Families of the Sambhar Salt Lake
A Photo Journal
Ollie Jones & Matt Porteous
A few days before heading to India to create content for Goodweave International, Ollie had seen one image whilst scrolling Instagram by photographer Pie Aerts, of a salt flat near Jaipur. As he knew we’d be heading that way whilst on location with Good Weave, he browsed Google Maps to work out the possibility of heading to these same salt flats in Sambhar. He found that it was around 5 hours away - relatively nearby for a country as big as India.
This is about as much as we knew before actually arriving in Sambhar - as seems to be the story of our lives here at Studio_M, something quite unorganised turning into something beautiful, beyond what any of us could imagine.
Discovering that the Sambhar salt flats are the largest inland salt flats in India, we set out at 5am from the Sambhar Heritage Resort to capture the workers at sunrise. However, it turned out that they work the standard 9am-5pm... So we grabbed some more sleep and had a little snooze under a nearby tree, whilst waiting for the working day to begin.
When the salt workers arrived, they seemed weary and quite skeptical of us turning up with our cameras. However, after chatting and connecting with them, it became clear that these workers are actually a family, made up of four or five smaller families. They come here to these flats to shovel, lift and load ten tonnes of salt into the salt train carriages, which departs three times a day - every single day.
After explaining our aim of taking photos of the salt flats and the workers, finding out more about them on a personal level and as I usually try to do, forming a friendship with the family, they soon relaxed in the presence of the cameras and started to have fun. Seeing their images on the back of the camera screen, a trust began to form and before long there was a full-on fight between the drivers, over who was going to drive the tractor for the camera!
Ollie and I worked as a team, capturing two aspects of our time there: Ollie captured unstaged images with natural light, whilst I spent time chatting, setting up naturally staged shots. My philosophy is: ‘find a scene, set up lighting in the right position, leave the scene for a while and once everyone has carried on as normal, walk back to scene and capture.’ You can see the physical demand and skill of the job in the first images of Ganesh (in the red T-shirt) and his friend Remmesh in the pink shirt; Ollie also captured behind-the-scenes of our guide Anoop in his new role as lighting assistant, walking around with our Elinchrom ELB 1200w & Rotalux 135 octabox.
By 10am, the heat was hitting 32 °C. The family continued despite the intensity of the heat, baring in mind temperatures can reach 48 °C in the summer months… This really is a way of life for them. A newborn baby swung in a makeshift hammock between the carriages, whilst another rugrat with wild hair ran around the salt flats and over the heaps of salt in the train.
Capturing these beautiful people with such kind souls, in this unexpected and unique environment, reminds us all why we got into this industry, and makes us appreciate and love our work so much. We are in such a fortunate position to be able to get the best out of people, connect with locals that we would never usually have the opportunity to socialise with, and share their stories.
The series of Tara and Maya, the women in carriage 18, shows their trust in me growing, as they physically open up and their body language and faces warm towards me.
The team left the Sambhar salt flats with a sense of joy in our hearts and bodies full of emotion. Despite this family earning minimum wage, which is unimaginably low in India, working such a physically demanding job in these tough conditions, their joy was infectious. We couldn’t have been happier to meet and connect with this family, and we’re so happy that our time there brought joy and excitement to what could have been one more repetitive day on the salt flats.
The Studio M team is organising a set of physical prints to be sent back to the family. Although they would benefit massively from money, it’s likely that it would be taken from them by the people who run the salt flats. Even though they called it a ‘government job’, this kind of corruption is normal in India, where leaders will take from even the most poverty-stricken.