As the captain turns off the seat belt sign, everyone grabs at the overhead luggage. We pretend to be civil as we rush off of the plane. For some, this is a flight home, for others the adventure is just beginning. In preparation for a trip, there are two things I obsess over: lenses and books. For years I have relied on the insight of writers to help me absorb new surroundings while my body recovers from jet lag. Literature offer a perspective, angle of view and glimpse into local details that might take months or even years to understand. I select which lenses to pack based on the books I read in advance of a trip.
A month before driving along the Ganges in India, someone recommended I read “The White Tiger.” The narrator Balram is an Indian farm boy who becomes a driver for a wealthy landlord. A self-proclaimed entrepreneur, he kills his boss and opens his own taxi service, happily escaping a life in servitude. He walks us through the underbelly of servant life in Bangalore and Delhi where everyone is working an angle. I wondered why a writer would spend so much time talking about the dirty living conditions, but dirty conditions are an essential part of the Indian story. By the time I was ready to select a lens for the trip, I knew it needed to be a personal lens, something that would get me close to people. The narrator’s attention to small details had me thinking the 75mm APO-Summicron would be the perfect lens for the trip.
All big cities share the same problems. Issues like poverty, neglect and elitism are visible all over the globe. What separates cities from each other are the subtle distinctions that develop locally over time. In “The White Tiger” Balram explains the small shop owners and pecking order of beggars. Begging is a profession in parts of India. Certain street corners are prime real estate that is carefully guarded. When I asked some of my friends who grew up in India about the hierarchy of beggars, they said,”Oh yes, of course. You don’t just wander around begging. Everyone has their place.” Living in New York City, I’m used to seeing homeless people begging on the street, but reading about the complexity of India street life allowed me to see a new level of hierarchy operating in front of the lens.
Traveling with too many lenses can be an obstacle. Having to change lenses all the time is a guaranteed way to miss shots and make photography feel like a chore. At most, three lenses will cover any location, though recently I have been heading out with only two lenses and allowing my feet to make up the difference.
When I travel to a place like Venice, which has been photographed to death, there is a real need to find a new vantage point. After mediocre success shooting Venice with wide-angle lenses I decided on a more standard approach. Using a 50mm would shift the focus from buildings to people and get away from the typical alley photographs.
The idea came after reading a tragic story called “In God’s Name.” The book starts in Venice with Cardinal Albino Luciani and follows his rise to the Papacy where he reigned for only 33 days. Venetians are famously secretive, notoriously shy and rightly so. They are a shrinking population. There are less than 60,000 locals left in Venice. The population has not been this small since the Black Plague hit in the thirteenth century.
Pope Albino Luciani was a champion of the disenfranchised, just like many humanitarian photographers. In spite of his honorable message, he was not well received in Rome. In perfect health, he mysteriously died just thirty three days after becoming Pope. The book implicates conspiring cardinals and the Mafia in Luciani’s death. It was subsequently banned in Italy for over twenty years.
Drawing from the sunnier side of “In God’s Name” I wanted to find moments where I could observe Venetians interacting with words, not poison. “Il Mercato” (the market) proved to be a perfect place to observe Venetians exercising their God given right, the right to the finest produce possible. With my limited Italian I watched an older woman insist on buying razor clams from an unopened parcel. I watched as the fish monger tried to assure her the open bag was of equal quality. This entire scene elapsed over a few minutes. It was a brilliant insight into the local psychology, one which is completely absent from the American supermarket.
Sebastião Salgado said that to be a photographer “it is essential to have an education, an understanding for the world in sociological, political, economic and historical terms.”
The next trip on the horizon for me is to the island of Tanna in the South Pacific. In an effort to wrap my head around the fragility of island life, I read a book called “Collapse.” The author, Jared Diamond, explains how island societies are more vulnerable to extinction. Island nations have finite natural resources and lower tolerances for environmental shifts. The book only scratches the surface, but it provides interesting theories, ones which might have taken me months or even years to develop. Research can give you a slight head start before touching down. Based on “Collapse” it seems like a 35mm/75mm could be a great combination, though I would miss my 50mm.
Books and lenses are like two sides of the same coin. They each offer new opportunities to see under the surface of street life. The statistical odds of finding a random composition that unifies form and content are slim. It explains why Henri Cartier-Bresson’s retrospective covering of forty years of work had less than three hundred images. Careful observation is not an easy business.
When he’s not being harassed by customs agents, Adam Marelli lives in New York City. He works as an artist, photographer and architectural consultant, as well as regularly contributing to the New York Times. He originally found Leica as a tool for capturing inspiration on the road, but photography now occupies a major part of his work and documentation. During 2011, he will be working in Southern India and Tanna, a tiny island in the South Pacific, where he is building and documenting slum redevelopment projects and an artist residency. Packed in a small carry on, will be two Leicas to report on his findings. You can read more about Adam’s travels on his site, http://www.adammarelliphoto.com/.