Archives for posts with tag: hands

Henna Hands

I captured this image at the foot of the Taj Mahal in March, 2002. Helen and I were at the tail end of nearly a year of traveling around the world on $30/day between the two of us (airfare, scuba diving and our one safari in Kenya were outside of that budget). In all, we spent two full days inside the Taj Mahal compound, watching the light change, Helen sketching in her diary, me taking the occasional photograph (see: limitations of shooting with film).

At one point during the first day, with the crowds picking up and the light directly above and probably at it’s least interesting, Helen and I ventured forward, removed our shoes and walked inside the mausoleum itself. Seeing the chamber built for the tombs of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal is a required visit, but the comparatively small space is less impressive than the building itself.

I was happy to get back outside, into the sunshine and where I could soak in the building’s famous exterior. That’s when I noticed this well-appointed woman and her tattooed hands.

As is my way, I approached her with my camera hanging from my neck. I smiled, pointed to her hands, and told her they were beautiful. She smiled and let me know it’s part of the wedding custom – she was getting married there, at the Taj Mahal. I asked if I could photograph her hands and that’s when she held out her hands as you see here.

I’ve since learned that this form of henna tattoo is called “mehndi” and is part of a larger Hindu wedding tradition. Among other folklore, one theory has it that the darker the henna, the more the bride will be loved by her husband and respected by her new in-laws. Perhaps one beloved tradition is that the bride isn’t allowed to do any work until the mehndi has faded away. In effect, across all fronts, darker is better.

Of course, the dark henna, meant to impress her husband and ward off the start of any work, was perfect for my camera and black and white film. What’s remarkable for me in the image is how all the elements come together – the intricate, dense and dark patterns painted on her hands offset by the also intricate but light and airy patterns on her sari, all separated by her symmetrical arms and series of bright bangles.

This is one of those images where everything came together in an instant to create, what for me, is the perfect moment. Shooting film – a resource I doled out carefully during a year of backpacking around the world – combined with the woman’s graciousness and clearly limited time, I took exactly one frame of her hands.

Clearly, I’m happy with how it worked out.

Helen and I were in Marseilles with our kids back in 2006. At the time, Tamar had just turned one and was in back seat of the double stroller. Jordan had just turned three . Helen has a snapshot of me holding my Nikon D2x in one hand (read: heavy) and taking pictures of the fish market, while holding Jordan in my other arm (read: heavier). That’s just what we did so we could travel as a family.

In the midst of photographing the Marseille Fish Market, I noticed there were fishermen pulling up to the dock and sorting out their gear. These were not industrial fishermen, although I’m sure those exist in the French Mediterranean. These were not even small boats manned by 5-10 people… these were, for lack of a better way to describe them, extremely small fishing vessels manned by just the fisherman himself.

I was immediately intrigued by the small boats and the men who manned them.

This shot required three actions. First, release Jordan from my arms. Second, switch out my 50MM lens for a zoom. Third, get close enough to the fisherman so that I could crop in on just his hands and a piece of the net using my lens. What you see with my photographs is exactly as I saw it in the viewfinder with perhaps one or two exceptions – and this is not one of them.

For me, this scene is a small piece of a much broader tableaux and it tells a rich story. In this net and in this man’s hands, I see history, culture and very hard and consistent work. As I write this, that net is likely floating in the Mediterranean Sea, placed in a familiar spot by the very same hands depicted here. Within a few hours, these same hands will retrieve the net , collect the catch and sell them at the market in Marseille.

Did the fisherman depicted here see me take his picture? Without a doubt. I was very close. Did he know that I was taking pictures of only his hands? Unlikely, but certainly possible.

In a situation like this one, I’m careful to make sure I have my camera settings correct and all ready to go before I point it at the subject. And then I work quickly. Most people will ignore a photographer for 5-10 seconds… much longer than that and impatience and self-consciousness tend to set in – at which point objections are voiced.

My goal is to get as close to that line as possible without crossing it. Take as many different pictures as I can before the clock runs out. And make sure that I am the one calling the finish line, not the person whose picture I’m capturing.

There’s a lot of experience wrapped up in this one image. The fisherman’s experience to be sure. The net’s experience, if we can say that. And my experience as a photographer – so that while I saw the broad scene before me, I zeroed in immediately on this small tableaux – and then knew not only the picture I wanted, but how to capture it.

That’s just comes from experience… maybe I should re-name the picture…