Thanks to Slumdog Millionaire, the Mumbai slum of Dharavi is now world-famous. Though conditions can be horrifying it is also home to a thriving community whose future is now in doubt. Photographer Adam Hinton and agency This is Real Art have created an online portrait of a remarkable place
Dharavi uses a combination of still and moving image pieces to tell the story of some of the 1 million people who live in this now hotly-contested area. The website features a satellite view of the slum from which users can zoom into different stories and images.
Adam Hinton talked to CR about the aims and process of the project.
CR: How did the project come about?
AH: I was on a commission shoot in Mumbai in March 2008 and got talking to my producer about developmental issues and the topic of Dharavi came up. I’d been wanting to do a project that went further than just a record of how families and communities live under adverse conditions, which has been one of the central themes of my work.
I learned that Dharavi is one of the largest and oldest slums in India and from being located on Mumbia’s periphery is now on prime central real estate which many property developers are drooling over.
CR: What do you hope to achieve with it?
AH: The point of the project is to highlight two things. The first is to show how a community copes with living in conditions of adverse poverty. How people strive to live with dignity in those conditions, a theme that is a constant throughout my work. Second was to show the issues of development surrounding this community. This is a more directly political issue and a route I wanted to take this work and future work. Due to Dharavi’s history and size it carries local political clout which has so far saved it from the usual ‘re-development’ ie displace the peasants and build apartments for the new middle classes. I was granted a bursary from the National Media Museum in Bradford and the work will become part of the museum’s collection.
CR: How did you research Dharavi?
AH: The research involved two aspect, working out what to shoot and then how to present it in a way that incorporated the issues.
Researching how to shoot in Dharavi took about eight months. This was because finding local fixers or journalists to work with proved difficult in terms of getting responses. I usually work with a local fixer and this normally takes a couple of weeks to sort out. Eventually I contacted my commercial producer there and fortunately they knew several people living in Dharavi who we liaised with. For background info there are several organisation working in Dharavi to promote the rights of the people there. I got a very detailed picture of the issues from these.
After my first visit it became apparent that to represent the issue photographically would be a very difficult process within the documentary format that I work in. I went to see Paul Belford at This is Real Art as we’d worked together on some great pieces of campaign work. I showed him what I’d shot and explained the issues I wanted to promote and asked him for the best way of building a finished entity that would do that. Paul took the material away and came back after a couple of weeks with ideas on how to present the work and new ways of approaching the project such as doing filmed interviews with some of the families I’d photographed and putting text, image and film together for an exhibition and website. This became a more collaborative piece from then on as This is Real Art produced the website.
On the next visit I went back to do interviews with the families I had meet. Through the films I hoped to show the residents’ daily lives and what they thought about the proposed re-development. Getting the films edited was a major headache. Thankfully Guy Coleman at Tapestry offered to help me out. Tamsie Thomas spent many hours editing the films for me and I’m very grateful for their help.
CR: How did you gain access, given that people there don’t always take kindly to being put ‘on show’ for visitors? How did you convince them to take part?
AH: I went out for one week in February 2009 as a recce because I was told that the only way to get the contacts I need would be to do it in person. The producer I had knew several families in Dharavi and through these families I documented the wider community. I didn’t get any vibe from the families or people on the streets that they were uncomfortable about being photographed. On the contrary, because of Bollywood they actively asked to be photographed.
I’ve worked intimately with communities globally, generally spending one to two weeks in each one and have never come across hostility, people are generally interested in what you’re doing and why and once that is explained often ask you to join them for a drink at their home. On my last trip my fixer told me on a few occasions that people were saying ‘Why’s there another guy taking pictures?’. It seems the Slumdog effect has caused a rush on guided tours of Dharavi for tourists!
CR: How long did you spend there?
AH: I did two, one week trips there.
CR: The site includes both still and moving image – is that the way you intend to work in the future, combining the two?
AH: Moving imagery is something I’ve always been interested in. I did a couple of charity videos some years back but in the end found the whole process demoralising. Now I’m able to shoot without needing any more equipment than a good mic. The ability to record interviews and the lives of the communities with both still and moving imagery takes documentary photography onto a new and very exciting era. It enables us to tell a much more involving (for the viewer) and detailed description of the situations and issues we are trying to communicate and it can be done from a small handheld camera without the need for a small team of assistants etc. It means one can get the level of intimacy with your subject as you do with stills and the quality of the output looks like a proper movie camera. It’s now part of every project I do and I’m still discovering i’s possibilities. It’s something all photographers are going to have to address as I’ve been asked several times now to quote for stills and moving. Personally I think it’s brilliant and extends what one can do with documentary work enormously.
Agency: This is Real Art
Design: Paul Belford, Fred Birdsall
Copywriting: Pav Thiruchelvarajah
Programming: Andy Mathieson
Creative director: Paul Belford