Ganesh visarjan is a feast for the senses and the lenses. As Mumbai bids goodbye to its favourite visiting deity, devotion and emotion come together in chaos, colour, music and dance. Crowds cheer for oversized idols and cry over pint-sized statues. “It’s a great opportunity for any photographer,” says Saurabh Chatterjee, who conducts photo tours and workshops and is a veteran of three visarjans. “But it can get quite overwhelming, especially for a first-timer.” Here, then, are a few tips from the experts.
1. First, find a focus
Do you just want to document idol after idol? Another sea of people against the sunset? For pictures that break from cliché, homework helps. “Look at existing photos to find out what opportunities, what frames have already been explored, and think of the stories you want to tell in your images,” says Chatterjee. Ganesha needn’t even be in every frame — you may want to focus on just the dancers, the musicians, the kids, even the volunteers. Or follow a single family’s sentimental journey from home to sea with their small idol.
Craig Boehman, an American photographer in India, tends to prefer street portraits: “That intimate candid moment that pops when you see it”. He’s already had a headstart, photographing the idols being created at a Parel workshop last month. “What I was amazed by were the crowds of onlookers,” he says. “There was a noticeable reverence for the deity. But I couldn’t tell what proportions were reserved for the god or for the enormous scale and beauty of the idols being constructed.” His shots of the crowd, he says, tell the “story of something amazing happening just out of frame”.
Amravati-based CR Shelare has photographed the visarjan every year over the past decade. Several of his works have been bought by Getty and other stock-photo companies. “I do pictures for up to five days after the immersion,” he says. “The volunteers, especially kids, who clean up the beach — they’re all part of the story of Chaturthi.”
2. But prepare for surprises
Planning helps, but it also helps to keep your eyes — and mind — open, says Neville Bulsara, who conducts photo tours across India and has made several camera-bound trips to the visarjan. “As adults, we take so much for granted. My best tip is to see it from the eyes of a child,” he says. Boehman agrees: “Be prepared to roll with it and snap away.”
3. Keep your tools simple
Your bag of lenses, clunky tripod and fancy accessories will only bog you down and cause you to miss the key moments. Boehman is planning to switch his DSLR for a compact camera so he can blend into the background. Bulsara says “photography is an expression of an impression, your camera is just a tool”. Chatterjee has found that being fit, carrying a bottle of water, matter far more.
4. Make the details matter
For memorable pictures, forget about the crowd. “Think of it not as a homogenous jam of humans, but a million intimate moments occurring at the same time,” says Shelare. This is where the drama lies — in the stolen yawn, the bowed head, the huddled women, the synchronised dance, the elephant head drowning in garlands before the actual immersion. “Sometimes it’s difficult to get the scene with the people perfectly aligned for a nice composition,” Boehman warns. “So I focus on people’s faces when they’re taking in the sights. Look for parents pointing things out to their children. Look for that lone fella staring at the scene or at nothing at all. Always look at the expressions on people’s faces and try to capture the stories there too.” Chatterjee recalls shooting a group that had set their Ganpati on the beach and were doing a final, teary aarti. “It was such a telling image,” he says.
5. Don’t intrude
Most devotees will happily pose, so there’s little need to shove your way towards a better shot. But some moments may be private. “It’s shameful when people are sitting in a circle and doing a puja and someone barges into that circle of privacy with a camera and snaps away,” Chatterjee says. Boehman usually asks for permission or makes eye contact to affirm consent. “You have to be confident, and people will usually respect your presence. But that’s a two-way street. Respect their presence as well,” he says. If you’re shoved and pushed while taking a shot, remember you’re there for the crowd, not the other way around.
6. Go back and back again
Chatterjee’s three trips have all yielded different shots. “The people and the weather affect your work. Some years, you get pictures you’ve never got before.” Shelare’s decade of shooting it has captured how the visarjan, and its environmental impact, have grown. This year he’s focusing on portraits. “Every trip is different because I have changed,” he says. “And I have my own images to improve on. It’s a great learning tool.”
Trunks, tide and tech
- Keep your equipment simple. Don’t worry about zooms, fancy accessories or complicated filters. “If you want your image to tell stories, you don’t want apps that blur the background,” says Saurabh Chatterjee. “A clear photo will show how each thing in your frame is related to the other.”
- “For street photography, I’ve been shooting in aperture priority or shutter priority, depending on my lens and if I’m trying to capture motion blur,” says Craig Boehman. Most photographers recommend an 18-55 mm lens, particularly if you’re interested in street shots. Keep your settings from F8 to F12 on a DSLR camera so you get depth in your frames and see details clearly.
- “Carry two cameras if you can,” says CR Shelare. “A wide-angle lens to capture scale, and another one calibrated for close-ups”
- If you’re shooting with a cameraphone, turn off the facial recognition software. It’s not trained to catch elephant-faced deities. Neville Bulsara finds that portrait mode works well for depth of field. Landscape mode is best for expansive shots.
- Keep wiping your lens clean. Sand, water, colour and grime can be harsh on equipment.
Read More: India's Ganeshotsav celebrations, in pictures
Spots for shots
In south Mumbai: Two key roads leading to Girgaum Chowpatty, JSS Road and the Kennedy Bridge Road from Nana Chowk, are the best vantage points, even if you’ll be amid the throngs of onlookers.
In central Mumbai: Hang around Kotwal garden, from where the idols follow the forked paths to the sea. Or cadge a spot along the dividers on Dr Ambedkar Road for a two-way view of the festivities.
In Juhu: The roads along the beach, particularly near the Palm Grove hotel, are where the action is concentrated.
In Versova: Try to snag a spot at the fisherman’s colony, which lies along the route of most big idols.
In Powai: There are good views all along Adi Shankaracharya Marg.
Read more: See them before they go. 10 must-see Ganesh idols this season