Project Logistics: Keeping Dry

They go colourless when full of water The monsoon has come early to India by a few weeks, and there’s a storm hitting the Bay of Bengal pretty badly right this moment. It’ll be here 15 days after Bombay gets it, and I just don’t know what to expect. It might rain every few days a little bit, or a lot, or often, or both, or there might be floods. Just don’t know. It gets unbearably hot right before the monsoon in Gujarat and it’ll be humid for sure. Tropical humid, not London in August. Everything is likely to get soaked at some point. I’ve been idly flicking through manuals for kit and noting that the maximum operating temperature for pretty much everything is 40 degrees C. I get that every day right now, so add some humidity to that and we’re talking about failure in a big way. Batteries hate heat. Electronics hate heat. I hate heat. So, assuming the monsoon gives us a few degrees of relief, what about the humidity? Silica gel to the rescue. Those little packets you find in all unsealed electronic packaging? Silica gel. But you can’t see when that’s dead, they’re generally white. Silica gel can easily be reused by heating it up in a pan until the water’s gone. If you can tell, that is. Cue Geejay Chemicals and a 1 Kg tub of Silica Gel. Goes from orange to colourless as it absorbs water. A handful in a sandwich bag, some fork holes in one side of the bag and it’s ready to throw into the bottom of the Think Tank carriers, keeping moisture away from it’s not wanted. And then tipped into a pan when it’s colourless and heated until it returns to active duty. That’s the detail, of course. The Think Tank gear is water-proof ripstop and there’s a complete cover with no seams in every carrier. As for me, I might wear a hat and some sandals.

Project Basics: Sunglasses

The Damn Things I thought I wouldn’t need them, and would much prefer to not be wearing them. Several reasons. One, the viewfinder on these Canons is pretty crappy, and I need to be right be close to see the full frame. Glasses get in the way, which is in fact why I started wearing contacts 16 years ago. Which leads to the next issue. I have some spectacles with me so I can wear them instead of contacts if need be. The climate is drying my eyes out quite quickly, and unless that stops, I might have to wear glasses for some of the time. The other reason is of course other people can’t really see my eyes. If you’re trying to communicate with someone, it’s generally a good idea to show your eyes. Glasses are pretty distorting devices: I feel like a drunken sailor on a listing galleon after wearing glasses for the first time in weeks or months. But they are crystal clear in comparison. Plenty of chromatic aberration though. Anyway, I walked out into the afternoon sun and even after my eyes adjusted, I was pretty blinded by the intensity. Our senses do a remarkable job of compressing the huge ranges of volume and brightness into a linear response, but they have their limits. So: sunglasses. I know I’m going to lose them. I’ve lost every pair I’ve ever owned, and that would be at least six, decent pairs that is. And I’m sure to lose these too. Still, I have three requirements for sunglasses:

  1. Glass. I hate plastic. Glass doesn’t scuff up, it’s less distorting and lasts longer.
  2. Polarizing. I hate glare and haze. If you’re going to dim everything by wearing these stupid things, at least they should make things a bit clearer somehow.
  3. Neutral colour. Ray-Bans have either a green cast or a very warm orange shade. Many others have some form of tint. Tints and can really make a dreary day look much better, but they ain’t no good when you’re photographing in colour. Don’t do it.

A small point to note. The screen on the Canon has poor viewing with polarized specs when held vertically, in case you’re using live view or are otherwise trying to read it that way.

Project Basics: Shoes

Very importantRather than lugging tons of gear and equipment around with me, I decided to go in the other direction this time, and started thinking about footwear yesterday. I’m wearing these incredibly thin-soled shoes from Terra Firma, effectively plimsoles, which are very light, water-un-resistant and unsupportive in the extreme, unlike my big walking boots which I’d normally bring. But, they are like the footwear the tribals wear, slightly more expensive of course, but nothing particularly comfortable in the western sense. But it does mean I experience the same sensations they do as they walk. And it might inspire me to look at things differently to how I normally would, as I’m not detaching myself from their world as much as I did last time. So what else is there that I could shed or minimalize. There’s a limit to how much empathy I can offer, but I can at least observe their world better.

Reading List Synchronicity

I’ve had a pile of books saved up for months for this trip and been dying to start on them. I just finished reading William Dalrymple’s excellent but miserable series of essays on South Asia - The Age of Kali - and among the final essays were pieces on the remote regions where India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and China all meet, and the mystery of these places which have seen Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. Finishing that, I picked up Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin’s Three Cups of Tea, and despite its sentimentality, am enjoying - more so, as I began to read, and found myself back in the same region where Dalrymple just left me, Taxila, on the Grand Trunk Road. My books are not arranged in any particular running order but they’re flowing beautifully together…

Surrogate Calf

Surrogate CalfMy cousin, Atma, runs the dairy down at the farm. One of the calves became quite ill over a period of ten to fifteen days, but the mother didn’t seem to care for it, generally ignoring it. After the calf died - from a ruptured intestine - the mother refused, or was unable, to produce any milk. They created this surrogate toy calf frame and stretched the dead calf’s skin over it and placed it next to the mother, who plays with it, licks it, pushes it around, and produces milk again.

First Blood: Think Tank Belly Dancer Harness Breakage

Note on Think Tank Photo in 2023: I’ve now used their kit for almost 15 years and it’s totally fantastic.

Their harness systems have been much updated since I bought mine, the current version is the Pixel Racing Harness and the only reason I don’t have one is that my original harness is still going! The harness and belt are now separate items, the entire thing is fully modular, but I think I prefer my existing, reliable setup!

UPDATE: Dan the Man from Think Tank instantly returned my email to apologize and mention the lifetime warranty. And they’ll FedEx me a replacement - now this is why you choose decent companies to give your money too. More info when the dust settles.

It’s not that serious, but kit failure is a major annoyance. This stuff is not cheap, is always touted as high quality, reliable, professional, lalala, so when it fails, both my judgement in buying the thing and the manufacturer’s inability to get something (usually basic) right, is called into question. Today, my Think Tank Photo harness strap broke, or more accurately, the stitching failed on the part where the adjustable front strap loops around the belt, allowing the harness on one side to fall loose, and for the weight to be transferred to the right side. I’ve been happy with the kit so far, although the harness did seem a little under-engineered to me. I’m used to my climbing gear, straps, karabiners and loops, which are all stitched to withstand huge forces and save lives of dumb climbers who go places they shouldn’t be. I don’t really expect that from my camera gear, but if I saw it, I’d be impressed enough to show my mates. Single stitching on load-bearing points is bad design, and I’ll be letting them know that - they’re a good company and I’m 100% sure they’ll sort this stuff out in the future. But right now, I need to get my arse to a tailor with a decent sewing machine to get this put back together. And I’m going to look at getting the other side reinforced. In the meantime, I’ve tied a knot in the strap. Works perfectly, comes loose occasionally :) Ah, if only Billingham could be persuaded to broaden their product range. No offence to South-East Asian manufacturing, but it’s not up to Billingham standards. What’s the old adage? Good/Fast/Cheap: Pick Two. One of these days, I’m going to convert some climbing gear into camera gear…

Indian bureaucracy

Is not always a bad thing. The amount of paperwork floating around means that your friendly local banker is able to get things done with a quiet word that in the UK is no longer possible, because our systems are water-tight (i.e. inflexible). Cards can be issued within a day and cheque books too. I was wondering how they did the chequebook, and then I saw. The poor fellow took out a rubber stamp, altered its digits to match my account number, and went through a new chequebook stamping every single cheque with my account number. Can you possibly imagine anyone in London being bothered or able to do that?

Skinnier than me

Aunt SumanMy dad is from a reasonably large family, I suppose. He’s one of eleven, somewhere in the middle - two older brothers and two older sisters. My eldest aunt is almost 89 - early next month - and after she broke her hip the last time, she’s been stationed in the ashram nursing home on the seafront, a great view if only she could see it. They denied losing her dentures, which means eating is quite impossible and she’s quietly been wasting away. My other aunts visit and feed her small amounts of mashed potato, pastries and chocolate, but she can’t assimilate very much. She lies in that bed all day, poor old aunt. She’s the eldest of all the siblings, the spinster who dedicated her life to the ashram, already 54 when I was born, and I’m not sure if, after this trip, I will get to see her again. But, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Observing rather than Hunting

These days, I spend too much time behind a camera hunting for pretty pictures, and too little simply documenting what I see around me. The latter is very satisfying, very amateur (in a good way) and largely what I did for ten years before getting slightly more serious about it all. The upcoming project documentary is going to take more observation than perhaps I’m used to these days, but the more observational work I do meets a positive response - The Council Estate and just yesterday, The House - and it’s all good practice for the big project. I’ve spent a lot of time in Pondicherry since I was a baby, and there’s a familiarity which prevents me wandering around as I might in a new town or city. So much of this place is tied to my family and its history, that I’m looking at my own family more closely, even as I’m stared at in the street… Christina found a splendid internet cafe last time she was here, and where I sit right now, and of course the people here know my family, don’t they? Pretty much everyone and anyone in the ashram knows Atma, my eldest cousin, and ashramites all know each other anyway. So I’m being observed too, as it happens, and noting that, I’m off to photograph the derelict patch of land that my father and his two brothers have owned since the 1960s.


I’ve an Indian bank account which my father prefers me to use while in India, but he has a habit of making things more complicated and then blaming the bankers. I’m all for the mindless and merciless victimization of finance workers, but my father is able to make me feel sympathy for just about anyone he deals with - shouted complaints interspersed with sketches from his life story are embarrassing at best.

In order to access my cash, I need a card, which is easy enough to do, but my account had been registered dormant after two years of inactivity, and paperwork was insisted upon, followed by a delay, too long, since I would be out of town by then. Dad shouted at them and kept on at me hassle them, which I ignored and took an auto-rickshaw to the main branch where I was assured the matter would be dealt with by a specialist.

I learnt two things.

  1. Pondicherry is massive, way bigger than I thought and
  2. The specialist simply told me I was officially stuffed, and this was why.

Hopefully my cash card will be here in a few days, and in the meantime, I’ll try not to burn through the cash pile I have. Well, I’ll start trying after I find myself some wheels. Two, in fact, with a motor in-between. I chose a Honda Hero XTREME or something, largely because it was the shiniest and had a fuel gauge - don’t laugh, they’re quite rare on motorbikes, I’ve had one bike out of four that had one - and was gobsmacked to find that this 100-ish CC little toy was quick, smooth and chuckable. Indeed, all bikes are chuckable, in a down-the-road way, but when traffic comes from every which way but the direction you’re looking in, a bit of agility helps.

On that note, I should add that I caught up with my buddy Mischa out here a few days ago, having sent him to South India back in March, and found that he’d bought a brand new Royal Enfield, a fat donkey of a bike which corners like a shopping trolley. In his imperialistic, instant gratification, must have it now-now-now way, he’d insisted to poor Prakash, the driver who was ferrying him around the South, that he wanted a bike now-now-now, in Madurai, hundreds of kilometres from where the bike would eventually be living. Since Mischa has no address, speaks no Tamil, knows nothing about bikes and doesn’t hold a licence in any known country, it fell to poor poor Prakesh to register and get the bike sorted, and consequently, the bike has a temporary registration and needs to be taken back to Madurai (by poor poor poor Prakash) to get it registered. By temporary registration, I mean it has no number plate. Mischa managed to chuck the bike and himself onto the road a few weeks back, and he got away with it, but he and poor poor poor poor Prakash really do not need the cops sniffing around.

Anyway, back to the wheels. I rode over to Horrorville, which Mischa is experiencing all that India has to offer by largely staying away from it in the confines of Pony Farm, where he has a hut, a kitchen, a cat and frequent power cuts, which made riding in pitch black through Auroville trying to find him impossible, so I gave up, parked, and waited for him to find me on the donkey. Cool place, would have been cooler with more than two candles to light it up, but I got the picture. At least he’s away from most of the Horrorvillians. Riding around in the dark is no fun at all and lethal to boot - everyone drives or rides with full beams, cars and trucks cut you up, there’s no respecting the safety of others (as Mischa found out) and many road users don’t have lights or reflectors, dogs run out at you, the surface might be covered in gravel or dirt and and and and it’s generally crap, all right? I left it overnight outside the A2B restaurant and calmed my nerves with a Ghee Masala Dosa, the high-fat masterpiece of South Indian snack food. And back before curfew - yes, the International Guest House has a 10.30pm curfew, fercrissakes, and it’s onto picture editing. I managed to nab a few hours in an internet café on Mission Street and managed to get a stack of pictures uploaded of my trainer’s new gym, and Korin & Oliver’s wedding last weekend. Hopefully they’ll like some of pics. That was a great day - feels very far away now. Oh, and I uploaded the quick story I shot on the family house yesterday. It’s on Facebook now.