Serge Bouvet first went to India in 2012 with the plan to make a photo project about the hijras – a term used in Southeast Asia to define transgender people. But while documenting this story he discovered something else: the openness and beauty of the Muslim community living in the Turkman Gate old city in Delhi. Bouvet decided to photograph the Muslim men he met. And I talked to him about this project, about how he got the idea and about the way he approaches the people he photographs.
Can you tell me a bit more about your trip to India?
SB: I have been going to India twice a year since 2012. Initially I just wanted to tell a story about the Hijra. The Hijras are a transsexual and religious community of India. In same time I did a photo essay about the extraordinary people of the Kathputli Colony slum in Delhi.
How did you come up with the idea for the project?
SB: In 2013, I was searching for the cemetery of the Hijras in Turkman Gate. I was surprised to find out that this cemetery has been guarded by Muslims since the sixteenth century. Muslims of Turkman Gate are extremely open-minded.
There was also another good moment that made me see the dedication of these Muslims to their fellow citizens. One day I was in the Hindu area near Turkman Gate. A street girl had followed me. She was about the age of my daughter. There are around 12 million Indian children in the street and almost all of them are girls. And this small girl kept following me, and I couldn’t resist her innocent eyes, and I decided to do something for her, to give her a great meal in a good restaurant.
But to my surprise, most of the good restaurants politely refused to let me go inside together with the girl because she was a Dalit, a group of people regarded as untouchable in the Indian caste system. The innocent girl smiled but I felt extremely uncomfortable.
I finally decided to go in the Muslim Quarter. I entered the first restaurant and at first I was intimidated. Almost all Muslims had dyed their beards with henna, producing a range of colors from maroon to bright pumpkin orange. And everybody was smiling.
The cook was very generous and he quickly understood the situation. We ate together. We drank several cups of strong mint tea and we talked. When we left the restaurant, the wife of the cook gave a bag of food for the little girl and she was so happy.
I did not want to forget this cute girl. I took a picture of her (see on the right).
The next day I returned to Turkman Gate. People were again so generous and friendly, that I decided to make a photo essay about the Muslims of Turkman Gate. My aim is to portray a positive and accurate picture of these humanist Muslims.
Were people reluctant to be photographed?
SB: The Muslim women were reluctant, of course. All the women wore a jilbab, a long and loose-fitted coat. It’s also impossible to see their faces or their eyes. I could only see a black movable form. But it was different with the men.
How do you approach the people you photograph?
SB: I’m a photographer because I enjoy meeting new people. People have stories to tell and I love the stories. The “secret” of a good meeting is not very hard to figure out. I first discovered it during my career as a French teacher in Japan and further on as a corporate photographer in Paris.
I have 5 rules for first contact in travel photography. First and most of all you have to be genuinely curious, and to inform yourself about the places you travel to. Second, you have to know what you want to do, to envision it. Only then you can make it reality. Third is that you need to be open and relaxed. Fourth important thing is to establish eye contact, look this new person directly in the eyes and let your eyes reflect your positive attitude. To state the obvious: eye contact is real contact. Last important thing is to smile, because smiling is the universal language.
Was it any different with the men in these photos?
SB: No, not at all. I showed my camera with a big smile and said ‘Muhammed, I saw your beautiful beard ! You look like handsome man. I want to do a portrait of beautiful Muslim man. May I?”. He and all the others normally say yes, so I take the photo and I show it to him.
We’d also have a simple and normal conversation about children, getting married, the things we have in common. It’s casual conversation to establish a connection. Only after that I’d ask things that are useful for my project, like why do the Muslims of Turkman Gate protect the Hijras, does he know any hijras, and so on.