As photographers we must ask or seek permission to take photographs of our subjects. In my experience you seldom get a second chance at broaching this all important question so put a lot of thought and effort into the asking. A snatched picture here, a begrudgingly consented to portrait there, rarely ever results in anything revealing or satisfying.
My sentiment is that there is no right time to ask someone if I can take their picture, only a time when it feels comfortable, a moment of mutual connection, when the subject is happy to reveal something of them self and I feel able to record and honour that in a dignified and honest way. Chance encounters, especially with the spiritually reclusive, demand above all else patience and time, which in India, is often measured by the number of cups of tea offered, served and consumed. Thinking about it now, I don’t think I have ever been refused a photograph by anyone I have sat and drank tea with. In India it is an essential ice breaker; a liquid preamble to any really meaningful social discourse and a chance for your host to get the measure of you.
Last year travelling back from Rajasthan I made a detour to spend a few days at a Sufi shrine. On our second afternoon there, my assistant and I came across Mohammed Khadri, sitting crossed legged, reading the Koran in a doorway within the confines of a small mosque complex. He appeared to be the only person around; he looked up and gestured for us to join him in his tiny room. A flask of tea was opened and we sat together in amiable conversation. After a while I decided to ask if I could take his photograph. At that moment all conversation with Mr Khadri ceased. He turned his back on us and resumed his reading of the Koran, quite impervious to our presence.
Not wanting to break the silence I gestured to my assistant that maybe it was time to leave, but he appeared intent on staying put. I closed my eyes as we sat there in the interminable stillness, considering the best way out of this unexpected, awkward deadlock. As the minutes ticked by I concluded we had to remain there until he responded to my question. After all he hadn’t said no.
Twenty long minutes later he looked up and out of the doorway, took a deep breath, turned to us and nodded his agreement. “Yes, it would be ok to take a picture.” We never asked him how or what led him to this final conclusion but clearly to him this was no ordinary every day request. Here was a man who had lived alone in this room for 11 years in quiet spiritual contemplation. He neither spoke to nor saw many people and had never been asked to have his photograph taken. Viewed from this perspective his answer was extraordinarily gracious.
This summer I was in Kedarnath in the Himalayas where Hindus from all over India come to seek a blessing inside the ancient stone temple which stands at the head of the village surrounded by massive snow capped mountains. On the steep slopes high above the village we met a sadhu living alone in a room made from stone with a massive natural overhang of rock as the roof. He lived here during the summer months largely sitting by his fire and meditating. We spent the best part of a day with him and it was only after being offered a third cup of tea that I decided he might just agree to be photographed.
In the early spring of last year, at the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar I met a young sadhu one late afternoon close to the edge of the Ganges. He had just finished his ritual bath and was on his way back to his tent. The light was perfect, the location was suitable, but I just knew that had I asked him for a photograph there and then he would have said no: he was obviously a recent initiate, wary of foreigners, reluctant to be waylaid and worried at being late. I saw him on several other occasions and each time I sensed his reluctance to stop and talk. His photograph, I thought, would have to wait.
About two weeks later we were walking over one of the bridges that span the river when we fell into conversation with an elderly but grand looking sadhu. He was on his way back to his encampment and would we like a cup of tea? On arrival we were invited to sit down by the fire where tea was served.
Half an hour later with the afternoon drawing on, we thanked our host and hurried down to one of the many bathing ghats that line the river to see if anything was happening. It was quiet so we sat, watched and waited. It was then that I saw the young sadu walking down the steps towards us. He smiled shyly and continued to the water’s edge where he began to busy himself with his ritual bath.
I watched the whole deliberate routine and as it neared completion, with the ash now smeared over the body and the turban wrapped around his head, we went over to talk to him. “You had tea with my Guru” he laughed excitedly. In that moment I knew the opportunity had at last come, it was now ok to ask.