Entertainment Photographer Samir Hussein is used to shooting red carpet events and catwalk shows so going to Kolkata with The Hope Foundation to capture the people of the slums presented a new challenge.
It was while standing on a stinking rubbish tip the size of a small mountain, surrounded by rummaging women, children and pigs from the local slum, that it struck me how I could not be further away from the showbiz events I am used to frequenting as a photographer.
I was in Kolkata, India shooting with The Hope Foundation, an NGO dedicated to helping street and slum children in the city. The Kapali Bagan slum, a dumping ground for Kolkata’s millions and where locals desperately search for plastic and metal to sell, was just one of numerous slums I visited during an unrelenting and unforgettable week-long stay in Kolkata.
Personal collection of Sam Hussein. Sam with some slum children in a kindergarten.
Personal collection of Sam Hussein. Sam shooting some slum people in a hospital.
As well as photographing slums, hospitals and schools supporting slum children, I also found time to hold a series of workshops and conduct a city photography tour.
With an estimated third of Kolkata's population living in slums and a further 70,000 people completely homeless, travelling around Kolkata is a real assault on the senses. It also makes for eye-opening, provocative photos. On one occasion I went out in a night ambulance, owned by The Hope Foundation, to look for vulnerable people on the streets. What I saw and photographed were mass pockets of people trying to sleep on the pavements, including babies and children with barely a blanket to keep them warm.
The poverty was hugely evident wherever I went, but I was only greeted with smiles. The frenetic nature of the city gave a real insight into peoples lives. There’s always so much constantly going on in the streets – traffic, animals, shoppers, markets, people eating, drinking, cooking, washing, playing.
For the locals, be it children or adults, having their photos taken seemed a privilege. In a way this made it more difficult to capture candid street scenes because as soon as the locals saw your camera they would surround you.
I found that being able to photograph without constraints, deadlines or target audiences changed the way I shot.
When shooting entertainment it is easy to get into the trap of photographing to a formula for publications. While I was shooting on the streets I found I had the time and the freedom to wait for the right moment with interesting characters to make a more compelling picture.
Slightly overwhelmed by what I had witnessed in the slums, I dusted myself down to run a series of workshops aimed at young locals with a strong interest in photography. Speaking about my own career photographing the royals and showbiz events, while also giving practical tips, I was cheered and somewhat surprised by the level of interest this generated. There was a genuine passion to develop their skills and to learn about shooting high profile celebs, which to them was a world away.
Personal collection of Sam Hussein. Sam conducting one of his workshops.
I also conducted a city photo tour around the city’s cultural sites with a well known company, Calcutta Photo Tours. We were joined by a film crew, local press and dozens of amateur photographers, keen for an insight into getting professional-standard photos around some of the most interesting parts of the city.
My time in Kolkata was hugely fulfilling and enlightening. It took me out of my comfort zone, both in terms of shooting in a new environment and teaching to a new audience with different backgrounds and expectations.
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