Australian photographer Andy Summons’ first trip to India was a long time coming. When he finally arrived, he woke up before dawn to wander the streets and capture his first impressions on film.
Words and Photography by Andy Summons
I’ve wanted to travel to India ever since I first picked up one of dad’s National Geographic magazines and saw the intense stares and curious faces looking back at me from the rough pages as a kid. Growing up on a farm in rural New South Wales, India was beyond my understanding. I think most countries need to be visited to be understood, but it’s achingly true of India.
My partner and I landed in Chennai on India’s Southeast coast after a relatively painless 24 hours in transit. We jumped straight into a taxi for a two-hour drive south through quiet, night time streets so we could wake up in the seaside town of Puducherry – a small city growing around a port colonised by the French. The former colony’s Franco history can be seen in the architecture, tasted on nearly every menu in the city, and heard in the luring calls of restaurant workers trying to strike up conversation and business – ‘Hello, bonjour. Hi, my friend, you want coffee mon ami?’ Always, yes, but I can’t speak French.
“The visual intensity of India is captivating and the smells are at times distracting, but together they create such an intense foundation for memories.”
I was expecting a lot more people. After all, how on earth do you fit 1.35 billion people into one country and still have quiet cities? I thought every city and town, every street, bus, and cafe would be awash with a sea of faces. But we were travelling around the south of India and it was no busier than any other country I’ve visited. Even during the manic rush of morning peak hour traffic and the school drop off, Puducherry is a beautiful city to walk around – despite its nearly total lack of footpaths. It was easy to get off the main roads choked with traffic and amble down side streets lined with grandiose colonial architecture in stark white, wild oranges, dusky pinks and jungly greens. Plus, that’s where the best cafes hid.
I’d been winkingly warned of the fourth dimension of travel in India – the smells – and they were vivid and amazing. Walking the streets means inhaling nostrils full of swirling dust, thick diesel fumes, perfectly spiced curries, steaming masala chai, cigarette smoke, mammal faeces (cow, human, and dog in order of volume and frequency), and tropical-heat sweat too. Often, all these smells wash through you in the space of a few footsteps. Sometimes unpleasant but much more often a delightful reminder that we were a pleasantly long way from home.
The visual intensity of India is captivating and the smells are at times distracting, but together they create such an intense foundation for memories. Puducherry’s streets can be conjured for me with the faintest whiff of cardamom pods, dust, diesel fumes and cow poo – even now back in Australia.
“The light was constantly filtered through changing combinations of dust, smoke, wispy clouds, and sheer, sweaty excitement.”
A gentle easterly sea breeze floated through Puducherry doing just enough to take the edge off the baking heat I’d heard so much about in the long breaks between action in late 90s test match cricket. Still, walking between 11 and 3 o’clock demanded regular stops anywhere with shade and a cold drink. Fortunately, Puducherry has the best cafes in India, our guesthouse owner assured us. One thing persevered through the midday heat – good light for taking photographs. The middle of the day is usually the worst time to shoot because the light is harsh and the shadows are deep and dark. But in Puducherry, the light was constantly filtered through changing combinations of dust, smoke, wispy clouds, and sheer, sweaty excitement. There was so much action at street level, it was a photographic dream.
I shot this series on an old Canon F1 using Kodak Ultramax 400 ISO film and my forever filter – an Urth CPL Polarizer Plus+. The CPL was super helpful for playing around with contrast and taking the edge off highlights and reflections. I also love its effect on the amazing colours of Puducherry.