As a photographer he has always been fascinated by the clothing of the Indian people. One of the most typical is the saree, a piece of cloth that strectches up to many meters long and is wrapped around the shoulder on the women. Most Indian women prefer wearing either gold or glass bangles or combination of both as in this photograph of from Mandawa, India.
In India Kristian Bertel uses his camera to capture colorful portraits and gorgeous cultural and natural landscapes he sees around this subcontinent. He is a photographer who has been traveling in several provinces of India taking travel photos with a humanitarian eye and he is regular travel blogger with his photographs that have been shown as photo essays online, documenting many aspects of the daily life particularly in India. We were most fascinated by his startlingly beautiful photos that he has captured in India, so we interviewed and asked him about his experiences and insights as a travel photographer.
What inspires the photographer in you?
- The things I see each and every day and I am lucky to have the opportunity to travel the world finding inspiration in seeing light uniquely falling on landscapes, people, that I come across in my travels and also I get inspiration from viewing the work of other photographers on sites. Over time, I have developed such a great appreciation for the power of time and emotions in a photograph and in some situations you only have a split of second to capture a moment. A moment that can create a picture which can stand as a noteworthy and classic photograph to oneself for many years and the idea that beautiful and great photos can be taken in an instant, if you are in the right place at the right time.
There is obviously a strong travel element, but are you involved in photojournalism as well?
- I think my defining moment, or what you call it, came fourteen years ago, when I discovered portrait photography and began to photograph people and my photographic angle is mainly travel and I aim to share the spirit of the places I visit and the people I meet on my journey. Additionally, I would like to customize photography projects with organizations and NGOs and I think these projects challenge me to convey the spirit of their programs, the people involved and the effects of the programs on their communities through photographs.
How did you get started in travel photography?
- My photography career began with a small camera with street photography of people in bigger cities and later on I began taking photos in India where I focus more on gathering impressions and tell stories. I think photography can have a strong impact on society and by taking photographs humanity can have a voice in the work I do. I had been a keen amateur photographer for many years. However, I had a long-held ambition to travel more and had enjoyed photography and especially travel photography. Whether you look at your travel photos as the most memorable photographs you have ever taken, travel photography is one of the most popular activities for those who travel and also for me.
How did you find your own photographic style?
- I learned it over time and I think a photographer's true style is more than just a description of his or her photographing method and think more it encompasses the whole look of the photographer's art and this can sometimes take awhile to discover, especially if you are new to photography. Most photographers discover that there is one subject in particular that they really enjoy photographing more than any other. Sometimes that's portraits in the streets or maybe it's temples in India and whatever you prefer to document directly affects your style. Portrait photography or portraiture in photography is a photograph of a person or group of people that captures the personality of the subject by using effective lighting and the way you photograph portraits is probably completely different from how you would document a landscape, so knowing this can prove to be a huge indicator of your style. However, this may not seem like a contributing factor to your style, it can play a role in the look and feel of your images. For instance, I prefer photographing street photography, preferably in a street, a market but I also like landscape photography located somewhere beautiful and natural. Any piece of photography is in theory capable of being analysed in terms of style neither periods nor photographers can avoid having a style, as a I think a photographic style only results from choices made by a photographer. Whether the photographer makes a conscious choice of style or can identify his own photographic style, hardly matters. There are many different techniques for portrait photography. Often it is desirable to capture the subject's eyes and face in sharp focus while allowing other less important elements to be rendered in a soft focus.
- With the environmental approach in photography more is revealed about the subject and the environmental pictures can have good historical and social significance as primary sources of information. The candid approach is where people are photographed without their knowledge going about their daily business and whilst this approach taken by some photographers is criticized and frowned upon for obvious reasons, less invasive and exploitative candid photography has given the world superb and important images of people in various situations and places over the last century. As with environmental photography I also think candid photography is important as a historical source of information about people. Street photography, also sometimes called candid photography, is photography conducted for art or enquiry that features unmediated chance encounters and random incidents within public places. Although there is a difference between street and candid photography, it is usually subtle with most street photography being candid in nature and some candid photography being classifiable as street photography. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment, though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be of an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic.
Can you tell me about the photo published in this interview?
- Yes, I remember it was in Mandawa, which is a town in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan in India and it is a part of Shekhawati region in Rajasthan, a region recognized by its royal heritage is a prominent and well-established craft industry and craft remains a tradition in Rajasthan, preserved over centuries by the stronghold of the Royal Rajput family. Within the craft industry are smaller occupations and these include, fabric colouration and embellishment, decorative painting and puppetry. Craft workers see this not as an occupation, but rather a mark of respect to their heritage. I walked a afternoon walk not far away from my hotel where I was staying, when I photographed the Indian woman and she is producing bracelets and are traditionally rigid bracelets, originating from the Indian subcontinent, which are usually made of metal, wood, glass or plastic and they are traditional ornaments worn mostly by women from the Indian subcontinent. It is common to see a new bride wearing glass bracelets at her wedding and they symbolize auspiousness and sanctity of marriage. Jewellery design is the art or profession of designing and creating jewellery and this is one of civilization's earliest forms of decoration, dating back at least seven thousand years to the oldest known human societies in India. The art has taken many forms throughout the centuries, from the simple beadwork of ancient times to the sophisticated metalworking and gem cutting known in the modern day. I think it is fascinationg to see that jewellery design has remained relatively constant over the years, where the fundamental references, production techniques and materials from ages ago are still being used to this day in India. Yet the recent rapid developments in technology and machinery have allowed artists easier alternatives to some of the old methods as seen with the Indian woman in this photograph.
How much does your photography equipment mean to you?
- Many people discuss equipment for photography, because that is a relatively easy topic to explain. However, note that it is far from the most important thing in getting good photos. A good photographer gets much better photos than the average photographer and not mainly because he or she has better equipment. I think as an imagemaker one's imagination is more important than knowledge. Of course both equipment and skill can help, but the most important thing is to have the artistic vision, the ability of some photographers to think about the image they are capturing and plan a good composition. Other factors include awareness of both light and subject, a good sense of timing and willingness to get the photo from its greatest side. Because what I have learned in India is that some of the best photos require things like getting up early to catch the dawn light in India or waiting for several minutes for an Indian portrait to turn up at a specific place.
What is it about India that particularly is fascinating you?
- Before going to India for the first time I have heard stories about the country's ability to turn everything upside down from what we regard as normal here in the western part of the world. Stories about holy cows in the streets and that India is probably worth visiting just for its street markets, the hustle of vendors, and the madness of the crowds. When I relished the idea of being able to travel to India all my expectations were fulfilled and much more. The smells and the sounds and its people are a mind-bending travel experience. India tosses up the unexpected on almost every street corner. This can be challenging, particularly for the first-time visitor where the poverty is confronting, Indian bureaucracy can be exasperating and the crush of humanity may turn the simplest task into a frazzling epic. Even veteran travelers find their nerves frayed at some point, yet this is all part of the India ride. Both in my journeys in 2008 and in 2014 the country has an ability to inspire, frustrate, thrill and confound all at once, adopting a 'go with the flow' attitude is wise if you wish to retain your sanity. Love it or loathe it as a traveler and as a photographer and most travelers see-saw between the two to embrace India's unpredictability is to embrace her soul. India is one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world, with some of the most deeply religious societies and cultures. Religion still plays a central and definitive role in the life of most of its people. It is basically a portrait of Indians and talks about Indians and their Indian-ness using color photographs that is reflecting my photographic work.
Where have your latest of traveling brought you?
- One of my latest travels went to Mumbai in India, which is a bustling, diverse metropolis with a flair all its own and as a photographer I have seen with my own eyes that the spirit and pulsing pace of life in Mumbai provide a sharp contrast to much of the rest of India. There has been much debate regarding the original name of the city. Some say the current name of the city Mumbai is the original name and is an eponym derived from Mumba, the name of the local Hindu goddess Mumbadevi and Aai, meaning mother in Marathi. Others say that Bombay was an anglicized version of Bom Bahia, a name given by the Portuguese to mean Beautiful Bay and later made popular by the British as the name of the Bombay state.
But the city has recently changed its name?
- Yes, that is correct. The name was officially changed from Bombay to Mumbai in 1995. Although Bombay and Mumbai are both used, people who explicitly use Bombay are generally non-Marathi speakers whereas Mumbai proponents primarily speak Marathi.
So it is mostly in the streets that you take your pictures?
- No, it not only in the streets that I take my pictures. Mumbai has a few beaches, including one in the downtown area. But they are not that great and the water off Mumbai's coast is extraordinarily dirty and the relatively better ones are in the Northwest Mumbai area. However, they are a great place to see how the locals spend their Sunday evenings, with various food and game stalls. There are other beaches to be found such as the Girgaon Chowpatty in South Mumbai, Juhu Beach in the western suburbs and when you walk in the streets of India it is a common sight to see people sleep on the pavement. Over the years I think that this is actually a strong symbol from each human being sleeping in the streets of India, to display oneself under these conditions for the public. But of course it is also sad.
Do you make your subjects pose in your travel pictures?
- No, most of the time I take my photos unposed and some people get their family or other travel companion and companions into every photograph. Others focus exclusively on the places. One of the most practical things to remember with a camera is that you are capturing 'light'. If you are photographing outside, make sure the sun is to your back. If you are photographing into the sun it will throw off the automatic settings on your camera and you will have a very dark image. The same applies to shadows and sitting someone in shadows and standing in the light to photograph them will likely be disappointing. The same applies to inside photography an taking a photo with an outside window in the frame will throw off the automatic settings and result in a dark image of what's in front of the window. If you must photograph a subject with a window or direct sunlight behind them, change your flash settings from auto to always on or the camera will see the bright light in the background and turn its illumination off, yielding a silhouette. For those wishing to travel on a dedicated photography trip I know that there are companies that cater to this market. Photo tours and workshops allow interested photographers to travel to destinations with the primary goal of creating images and some offer extensive photo instruction while others simply get you to locations where photography is exceptional.
How would you describe your photography style?
- I think it has been developing into travel photography with people in focus. Generally in a portfolio, I think few good photos are better than many average photos and I think, if you want to start a career as a photographer you shall focus on one thing. Shall it be nature photos, shall it be portraits or a whole third thing and I think if a photographer focuses on too many things the photographic signature isn't strong.
Can you tell me about your photos from India?
- Well, I began on a long-term project on India in 2008. I started out by taking humanitarian-based images of the Indian people and their living conditions. I was drawn to people's faces and I turned my attention to documentary photography.
You mentioned that you are drawn to people's faces. Can you explain me more, what you mean?
- Yes, I think that every face tells a story and eyes and wrinkles can say much about a face. It can reveal the story about a specific person, that the person for instance has lived a hard life and I like the melancholic expression in people's faces and that is why I don't publish many photos where people are smiling. In India I came to the attention of poverty in the Indian cities and I began to document the child beggars, where I have made an essay about India's street children named Child Beggars of New Delhi, an essay where my pictures were more photojournalistic motivated.
You understand why so many people are so poor in India. What do you gain, achieve by photographing them. What attracts you in poverty?
- As a traveling photographer in India, I am of course interested in taking photographs of the country as a whole, whether it is temples, landscapes or its people. I was recently in Mumbai's many slums and streets where the homeless are living, sometimes for generations, along the city's pavements without a roof over their heads and it was grieving to see that a life in poverty means living deprived of sufficient food and nutrition, education, proper shelter, sanitation, clean water and so on. Photographing and telling the stories of poverty in India, I think, can be an effective and educational tool so the viewers of my photographs in the Western countries so they can become aware and therefore remember these people's life conditions in comparison to their own lives back home.
- Moreover I think stories of poverty can be a kind of travel knowledge and create bridges both culturally and motivationally toward a solution and possibilities for reducing the poverty in India. Many travelers already know that when we give money or gifts that can be resold, such as pens, we perpetuate a cycle of poverty and give children a strong incentive to stay out of school. But also on the society level as well I think the stories of poverty can hopefully bring the conditions in focus. In a way I think that the Indian society can't fully progress if certain sections of people are left-out simply because they happen to be from the "wrong" class, caste or ethnic group. Lower caste people have traditionally been excluded from the mainstream society in India governed by the so-called upper caste communities. And as a traveler in the country I learned about that they have historically lived isolated in the villages and townships and subsisted doing only those tasks considered "unsuitable" for the other castes. Portraying these society conditions give my viewers of my photographs an insight into how this 'Untouchability' is still present in India. While it has been said that there have been considerable changes in people's attitude over the years, the "lower caste" communities are still not satisfactorily absorbed in the mainstream society.
Have these photographs every got you into trouble. People now call such photos as poverty porn. What do you think of this label?
- No, when I was photographing a begging woman with a child in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, I was though approached by a man from India that was angry about that photographers in general always should portray the misery and poverty of the country. I was friendly and listened to what he had to say. This situation gave me the impression of how many inhabitants of India may feel of their own country's poverty. Yes, they acknowledge the poverty but that we as photographers should use our time to photograph all the good and beautiful sides of India instead. Poverty as a label is used in media through visually miserable photographs, in order to obtain some sort of emotion among its audience for charity organizations and the label itself I can understand can be controversial because it mainly displays and is telling one side of a story. Stories which have become more and more interesting for tourists to visit slum areas as an attraction on their India journeys. One of the main reasons for this may be because people and photographers feel that these places have a sense of authenticity and that these places and poor people are fulfilling the contrasts of India that they have heard about from travel books in their home countries.
So how do you feel about taking pictures of poverty?
- It was strange for me to see those of the Indians, who were poor and crippled. I wish that I had been more encouraging with my camera and also took several pictures of them. I think it's a balance I have to do with myself. People around me might think it's provocative, that I come as a white man and use the photographic sceneries of India's misery. But I must also look at the meaning of it in the larger perspective, that it serves as a higher goal in telling the world about these people through images.
Have your images actually helped a person or persons get out of poverty?
- I have unfortunately no such statistic.
What does photography mean to you?
- Photography for me is an important eyewitness and I think the photograph is near, even though photography as a media portrays life far away from Denmark. With the images from India, I have tried to do this, although the culture and conditions may be different from our own. By going at eye level with the people I photograph, I think the opportunity to capture an intimate documentary picture of what I see, is more present. I also think photography and being in the field as a photographer can have some kind of voice, so people can be aware of topics and stories in the world, which I think need to be told. I recently published a photo essay called Backstory - The Indian Dayworkers, which describes some of the working conditions in India. What interested me the most was the big difference on the working conditions in India compared to Denmark. India has the world's highest accident rate among construction workers. Most of the companies do not even provide safety belts, protection eye wears, hand gloves, shoes or helmets to their workers.
Your thoughts of taking portraits?
- A portrait is, according to what I have learned and as I remember it, a painting, drawing or photograph of a person, often only the face or a description and when I think of photographing people, I automatically think of taking a portrait. But I think not all people photography is portraiture. A photographic portrait focuses on the person and attempts to convey a physical, spiritual or emotional image of what or who the person is. Of course there is also group portraiture, which is usually an image of a small number of people, such as a team or family portrait. However, people can also be photographed in other ways, where the focus might not be the individuals being photographed, but the social or cultural context fashion, news events, sporting events and so on or their relationship to the scene in which they are placed.
- Basically, Indian women prefer to be photographed by women rather than men. Incidentally, there is a balance when taking portrait photographs and you will be surprised how many large Indian families want to take a souvenir photo with you as an exotic tourist - so please smile. India is a paradise for photographers in all its colors and most people don't mind a photo, but courtesy requires asking in advance for close-ups or religious ceremonies. Because portrait photography is a photographic genre in which portraits of living beings are made and the subjects are mostly people, often animal portraits are also created. The aim of artistic portrait photography is usually to work out the characteristic nature of the person photographically and portrait photography is the continuation of portrait painting using photographic means. Portraits of people with personalities from the India shape our perception of the person, but it can also be portraits stage themselves or the photographer stages the person and as we have seen through time the portrait is an important reference for photographers who skillfully are photographing portraits and portraits are created during work or in the studio but also in the streets. Portrait photographs are often created in the street by travel photographers, but photo amateurs are also working with the genre.
- An important option for portrait photographs is the so-called cropping using a very shallow depth of field and this requires large initial apertures, which is why portrait lenses in the 35mm area usually have opening apertures of 1: 2.8 or faster, lenses are available here up to an initial aperture of 1: 1.2. With the faceplate open, the face or the entire person can be visually separated from the background and, if necessary, the foreground. With a precise focus on the pupil or pupils, a special accent can be placed on the eye area. At the beginning of photography one was technically only able to fully depict people. Over time, the distance between the lens and camera and the person being portrayed was steadily shortened, so that the face and or facial features increasingly gets visible and the visible part of the portrait and the direction of view defined from the viewer's point of view. The most appealing aspect of portrait photography, I think, is its ability to convey to others the person photographed by the portrait so the meaning of a portrait is derived from what the photograph communicates about the subject.
When you are approaching subjects to photograph, do you explain what you're doing? Or take pictures first, ask questions later?
- Usually, I don't ask permission when taking pictures of people. I want to have that sudden moment where the eyes of the subjects meet my camera. Of course on the other side and when there are situations where there is no common spoken language, then I ask through charades. For instance, pointing to the camera and then smiling at the person as if to say, "Is it OK?". My general exception is when I take street or market shots from a distance and there are many subjects. But it is always a choice I make on the place and the people I photograph. However, I think portraits often can get a little staged in their expression if I ask permission for a photograph.
What makes a good picture?
- I do not like making the subjects pose and I think there is a sense of spontaneity that is apparent in most of my frames. According to myself, I should let moments happen as they do and I believe that photo journalism and travel photography are similar. You need to narrate a story about what is happening and not make things happen. A good picture is most of the time very subjectively. I have been photographing with a 70-200mm lens because I want to have these intimate close-up images and feeling comfortable with your equipment is also important for me. Normally I photograph a couple of frames of each subject to be sure that I have captured the situation as I see it and on assignments and further traveling I want to have more focus on wide-angle photography.
Is there something you always ask yourself or think just before you press the shutter button?
- The way my mind works, I am usually thinking a few frames ahead of the actual photo I am taking. Whenever we're photographing, I am always thinking with each frame, how can I make this picture better, how can I finish this picture, is this the best I can do? I always think that my images accurately reflect the captured moment in time.
Do you post-process your photos?
- Almost always. I photograph in jpg with the camera set flat, tend to always photograph between 3-4 frames of subject to ensure that I capture what I want in a scene. In the post-processing I try to highlight the person in the image so for instance a disburing background doesn't have so much to say.
What three tips would you share for budding photographers who are interested in pursuing your style of photography?
- The people viewing one's photographs should definitely get a story, an overall concept of the situation that you have tried to convey so use your eyes when you walk down the streets and the great photographic picture can also be above you, looking out from a window. Be patient, when you find a subject to photograph but the angle isn't there, then be patient and wait. I often stand in several minutes before a subjects face is in the right position for my photograph and the composition of a picture is different from its subject, what is depicted, whether a moment from a story, a person or a place. Compared to straight lines, curves provide a greater dynamic influence in a picture and they are also generally more aesthetically pleasing, as the viewer associates them with softness. In photography, curved lines can give graduated shadows when paired with soft-directional lighting, which usually results in a very harmonious line structure within the image. The position of the viewer can strongly influence the aesthetics of an image, even if the subject is entirely imaginary and viewed within the mind's eye and not only does it influence the elements within the picture, but it also influences the viewer's interpretation of the subject photographed. In photography and also one approach to achieving simplification is to use a wide aperture when photographing to limit the depth of field. When used properly in the right setting, this technique can place everything that is not the subject of the photograph out of focus. Another thing that I can recommend is to learn about exposure value in photography also known as the so-called 'EV' is a number that represents a combination of a camera's shutter speed and f-number such that all combinations that yield the same exposure have the same EV for any fixed scene luminance. Exposure value is also used to indicate an interval on the photographic exposure scale with a difference of 1 EV corresponding to a standard power-of-2 exposure step, commonly referred to as a stop. So if you photograph in sunlight go down -1.7 or -2.0 in EV because too many times I have seen great images, where the white areas of the photos unfortunately are burned out.
Where can we see more of your Indian travel photography?
- Photographers on the web can be categorized based on the subjects they photograph and a good photographer must have a very keen eye for detail to ensure that all elements within the photo such as the lighting, the composition, the subject and everything else in between work together harmoniously to convey the right vision or message and my website at Kristian Bertel | Photography is designed specifically for use as a gallery with slideshows with a presentation of a series of still images typically in a prearranged sequence by me as a photographer. I generally find people on my travels as interesting subjects to photograph and I have an interest for stories that are photojournalistic motivated, because if you look closer to the pictures they all might have a story to tell. You can also see that travel photography is a theme in photography that has a lot of appeal to me on my photography website.
Work by the photographer can be seen on his website here.