Tag Archives: India

Ask, See, Do

I am often asked how many good photographs I get when I am out on assignment.  In the days of film, this question was framed “Jonathan, how many usable photos do you get per roll? ”   Today the question is simply reframed “What’s your ratio of good photographs to bad?”

It took me a long time before I could articulate an answer to the above question that didn’t leave me feeling strangely drained and awkward.  Not because I didn’t have an answer; there was a time in my life I knew precisely how many good frames I was averaging per roll of film and could return the figure as accurately as a cash register printing a receipt.  What always rubbed me the wrong way about the question was that I never liked the connotations of my answer – whatever the number was.  I disliked the idea that one of the metrics of how good or bad a photographer I was could be measured by how many good or bad frames I captured on a roll of 36, or on a memory card.

Many moons ago, I posed the same question to one of my mentors, Dewitt Jones.   He returned my question with a knowing smile and let just enough silence fill the space after the asking to make me feel like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  When Dewitt broke the silence he said “If your asking that, you’re asking the wrong question.” Feeling a little like young Luke Skywalker learning the force from master Yoda I replied, “What is the question I should be asking?”   Dewitt answered, “The question you should be asking is ‘did I get THE shot’?” He then went on to explain, “You either get the shot or you don’t get the shot – it’s as simple as that.”  The light began to dawn in my mind and I swear I saw Dewitt’s camera levitating ever so slightly on the table behind his chair. “It’s not how many good shots I get, the question is, ‘did I get THE shot?’”

Seeing Clearly

So what is THE shot?  For me the shot is the image, or group of images that most effectively tell the story.  The frame(s) that capture both the reality and the feeling of the moment.

Cartier Bresson describes the shot as capturing the “decisive moment.”  Rikki Cooke describes his process with the phrase “it turned my head.”  Chris Rainier describes his approach as a “feeling in the solar plexus.”  In fact, every great photographer I have ever spoken with uses different words to describe the same thing – excitement.

So what do I do when I have that feeling in the solar plexus?  When my head turns to see the soft light gracing the pilgrims face?

Ask, See, Do

My process can be summed up in three words:  Ask, See, Do.

Ask – I ask myself: What is the story here?  What matters in this scene and what doesn’t?  How can I highlight what is working and eliminate what is not?  And importantly, when photographing people, I try to live by the golden rule by always honoring my subjects and asking permission whenever possible.

See – Do I see the story in my mind’s eye? Do I see this shot at my core level?  Am I seeing this shot with my head or my heart?  If I don’t feel anything when I take the shot, people looking at my photo aren’t going to feel anything. If I am filled with joy at the beauty before me or cry because of the tragedy in front of my lens, my hope is those viewing the image will be able to feel the same emotion.

Do – Can I let my technology and technique augment my vision as an extension of  myself, or is it going to be a barrier between myself and the scene.  If it is a barrier – how can I simplify to the point where it is not and still capture the frame?  Do I need to put away the DSLR and pick up my point and shoot?

Great photography is knowing the story, seeing it with my heart and capturing it in a way that allows me to remain connected to my subject. Great photography happens when subject, heart and technique connect; and when they do, the result is pure magic.

Courtyard Saris, India

Colorful saris are draped in a courtyard in preparation for a wedding in Mathura, India.
Colorful saris are draped in a courtyard in preparation for a wedding in India.

Music from what sounded like a drunken high school marching band reverberated down the street full cows, hucksters, potholes and people.  I knew the cacophonous sound meant one thing – a celebration.  Walking toward the rowdy music, I turn into a courtyard regaled in reds, oranges and the many colors of the rainbow as the misty morning light began to harden.  A wedding was at hand!  My visual love affair with India is renewed.  She never ceases to surprise and delight in a visual feast for the eyes.

Musicians of the Thar Desert

Photographing a story on the Pushkar camel fair is something I had wanted to do since hearing about it shortly after arriving in India to teach photography in 2002.  In the fall of 2008, the right opportunity presented itself and I found myself under the Rajasthan desert sun surrounded by thousands of nomads.  What I realized immediately was the real story was not the fair, but the thousands of lives in the orbit of the mela.  Just as a satellite has a clear view of the earth, their lives told a story of the bigger picture beyond the surface of what any casual observer would see.  I chose to focus on just one family drawn into the fairs orbit.  Click the play button below to see the mela through their eyes. Don’t forget to click the full screen button on the bottom right for the full effect.

Musicians of the Thar Desert from Jonathan Kingston on Vimeo.

Every year, thousands of camel herders and tens of thousands of camels gather during the full moon of the month of Kartik to trade their livestock. In the midst of this mela, filled with a carnival atmosphere of tourists, hucksters, con men, and heavily mustached and turbaned desert nomads, a family of musicians counts on the festival to bring in the majority of the money they need to survive for the coming year.

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat – Mumbai, India

In the fall of 2008, I made a trip to India to visit former students and get my creative juices flowing.  After 20 hours of travel, crossing multiple time zones and very little sleep, I touched down to the mayhem of Mumbai at one in the morning and let Paul Liebhardt talk me into foregoing much needed sleep in order to photograph at the Dhobi Ghat before sunrise the following day.  So exhausted that I was not sure which way was up or down, we managed to spend three hours at the Ghat before succumbing to exhaustion.  Here is a little rich media piece I produced from those few short hours.  I look forward to returning to the subject in the future for more in-depth coverage.  Be sure to click on full screen for the full experience.

Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai, India from Jonathan Kingston on Vimeo.

In the heart of Mumbai lies an integral feature of the city. The Mahalaxmi Dhobi ghat where 10,000 workers wash over 1,000,000 pieces of clothing a day, by hand, each individual standing in the soapy water near their washing stone for up to 16 hours. The dhobi ghat is one of the largest examples of this profession in the world and it is finding itself at the center of a a John Henry-esque story of man versus machine is unfolding in this rapidly growing city of over 18 million people.

Jonathan Kingston featured in United Nations FAO Review

Potato harvest in Tamil Nadu, southern India.
Potato harvest in Tamil Nadu, southern India.
Jonathan Kingston's photography featured in UN FAO End of Year Review
Jonathan Kingston's photography featured in UN FAO End of Year Review

2008 was designated the “International Year of the Potato”  by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.  According to Jacques Diouf, the Director-General of the FAO, “The potato is on the frontline in the fight against world hunger and poverty.”  I produced the above image while living in Tamil Nadu, teaching photography at Light and Life Academy, south Asia’s first photography school.  In the background you can see a large tea plantation that produces much of the CTC tea for the Tetley tea company.  I was just recovering from a nasty case of typhoid fever when I took this frame and was only strong enough to click off half a roll or so before exhaustion forced me to retire to my bungalow that shared the same hillside as the potato farmers.

Jonathan Kingston Collaborates on book about Pushkar Camel Fair

Cross posted from the Aurora News Blog Here

When Aurora photographers Jonathan Kingston, Dan Patitucci and Janine Patitucci, along with 7 other photographers, traveled to India to document the annual Pushkar Camel Fair in Rajasthan, they were not expecting to end up with a book. However, after seeing the collective archive of imagery created by the 10 participants, they decided to gather them into a book, titled Pushkar – Gurus, Gods and Camels, which was published by CreateSpace on March 27, 2009. To view the entire book online, or purchase a copy, visit www.gurusgodsandcamels.com.

The group of photographers traveled to Rajasthan to recharge and inspire themselves creatively among the thousands of Indian nomads, gypsies, sadhus, pilgrims, camels, and tourists who travel to the Pushkar Camel Fair annually. When asked about the resulting book, Jonathan Kingston said, “Every morning we would go our separate ways before sunrise and every evening we would meet again well after sunset for dinner and an exchange of stories from the day. One evening towards the end of the fair, another photographer on the trip suggested we pool our collective images into a book and put me in charge of the project. I immediately deferred my new-found responsibilities to the Patitucci’s, who wrangled the images from each photographer, and spearheaded the production of the book. This project goes to show that spontaneous creativity happening collectively can be a powerful force.”


Image by Jonathan Kingston


Images by Janine Patitucci (left) and Dan Patitucci (right)


Image by Dan Patitucci

View more work by Jonathan KingstonJanine Patitucci and Dan Patitucci at Aurora Photos.

Fish In The Filter

Waves, sea cliffs and mist on the north shore of the island of M
Waves, sea cliffs and mist on the north shore of the island of Molokai, Hawaii.


The massive cumulonimbus clouds ripe with rain were well over a month away from rolling atop the blue hills of the Western Ghat mountain range in Tamil Nadu and enveloping the region in the mist of monsoon.  My pet project for the dry season at the photographic college where I was teaching was to insure that the students in black and white darkroom of were receiving clean water in which to process their negatives.  During the wet season, the school harvested rain from the rooftops of its buildings into a massive tank from where the water was piped into all the darkrooms.  During dry season, the school was forced to truck in water from a less than clean source, which led to all kinds of problems with the emulsion of the student’s images, and all kinds of headaches for grading their film fairly.

I initially approached the problem of filtering the water by procuring the purchase of a number of cone filters.  In America, this system would have worked brilliantly to remove any small bits of sediment, and was in fact used by many photo labs in which I had developed film.  Unfortunately the mud brown water the academy was receiving from the tanker truck would clog the cone filters within a couple of days causing an enormous drop in water pressure in the lab and it soon became apparent that maintaining this filtration system was untenable.  As a stop gap solution, I had a huge pack of coffee filters shipped from the USA for my students to pre filter their lab water before processing their film.  This method worked reasonably well, but was to dependent on a resource not locally available, and I knew I had to find another solution.

As my frustration and emotional investment in fixing the water situation grew, my options for solving it seemed to narrow.  I searched the internet, and spoke with friends all to no avail until halfway through the dry season, a newly hired office manager offered a brilliant idea.  He suggested building a series of tanks that would allow the dirty water to flow, at a slow rate, between a series of successive concrete settling tanks.  Gravity would act as the filter forcing the sediment plaguing the students in the darkroom to settle to the bottom of each successive tank, until the last tank contained nothing but crystal clear water.  Nothing happens quickly in India, but the simple, smart, low cost idea did come to fruition a few months later and a smile spread across my face every time I visited the students in the lab and saw the crystal clear water in their beakers where the mud brown liquid used to be.

One morning, not long after the completion of the sediment filter, I was in the lab preparing to develop some of my own film when I noticed a pungent fishy smell coming from the tap.  Perplexed, I closed the faucet and wandered up the hill to the series of settling tanks, where I found, much to my great chagrin, they were filled with hundreds of floating dead fish.  I sat, jaw open in awe, until I saw, in clear movie montage in my mind, what must have led to the fish in the filter.
Some four hundred yards away on the grounds of the school lay a fish pond.  It was built as a place of solace for the students to relax and enjoy the beautiful view of the mountains that the grounds afforded.  Without any rain to replenish the pond during the dry season, its level had been steadily dropping over the past months leaving less and less water for the fish to live.  In my minds eye, I saw the image of the schools gardener, in an act of compassion, bucketing the fish out of the nearly evaporated pond and transporting them over to my filter.  Unfortunately for the fish, the filter had a corrugated metal lid that was placed over top to prevent debris from falling in, and that lid was enough to cause the water temperature to rise to a deadly soup for the fish.  In the act of trying to save them, the gardener had condemned them to a quick death.

No sooner had I seen this montage my mind, than I burst out laughing.  I laughed like a maniac back to my office, and when fellow faculty member Rudy Loupias asked what was going on, I could only point up the hill and manage the words “check out the filter” before I burst into another fit of merriment.  Months and months of planning, fighting loosing sleep for this filter, and all the gardener had seen was not a brilliant sediment filter, but a five tank fish pond.  I had to let it all go, and laughter was the chariot that loosed my holding on.

How often do I as a photographer put myself in the same predicament with my images, as I did with the filter?  I labor and plan a story, research and think through how to best execute a shot.  I carry my gear and my knowledge sometimes half way around the world to the place of maximum potential and click the shutter at the right moment.  After the shoot, there are heart wrenching decisions.  Do I choose this photo, or that?  Which image captures the idea that I wish to communicate?  In other words, I put my heart and soul into creating an image and when the image is published, I want the world to recognize and congratulate me on my fine execution of the photo or photo story.  However, just as the gardener saw a fish tank where I saw a filter, once the images are in the world how they are perceived has nearly nothing to do with me and everything to do with my audience.

Recently I was on the phone with a family member who saw an image on my website that they liked.  It was a landscape I was quite proud of producing and the family member was talking me into giving them a print.  I asked where they planned on hanging it – and they said ‘Oh its just perfect for my bathroom!’  I was momentarily offended as my mind raced through the sacrifices I’d made for this print to hang as bathroom art, until I remembered the gardener, and the fish in the filter, and laughed to myself and let it go.