A guide for women photographer traveling solo to India
While I am still explaining it to my family and friends in India as to why I travel solo, and how I am ensuring my safety; I decided to pen down my personal experiences and recommendations for the benefits of other women. I often interact with foreign travelers to gather their views about traveling in India; most of them are a bit hesitant and are unsure if it is safe to travel. I know there have been some heartbreaking cases recently, I know it could be dangerous at times but violence happens everywhere in the world and we can’t stop going out because of it. We shield ourselves by being more informed and more confident.
Having travelled to different parts of India, I can only suggest that there is no experience like travelling in India. Since I travel for photography, I have included some specific pointers which would help you in preparation of your photography journey to India.
India is colorful, India is vibrant and there are interesting things happening every moment to photograph. The Indian culture is deeply rooted and people still follow the old traditions and customs which make for interesting stories and travel photos. Every state is unique and has something different to offer you in terms of landscapes, food, culture, tradition and people. There is always a festival celebrated in some part of the country. And you may find people celebrating together on streets with family or strangers!
Indian people love being photographed, it isn’t generally considered offensive, in fact, there would be many volunteer at times who would also love to see their pictures on your camera screen. At first, it may seem impossible to understand it all. But if you give it some time and patience, you would start falling in love with the Indian ways which are not so straight forward.
While traveling in India as part of a group or with friends can also give you insights about India, but I believe you would know it much better when you travel alone. Also, travel photography needs continuous focus and a hunt to find the right characters, so it becomes almost impossible to travel in a group and get the photos you intend to take. And when you are traveling alone, the behavior and reaction could be entirely different towards you. You might meet some father figures who would show sympathy towards you traveling alone and at times there would be men ogling at you. But we need to learn how to handle these extremes while traveling, get the pictures you need. From my personal experiences of traveling and photographing India, below are some useful tips for foreign as well as Indian women-
Tickets and Booking
Plan in advance for train bookings: It’s difficult at times to make adhoc travel plans. Indian Railways is the lifeline of India and connects big cities to the remotest parts of the country, but you need to book your train tickets in advance for longer journeys. There is another option of Tatkal (which are quota seats, opens a day before early morning to make the bookings) but at times it is impossible to open the website during peak hours. I personally do not like travelling by bus as it is a hassle to find a clean toilet on the way, but there are bus services available which interlink major as well as small cities. While in train, you may book an air conditioned sleeper tickets at affordable rates.
If you are traveling to South India, you may opt for bus travel as well, because the buses are much more reliable. I have travelled quite often for overnight journeys and it is safe. In train, I always book the upper berth to avoid the disturbance from the people passing through the coach. If you happen to be at night on the train stations, you may find a waiting room to take rest.
Some important websites for online bookings-
Handling men and late night trips-
There are said rules about going out at night. In most of the places, you would find people would be home by 9 PM except the big cities like Delhi and Mumbai. So it is advisable not to wander alone at night except if you really have to. In big cities, you may use the cabs at night which are safer to reach to your destinations, and there are apps which can be installed on your smart phone- Meru, Uber, Ola, etc. So make a wise use of internet and smart phones for your safety.
In small cities, avoid travelling at night. While there are no separate coaches in train for women in general, you may find them in Metro cities while commuting through local trains or metro. And it is highly recommended, as these trains are very crowded yet the faster way to travel in city.
Keeping the stereotype about Indian men aside , let’s just say they are different from western counterparts. If you would behave too friendly, it might send a wrong signal, so don’t give that signal until you are genuinely interested in them. As a westerner in India, most of the people will make you an instant celebrity; they would want their photos taken with you or try to talk to you as it could be there first interaction with a foreigner. So respond till the time you feel comfortable. But don’t be afraid to say no! Don’t be afraid to shout if things go extreme. They all are scared of being embarrassed in public.
The physical touch is not so much in India so smile or say ‘Hello’ if you want to start a conversation and if they are close and trusted then hug. Don’t just go along with someone’s plans because you’re too polite to say no. Most importantly follow your guts.
Permission for Photos
You may ask for permission for photographing the locals and they should gladly let you take pictures. I start with taking candid photos when people are not noticing me, and once I am close, I smile and ask for their permission. And if a scene genuinely interests me, and I expect it to be a long shoot, then I just explain them what I am up to. I provide them an introduction, what is my intention from the shoot, what I am going to do with the pictures and how genuinely I appreciate their work and life. I feel thankful that being a woman I get easy access in their life.
There could be situations that they might ask for some money directly or subtly, it’s totally your choice if you want to donate somehow to the rural areas, I prefer not to and help them by some other means, or gift them printed pictures/frames/stationary for kids at the last day of my shoot.
If you plan to shoot at important historical monuments and famous religious places, there would be distinctive rules which would be displayed on the entrance. If a sign board says ‘No”, please follow the same. Using drones for photography could be a little tricky. There are no specific rules listed as it is a new technology, but it is definitely not approved on important landmarks and you need official permissions which need to be sorted beforehand. As far as small and rural cities are concerned, it is well appreciated and received to show an alien object flying in the sky.
How to dress
While India seems to be modern if you watch the Bollywood films, but that isn’t the real India except for a few cities. Dress ‘appropriately’, it means to cover up the knees and shoulders. You don’t necessarily need to wear Indian clothes like a saree or kurta; you may wear a pair of jeans and a shirt as well to your comfort. A loose cotton trouser and top is best to deal with weather and people. If you are going to rural areas, you might need to cover up a bit more using a scarf. I totally understand women should be free to wear whatever they want to; unfortunately India is not such a country.
Don’t carry any expensive jewelry. I try to dress as light as possible and except my smart phone and camera, I don’t carry anything expensive, not even a single piece of jewelry. Also split money to keep in different bags. There are ATMs everywhere in big and small cities, so check with your bank that your Debit/credit card should work here.
Food and drinks
Indian food is spicy and there is a lot of fun you can have eating on streets if you can adapt to spiciness. The street food would generally be okay in terms of quality, just ensure that there are more people eating along with you, as locals know more about the shop than you. If you are not comfortable, stick with family restaurants. You can always ask for milder food in restaurant.
Drink bottled water especially in cities; there are more chances of impurities in water there. I never use packaged water when I am in mountains or villages where there is fresh water available. The hygiene in India is not as good as western countries. The streets are dirty and are home to piles of litter, the sanitation in bathrooms is mediocre at best, and you often don’t see your food being prepared. So get your medicines packed, hope I didn’t scare you!
Drinking is something you should only do when you are with someone reliable. I usually avoid it during travels. But you shouldn’t miss it if you are in metros, and there are great pubs and restaurants. I prefer to be high on nature, life and moments, I don’t want to get up at 5 am for the shoot with a hangover. So either choose photography or drinking.
How to stay safe
Don’t be scared of crowd but be a part of the crowd. Enjoy the things like locals do. Travel in -rickshaws and tuk-tuk , at times the rides go berserk but trust the drivers as they have been doing it for many years. There would be a huge cultural difference, but that’s the best part of learning. Keep an open mind, observe and react. As they say anything can happen In India, be ready for all the fun! The strangers would invite you to home for a cup of tea or lunch. You can find people smiling, celebrating everywhere. It is a country of million Gods and umpteen number of festivals. There would be magical and unexpected moments everywhere to soak in.
Always keep the important number on your fingertips in case you need to call hospital, ambulance, police or other emergency services. Keep someone local and at home informed about your itinerary, plans, to track it easily in case of any mishap.
India is extreme when it comes to lifestyle and economic condition. A city like Mumbai which is the financial capital of India, you may find people living in the most luxurious way possible, at the same time you may find people on both sides of footpath sleeping homeless. Expect yourself to be surrounded by beggars. But we don’t encourage them by giving money. But be kind, it is normal for people to pull your sleeves and ask for money and foreigners are the easiest targets.
There is another kind of people who would be eyeing you to scam you. They would have all sorts of stories about their lost family, lost wallet, and more. Don’t give any money!! Also for shopping, I avoid shopping while I travel since it adds to unnecessary weight which I have to lunge. I could pick up something from trusted sources at the last day, if it is really special.
India has festivals throughout the year in its different states and regions which are so different from one another due to the diversity. Most of the festivals are celebrated with groups of people coming on street to sing and dance together. Some of the most famous festivals are Holi, Ganesh Puja, Onam, Diwali, Theyyam, Durga Puja which are very picturesque. Also some of the religious gatherings and fairs like ‘Kumbh fair’ or ‘Pushkar fair’ provide guaranteed opportunities of great travel and documentary pictures. But at the same time, it is important to stay safe in the massive crowd and keep your gear safe as well.
There are usually local photo groups who shoot together during festivals.. India has a lot of shutter-bug groups, thanks to DSLR cameras; so you might just find a group on the go and stick with them for the first day. I prefer not. Stop, observe, understand, how and what you need to shoot. When we see plethora of opportunities everywhere it is important to calm yourself down and understand the pattern, people and culture. Make your camera water-proof and be ready for the action on the field. It will be the most amazing experience to cover these festivals.
What to pack
Stock up the women hygiene stuff especially if you use tampons during mensuration. You might get sanitary pads everywhere but not tampons. Also it is not very open to talk about it in India. So better be prepared for it.
India is not a hot country, but the temperature varies a lot in different parts of India. You could be in the midst of snow covered peak, freezing in subzero temperature in Upper Northern India and at the same time you could be by the beach on a hot day of Southern India. So you need to check the weather specifically for the places you plan to travel. And don’t bother much about it; you can always buy things on the go.
How to build a rapport with the locals
India is a big country and each state has its own regional language which is similar to Hindi the Northern and central part. In southern India, the language is very different from Hindi and there could be a possibility that people around you wouldn’t even understand or speak Hindi. Just learn a few words of Hindi or regional language and it would do wonders for you. It is the easiest way to create a rapport to learn some fun words to see the reaction on their faces. Be humble, smile and say thank you. Smiling at strangers is not so common, I smile at women all the time but men : not always.
Guides and translators
I always try to find a local contact to a place I am travelling to. The knowledge about the place which a local can provide, others may not. They can take you to the most beautiful locations for photographs or can provide you the comfort to capture the local people with your camera. It works wonders if you have someone who is native to the city/village and knows the language. I choose home-stay options over a hotel/resort, that automatically connects me to the local people. That’s one secret ingredient to get the access you need for the photography.
I travelled once with a day guide who I found at the temple stairs in Vrindavan and he was such a lovely fellow. Another time, I happened to travel with a social activist in Meghalaya which is probably the best travel experience I have had so far and got some unseen stunning images.
I would love to know your personal experiences if you have travelled to India, and there is something which should be part of this mini guide.