Connecting to People

A matter of give and take

As a preparation for the Urban Typhoon 2008 workshop on the development of Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, I travelled to Mumbai one week in advance of our gathering. In order to familiarize with the subject of our workshop I stayed in Dharavi and walked it every day. And I walked it every night. As a method of surveying cities I take pictures of everything that is catching my eye. I had done this in Tokyo one year earlier and it had proven its value to me.

The people of Dharavi are very willing to have a picture taken of themselves and their business. I took many pictures of how they live, work and trade. It gave me insight in how a slum works and how the moods are of the people living there. But it made me feel uncomfortable as well. I was taking pictures without doing anything in return. The insights all these people gave me were so invaluable that finding a returning favour became inevitable. The internet shop opposite Sion station inspired me to an appropriate response for taking pictures, which is: giving pictures. The internet shop offered printing facilities so I printed the portraits of everybody I figured I would be able to track back.

Kunal was of tremendous help, he printed dozens of portrait photos.

Armed with stacks of pictures I went back into the slum of Dharavi, where some 800.000 people live and the streets have no names, looking for people, their business, their family, their shop, their kids. And it worked out very well.. People were very surprised and very pleased to get a picture of themselves in their most daily situation. Everyone I met gave me a feeling of mutual joy. Kids rushing home cheering, waving with the picture. Grown-up men looking for words. Moreover, it opened up the world I was trying to survey. I was invited to join drinking tea in private houses, in the local gym, in what appeared to be a company in sound and lighting systems. I was guided through the narrowest backside alleys, in pitch dark, in order to find that boy in the picture who appeared to be the brother of the friend of the nephew of my friend whom I met for the first time one minute ago. And so on. In the process of delivering the pictures to the right persons I learned more about Dharavi and its people than I imagined possible.

Social structures, economics, ethnics, religious segregations, architecture, urban planning, infrastructure, commerce, business, living, education, tradition, and so on. All I wanted to know came within reach by simply giving pictures.

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