Kelsey Fain: An Intimate Experience with India

Kelsey Fain grew up in East Greenville, Pennsylvania where her passion for photography began at the tender age of twelve. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in photography from Drexel University’s (Philadelphia, PA) College of Media Arts and Design in 2008. She then moved to New York City and managed a fine-art photographer and gallery in SoHo. During this time she also worked as an assistant to fashion, commercial and event photographers. Kelsey joined  Leica Camera USA in 2012 as the S-System Product Specialist for the East Coast. She currently resides in New York City and continues to photograph fashion, portraiture and photojournalist work whenever possible. Below she recounts her recent trip to India where she put down the medium-format camera and picked up a Leica M9.

Q: Your last portfolio we featured on the Leica Blog was shot in Peru. What were some of the differences in the experience you had shooting with your M9 in India? Was your basic goal of revealing everyday life similar to that of Peru, and precisely where in India were these pictures taken?

A: India is a place that I’ve dreamed of traveling to since I was a child. So my whole approach was much different than Peru. Yes, I was attempting to capture aspects of their everyday life, but I was also searching for more than that. I think I am still digesting the experience and what exactly it was that I was looking for while photographing. I spent my time there in a holy city called Vrindavan which is said to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.

Q: India has a reputation for being a very colorful country in a literal sense and some of your images capture this very effectively, yet half of the images in your India portfolio were output in black-and-white. How do you decide which medium to use for a specific image and is the basis of that choice intuitive, emotional, or technical?

A: When planning for this trip it seemed to me a no-brainer that I would shoot with an M9 even though I have fallen head-over-heels for the Monochrom. As you said, it is a place known for its color, so I was also surprised that I chose to convert so many of my images to B&W. For me the decision is intuitive. Some images are simply meant to be in B&W and others in color. The importance is knowing the difference.

Q: This image seems like an ordinary street scene, but the focus point is on the little boy’s face and the colorfully clad woman standing next to him, presumably his mother. The depth of field is very shallow with a soft foreground and background. What were you striving to achieve with this charming image, and can you tell us which lens and aperture you used?

A: In this image I wanted to make sure that the boy was the focal point, and by the looks of it, so did he. When I look at this picture the boy’s gaze really draws me in and then I notice the rest of the scene. Even though I shot this image in a relatively calm area, the way the boy is framed by the people and objects surrounding him it feels like he is at the very center of the chaos around him. I took this image with a 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH.

Q: Which lenses did you find most useful when shooting in India, and what were the most useful characteristics of the M9 that allowed you to capture such an intimate and diverse impression in relatively few images.

A: I shot 98% of the images on the 50 mm f/1.4 ASPH., which currently is my top pick for M lenses. There is certain uniqueness about this lens that allows you to capture subjects both up-close and further away with the same degree of intimacy.

Q: There is something arresting and compelling about this straightforward, masterfully composed shot of two children, one of whom is looking directly at the camera. Their features, skin tone, and door decorations distinctly reflect India but there is also a universal quality to this image. Who are these kids, and what does this picture mean to you?

A: This is my favorite image from the entire series, and I think one of my favorite moments as a photographer thus far. These children were begging for money outside the entrance to a temple. I knelt down to take this child’s picture and without either of us saying a word he crossed his arms and looked straight into my lens. He let me fire a few shots but this one was the most captivating. A second before he was begging for coins; now here he is revealing a piece of his true self… defiant. It was one of those cool moments where everything else around you seems to go silent.

Q: This image of a handsome teenager walking past what looks like a row of shanty dwellings was taken at just the right moment. To me, this picture says something about the nobility of the human spirit even in the meanest of circumstances. Am I reading too much into it, and what were you trying to convey?

A: This is an example of an image that, in my opinion, could not be taken with anything other than an M-series. I was standing on the road framing the scene and waiting for the perfect subject to enter. There are monkeys all over the place in India so perhaps that part was just luck. Even though the shanties in the background are common living quarters, the spirit of the people in Vrindavan was incredibly powerful. That said, it is easy for outsiders to say things like this to reduce our own guilt or uneasiness. While these people are remarkably strong and resilient, and should be celebrated for such, they are also tired, hungry, unbathed and often times downright sad. For every picture like this there is one of piles of garbage, children drinking out of buckets of filthy water and dead animals on the street.

Q: This image of a fairly well-dressed young man holding a scrawny looking dog on a chain with an unmistakably Indian scalloped archway in the background is almost like an enigmatic social paradigm. He is tranquil, engaged and deliberate, but he is also exercising control over an animal that’s clearly straining at the leash. What do you think this image says about India, or at least the specific location you covered?

A: Another one of my favorite shots from this trip. There are an unbelievable amount of stray dogs and their pups roaming the streets of Vrindavan. For the most part these dogs are completely ignored and very rarely are they kept as pets. What struck me so much about this situation was not only did the boy decide to domesticate one of the dogs, he chose specifically that dog. If you look closely the dog suffers from a number of deformities. His front legs were completely bowed and his hind legs were practically fused together, the toes pointing outwards. In addition he had a horrible temperament and was aggressively barking at everyone that walked by. I will always wonder what the story was here and why the boy had formed such a bond with that particular dog.

Q: This portrait is very sharp at the point of focus and has very shallow depth of field, indicating it was shot at a wide aperture. It’s very effective in black-and-white and has an eternal quality as though it could have been shot last week or 50 years ago. Do you agree, and if so why do you think it has this quality?

A: Yes, I do agree. On one hand, I think it appears timeless because it isn’t exactly a unique image. However, there was something so charming about this woman and she herself had a real air of being timeless that resonates with the viewer. This is a good example of an image that begged to be in B&W.

Q: This picture certainly conveys a feeling of rural life in India, but there seems to be a tension here that implies more here than just bucolic serenity. Can you tell us what’s going on here?

A: This picture was taken off the beaten path in a small village that had welcomed us for lunch and dancing. This woman was tending to the cows and paused to study us as we did the same to her. Unlike many of the people we encountered (especially the children) she seemed to become bored with us quickly and after this shot was taken, continued on with her day.

Q: These two images, the first showing some kind of celebration with confetti in the air, the second of a snake charmer and his audience, seem to have been shot at a fair or bazaar. Were they and, if so, can you tell us something about this event?

A: Both of these images were taken at the same village as the woman farmer. Before our lunch the children entertained us with the snake charming bit. Afterwards the woman showed us traditional Indian dances and threw flower pedals in honor of the upcoming Holi celebrations.

Q: This black-and-white image of a young boy passing a bicycle tire to another kid through a break in an ornate iron fence is an effective vertical composition that also has that “eternal moment in time” quality. Why do you think so many of your India images play off the dichotomies of detachment and attachment and timelessness and the moment? Is it you, India, or both?

A: A hard question to answer but I think this is a combination of both myself and India. Vrindavan is not a modern town by any means so a lot of the images appear timeless because things may not have changed drastically in the past 30 years. I’ve also studied a number of great photojournalists over time and can’t deny that they have influenced the way that I view and capture moments.

Q: What do you think you achieved with your India portfolio, and do you plan to return, or perhaps photograph another area in that vast and diverse country?

A: I absolutely plan to return but would like to visit other areas to experience something new. I think the greatest thing that came out of my trip was my ability to feel less vulnerable or timid while shooting in this style. In the past I’ve struggled with boundaries and the fear of upsetting my subjects. I don’t think that being behind a camera gives photographers the right to invade other people’s space but India allowed me to really play with these boundaries and open myself up to a much more intimate experience.

I’d like to give a special thank you to Yoga Vida and the Jiva Institute!

Thank you for your time, Kelsey!

-Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Kelsey and view her work, visit www.kelseyfainphoto.com  and www.appropriatepride.com.