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“Oh my god – this is crazy” was photographer Ken Hermann’s first thought when he arrived in India while backpacking around Asia in the mid ‘90s. But he says that it wasn’t long before he fell in love with the “madness” and has since returned to the country more than 15 times. The photographer became fascinated with Indian culture and the fact that it was so different from his home country of Denmark. However, even in this relatively short period of time, he can already see changes. “Over the past 15 years, the middle class has exploded and the country is slowly getting more Westernised,” he explains.
Hermann wanted to capture one part of India that was holding fast to its roots – the flower sellers of Kolkata. He was in the area on another assignment, but when production wrapped, Hermann decided to be a tourist and take a trip to Malik Ghat flower market. It was then he first saw the male and female flower sellers at work. More than 2,000 sellers would arrive each day to sell the flowers that would be used in temple rituals, festivals or parties.
He was captivated by the stark contrast between the sweat-soaked clothes of the traders and their colourful garlands. He knew that he wanted to go back and photograph them. He returned three years later with an interpreter to help his complete the Flower Man project.
While the women chose not to be photographed, the men obliged in return for either a small payment or getting a copy of the print. However, Hermann admits that encouraging the men to spend 15 minutes being photographed was a challenge: “For every minute they’re not standing in the flower market they lose money”
He shot his flower sellers away from the hustle and bustle of the market and by the Hooghly river, which leads into the Ganges. The neutral settings helped the flowers stand out more. Over the next 10 days he would shoot the sellers from 12pm to 3pm to achieve a really harsh light.
“If you want to take pictures in India, people tend to just stand up and look proud and strong,” says Hermann. However, this only added to the power of the photographs.
While the flower sellers didn’t mind being photographed, there were certain flowers that they didn’t want Hermann to shoot as they were too precious, such as the Flame of the Forest, which is used in temple rituals.
Hermann said that he wanted to show a different side to India. “There are a lot of photographers going to India and then showing a bad situation… I wanted to show more proudness and find the beauty of people.”
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