Taj Mahal with a flock of black birds taking flight over river Yamuna

There are places in the world that belongs to the common imagery of (almost) every person and in particular of every photographer. Be it the roman Colosseum, be it the Angkor Wat Monastries, the Galapagos Islands, the Victoria Falls, Venice, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, Easter Island, you name it….
This sights are considered a “must” for every photographer.
I have to admit that I never actually went on purpose on this sights, but I somehow found my self in the nearby of several of those. Not that I really looked in to getting there, but for one reason or another I always ended up being in to the area where some of this landmarks are located
And so it happened with one of the most photographed place in the world, the Taj Mahal in India. I was working on a story on the topic of water in the area of Agra (where the Taj is located) and I once again fell in to a famous landmark right in front of my face… An epic white palace growing in the middle of a big green garden. I struggled quite a bit, because one side of me really didn’t want to be part of the 3 million tourists per year visiting, and the other side of me thought that once there, it would have been stupid not to visit it inside.
Eventually the first part of me, the “I-think-I-am-different-than-everybody-else” won, so I challenged myself in trying to get a nice picture of the Taj without going inside. Not only that, the challenge was about doing it in the spare time, because the reason I flew in Agra was not to be back with a nice picture of the Taj Mahall, but it was to produce a story on one of the most polluted river in India.
Man washing cloth in Yamuna River, India
Man washing cloth in water, Elevated view.

The first challenge was to find an interesting point of view. Probably 2/3 or more of the pictures of Taj are shot with the reflection of the palace in the rectangular-shaped pool inside the garden. Some other images portray the palace from the other side of the nearby river. But I happened to be there in the dry season and the the big river is just a bunch of ponds and a lot of sand (well, it’s a bit more than this, but my italian-drama side always come out in this moments). Not really encouraging…

In Agra, Taj Mahal river banks
In Agra, Taj Mahal river banks

Regardless the lack of water, I decided the other side of the river would have been the better option: photography is in many cases a matter of taking challenges and making decisions, and I took mine, for the good or for the bad.

While working in the area, obviously I occurred in to a lot of souvenirs shops, and I noticed that of all the images in the postcards there is not a single picture portraying the landmark during the blue-hour and illuminated with artificial lights.
Bingo! I love shooting at dusk and I thought “it will be easy to make a great picture!”
While getting there, for just a second I wondered why nobody would make a picture in the right time of the day.. dusk-blue sky, all the lights on, perfect balance between ambient and artificial light… why nobody?
I found out the reason a little later, after standing like an idiot in front of the Taj with my tripod for well over 2 hours, with a pitch black sky in the night, and no sign of artificial light at all.
At that point, it became obvious: the palace is not light, there are no lights at all in there. That’s why there are no pictures of it. So, Taj Mahall scores 1, Gianluca scores 0.
I learned the lesson the hard way, and I really felt dumb.
The only decent picture I got was taken a few moments before the dark arrived.

Taj Mahal Mausoleum and river Yamuna at dawn, Agra, India
Taj Mahal Mausoleum and river Yamuna at dawn, Agra, India

The next following days I was so busy working in the nearby slums (and I was so ashamed for being such a dumb at a first place) that I didn’t really had the time nor I didn’t really want to go back to my own challenge. I was working on a tough topic and I was totally focused. Suddenly the day of my departure approached, and I took the time to explore a bit more the area. I tried framing the Taj with people in front of it, but the time of the day and the situations never really worked well.

In Agra, Taj Mahal river banks January 21, 2013. (Gianluca Colla)
In Agra, Taj Mahal river banks January 21, 2013. (Gianluca Colla)

So on my last night I got back to the lodging quite frustrated: I meant to capture the mystical sense of the place, the magnitude of the palace, I wanted to show the sense of magic you breath when around the Taj, and not only I was far away to accomplish that, I was about to leave for another part of India the following morning!
I felt bad for my choice of not going inside the monument, it would have probably been the easier option to get a good picture.

But hey, I made a choice, I took the challenge, and guess what? I’ll make it work!
So, rescheduled a later train for departure, the next morning I went back at 4am, pitch black, head lamp on my head, walking in the river bed, paying a lot of attention to 1- not falling in to the water ponds with my gear 2- not stomping on the numerous human feces (the river is used as a toilet by most of the local habitants..)
I looked for an area with enough water to reflect the building (and I found it), I waited for the perfect light (and it came) I hoped for a bit of myst to give that touch of magic (and it was there). Everything looked almost perfect, i was just missing something. While thinking what could have improved the picture, suddenly a flock of birds arrived, filling the top part of the frame and bringing just enough dynamic to the image, filling the right spaces and…voilà! mission accomplished!.

Taj Mahall in Agra, India, shot at sunrise with a flock of birds over the river Yamuna
Taj Mahal with a flock of black birds taking flight over river Yamuna

A little later, on a slow and busy train bringing me back to New Delhi, I was thinking what my friend and colleague Mike Yamashita told me once: photographers are paid to be lucky. Definitely, the birds on the last frame where sent by one of Hindu ‘s Gods, and made the entire difference.

I couldn’t be luckier.

Here below you can see a gallery with images shot during the assignment on the working poor.