Photo above: Traders at a tea stall overlooking the Ganges river. Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010

At the very beginning of the year, I saw an inspiring collection photographs from Cuba by by photography partners Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb at New York’s Ricco Maresca gallery. You can view a selection of these photographs on David Alan Harvey’s Burn site here. And Alex and Rebecca talk about their collaboration on their Two Looks blog here.

I am new to the images of Rebecca Norris Webb but I have long admired Alex Webb’s photographs for their ambiguity and sense of mystery. Webb’s attention to colour and composition is fundamental to his work. But for me, most impressive is his ability to capture those moments when elements outside his control converge and lend real resonance to a scene. In Two Looks, Alex and Rebecca identify this notion, describing it as serendipity or the lucky chance.

Of course good fortune falls only upon those photographers who are prepared to wait, to look and to recognise the significance of a moment. Interviewed by the Foto Tapeta website, Webb describes the process involved when he photographs,

“When I am working, then I really have to work… I really have to stay attuned… It is really about walking and feeling the situation. How do you enter the situation? Some situations you get comfortable just walking right in. Others you have to sort of dance around the edge and come in here… What I want to experience is this sudden moment of visual insight.”

And it was a moment of visual insight that clearly struck Webb when two mysterious figures entered this scene in Istanbul which later became the cover for his book, “City of a Hundred Names”.

What makes this kind of photography exciting for me is the notion that these moments happen all the time. As Elliot Erwitt, Webb’s colleague at Magnum Photos, says, “You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them.” Of course for the most part, these “pictures” pass the world by because no one was there to capture them. Fate has intervened and occasionally presented pictures to me. Significantly it has always been during those moments when I have been patient and willing to wait, to watch and to identify a moment.

..Mayawati is the Dalit (formerly untouchable) Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh state. She has undertaken an ambitious architectural project in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. Mayawati has commissioned hundreds of stonemasons to build a paved park in honor of Dalit hero Ambedkar (who wrote the Indian constitution). She considers the park a symbol of Dalit pride but her BSP party have done little to raise the lot of Dalits. The park is complete with domed buildings ornate pillars and statues of Ambedkar and Mayawati. ..Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. India .May 2nd 2009. (Tom Pietrasik)A labourer passes the memorial building in Ambedkar Park. The park was conceived by Chief Minister Mayawati as a tribute to the architect of the Indian constitution. In reality, the park exploits Ambedkar’s image. Lucknow, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

So it was that a man, wearing a green shirt wondered past this scene of a building site in Lucknow while I was working on a story about Chief Minister Mayawati and her Ambedkar Park for the Financial Times Magazine.

Anoopi (with paler green paisley-design sari) And others from the Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS or government ration system) employee (on bike) about the failure to supply forty Sahariya people a ration card renewal...Anoopi from Gopalapura's Sahariya community in Shivpuri District, has no real household. She works a domestic servant for six Sikh families for which she receives Rs.20 (£0.25) from each per month. Anoopi also collects medicinal leaves and bark from the forest which is sold on to a broker. She is not aware of how much her labour is worth to the brokers but she earns about Rs.5-10 per bundle of leaves she collects...Sahariya are an indiginous tribe who traditionally lived in and off the forest. Residing in the north Indian states of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP) and parts of Madhya Pradesh (MP) including Shivpuri District, they have never been granted proper land-owning rights. As a result they have endured a fragile existence, working as agricultural day-wage labourers they have been unable to plan for the future or save for hard times. The community suffer from malnutrition, low levels of literacy and under-representation in the administration and government. The Indian Forest Ministry accuse the Sahariya of trespassing government land and many Sahariya have been forced to migrate in search of jobs. Recent migrants to Shivpuri District in MP, including the Sikh and higher caste Gujjar community, have been more adept at claiming land rights, often at the expense of the Sahariya. Since the mid-1990s however the Sahariya have been granted the lease of land from the government allowing them to sow crops including wheat, chick-peas and soya beans both for the market and their own needs. Over this period, the Sahariya have become more organised and confident at confronting local prejudice and official indifference to their plight. Drought and poor harvests between 2000 and 2004 set the community back but since then they have (Tom Pietrasik)Members of the low caste Saharia community challenge a Public Distribution System (PDS) employee about the failure to supply them with ration cards.
Madhya Pradesh, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2007

Fate had a part to play when the elements of the picture above unfolded before me and it was only last week that I noticed the Varanasi tea-lady pictured at the top of this post adopting a posture that perfectly mirrored the statue of a deity standing above her. You can see more of my recent photographs of Varanasi, including the picture below, on my website here.

Hindu pilgrims gather at the banks of the Ganges river at the holy city of Varanasi, also known as Benares...Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India.February 4th 2010 (Tom Pietrasik)A barber opens up his shop overlooking the banks of the Ganges river.Varanasi, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2010