India by train.
Train journeys are truly meant for everyone. I can’t think of another way or time when one could travel many miles for mere pennies. As a result of this affordability and accessibility, trains are an important means of commute for thousands of people in India. Trains, we could say, are crucial to the livelihoods of countless among us. More valuable even than this, to a photographer at least, are the two to three hours that we’re all together on the train. A mixed assembly of peoples and places streaming by in the background. The train opens up a new dimension to photograph and document.
Recently I loaded a roll of Kodak Pro Image 100 into my Nikon FM2, paired with the tried and tested Nikkor 50mm f/1.8, a lens I’ve had the opportunity to review recently on this site. Pro Image 100 is a relatively new film for me, and prior to this I’d not had the opportunity to shoot it. I trusted online reviews and tutorials, which called this film a budget alternative to the famed Kodak Portra 160.
I could go on forever about how refreshing and different was my first train ride in years. The way it truly felt. About how it was a complete departure from what I’d expected, but we’re not here for that, are we? We’re here to explore our journey with the people of India.
The process begins at the station, where we can arrive on time or, in true Indian fashion, seconds after the train is leaving, resulting in a cinematic sequence where we run to catch up. The experience truly gets going once we’re aboard, huffing and puffing. It’s a dynamic place to be in.
And this is where we get to hone those secret ninja photographer skills, the ones we all dream of possessing. To be silent, quick and fleeting in your captures. Trying to capture those moments before they’re gone. To understand people and be a part of their space just for the tiniest amount of time, in some cases fractions of a second.
Contrary to traditional street photography, where people tend to be constantly on the move going about their own business, in a train (except for the occasional vendor infusing the air with the smell of roasted nuts) folks for the most part just sit in one place. As a result, they are increasingly aware of their surroundings. This awareness is only heightened when they notice a shiny silver camera staring right at them. Setting focus without looking becomes crucial. This is where the distance and DOF scale comes into heavy use. Throughout the journey the camera stays beside me, lowered, unassuming, only to be brought up to the eye level for the briefest of moments. In a place like this, modern aids such as program modes and autofocus really do help. My FM2n has none of these. One truly is left with only himself and the mechanical camera, trying to make sense of the scene in front of them.
With sunlight pouring through the windows only intermittently, it’s a challenge to pick out details in the shadows. There is this sense of discontinuity. A way to provide almost a change of surrounding without ever leaving your place. Every station that passes by brings about a change of scene. Different people, different cultures bound by the one thing that carries them forward.
I’d like to believe that traveling represents many things. Through a photographer’s mind I suppose it represents a calm space in between the chaos and challenges of our daily lives. A space where we can step back and not think too stressfully about what composition to tackle next. A space devoid of pressure, the pressure to create worthwhile images.
For me, travel has always been like an escape. A way to disconnect. A space where I can shut out the world with music or stare blankly out the window. But getting these scans back from my first train trip in years has changed that. The lovely warm tones and their wonderfully imperfect pictures, some with blown highlights and others severely under-exposed. Lately there has been this shift and a sense of excitement. The excitement of exploring even these in-between travels through the viewfinder of my camera, without the worry of creating perfect images. To try and find comfort all while discovering new film stocks to document my journey as a film photographer. And trains are just the place to do so.
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It is very refreshing to hear a photographer on the other side of the world describing exactly the same things that go through my head on the train. Shooters truly are kindred spirits. You hit on possibly my favorite feature of old manual lenses. Just as you say, the focusing scale is invaluable for candid shots. I have one small advantage over you, though. Here in NYC, seldom do the people around me become too “aware of their surroundings!” Somewhere around the age of 20, New Yorkers develop a shell of disinterest to block out the city’s craziness. I mentally refer to this phenomenon as “putting on the fishbowl.”
Good article. Keep shooting!
Cheers from USA