India street photography 1: Dharavi “Slum”- Be the local

Jun 13, 2012 | Travel

FINALLY I have a found a few spare hours to go into the India files and start to edit! I’ve really been looking forward to it – but now I’d not even had time to glimpse at the files since we got back, which was over six weeks ago now!

I am starting my India blog posts from the end of our trip, with the day we enjoyed most in our whole trip. But to be honest, I am not sure how I am going to do this justice…

Dharavi is one of the biggest “slums” in the world and was made famous in Slumdog Millionaire. Our guide, soon told us however that he and his fellow slum dwellers preferred not to use the word slum, after all, this was their home, and whats more, a home they are proud of. This really set the tone for the rest of our day….

Our guide was a local student, born, raised and educated in Dharavi. Of all the people we met in India (and no offence to all the other people we met!) he was by far the most warm, welcoming, well-informed, and honest person we met. He works part time for Be the Local, an organisation based in Dharavi to provide guided tours of the area. They pride themselves on the fact that all their guides have lived their whole lives in Dharavi. They like to employ students to help support them during their years of study.

Our guided tour took in the business areas, residential areas, the markets, schools and general thoroughfare. We were shown some of the spots made famous by Slumdog Millionaire but we also realised that the reality was very different.
We saw no beggars, no layabouts, no visible signs of drugs and crime (though of course I am sure they are there somewhere as they exist in nearly every neighbourhood the world over) Instead we saw people hard at work, mainly in businesses that ingeniously made new products from recycling waste. We saw how one business fed the next part of the value chain next door – a real eco and business system, just how it should be.
We met people who were happy to show us how they made their living and were proud to do so. We heard how people rarely want to leave Dharavi and saw some of the residents who had successfully made their money driving their rather flash cars around the area!

We got to climb up onto the roof tops and experience just how vast an area Dharavi covers (with approximately 1 million residents it’s population is larger than Zurich!) Which also reminds me that I must find the aerial view picture I took from the aeroplane and add it to this blog…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a glamourous place. People live in very small dwellings, often a big family to one room. Certain places really smell and I am sure you need a strong immune system to survive there!
That said, it really was a lesson in how we are the same human beings the world over, whether we live in palaces or shacks made of tin and cardboard. And it showed me that sometimes, not having it all handed on a plate draws out your innate intelligence, ingenuity and resilience. Instead of making me feel lucky, it made me feel like I hadn’t really lived yet.

Be the local has a no photography policy. I did, with their permission, take just a few images in locations where they knew the residents well and felt it would not cause offence and these images were taken for the purpose of being used on the new Be the local website.
I have to say, being honest, that whilst us photographers claim to “see the world through our lens” I saw more when the camera was packed away. I think it’s a place where you need to absorb what is going on around you and how the place feels. You need all your senses – way beyond the visual.

Some people travel to relax, others to tick off world famous buildings and monuments, other to marvel at the beauty of our planet. I travel to think. To think about where I am in my life, where I want to go, who I want to be. Maybe this is why Dharavi was such a highlight. Maybe it was because our guide was so impressive and I’d be proud to have a son, brother, nephew or friend like him. Maybe because it peeled away all the superficial elements of life that we get so wrapped up in.

And maybe because it reminded me not to judge a book by it’s cover, or by the film made about it!

Either way, if you are in India, go see it and decide for yourself.


Be the local:



Taking in a local cricket game…

Our wonderful guide…

Ever wanted to know where your hotel sheets go to get washed? Just outside of Dharavi you can catch a glimpse of the huge outdoor laundry at Dhobi Ghats…

Travelling back into central Mumbai on the local trains…