Never Let An Opportunity Go A-Begging
In October 2006, I was briefly in Calcutta, the Indian city where I was born. Early one morning, a childhood friend of mine picked me up and drove me around the sprawling city. founded by Job Charnock, just so I could capture familiar scenes.
We had been out for almost three hours when he suddenly stopped without warning. It was not one of the spots where we had planned to stop – and I could not see anything that I might want to shoot.
Before I could ask him anything, he pointed through the passenger window, telling me this was not a run-of-the-mill scene. He explained that a group of four beggars frequented the area, and that they always walked together, chanting as they carried two multi-coloured rugs.
A rug? Why the rug?
He explained that they held the rug in the manner of a fireman’s blanket. It was their practice to walk to a series of apartment buildings early every morning, before the occupants left for work. From the windows and balconies, the residents would throw coins onto the rug. Then, when there was no more money forthcoming, the foursome would carefully turn around and make their way to the next apartment building.
I was fascinated.
But I had a question. Why did the four of them operate together as a team?
His answer floored me. They worked together because they were blind. They shuffled down the streets together, taking smaller steps because they did so in unison and because they were not blessed with normal vision.
"You can travel the world and you’ll never see anything quite like this," he told me.
He was right. The story of the beggars struck me immediately. So too did the bright colours of their clothing and the vivid hues of the rugs they were carrying. I was about to open my door when I decided to take a couple of shots from the passenger seat. So I rolled the window down and pointed my camera at the poignant scene. They were only a few feet away from me.
As I did so, someone called out to the beggars, telling them that a person in a car was about to photograph them. Things suddenly started to happen very quickly.
The four beggars wheeled around rapidly and took three or four steps (very much quicker than I reckoned they were capable of) towards the car. One of them was yelling something that I could not quite catch and the expression on the face of the closest beggar was suddenly hostile.
Before I could say anything, my friend had put his imported European car in drive and accelerated away swiftly. I only had time to shoot one frame before he made his escape.
Just one shot. Taken in a split-second before the opportunity vanished forever.
It was an incident - and a basic lesson in instinctive photography - that was to have an interesting echo, when I was charged by a grizzly recently. (You can see the photo and read the post at G Is For Grizzly.) As in India, one shot was all I had time for on that amazing day in the Yukon - but how many people are lucky enough to hit the shutter on a scene like a grizzly defending its piece of Canadian turf?
Maybe on this Calcutta morning, I was blessed with the understanding of the "Decisive Moment" that the peerless Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke about so eloquently. We have so much to learn from the masters of photography. And so much to be thankful for.
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