Tuesday, November 30, 2010

acquiring permission to photograph with a tripod at the Taj Mahal

Its' a three o'clock in the morning start from Delhi; we reach Agra at about 6.00 a.m and I ask the driver to take me to Mehtab Bagh, which is part of the Taj Mahal complex but lies on the opposite side of the river where it was rediscovered during the latter part of the twentieth century by an American scholar called Moynihan.

My driver seems to be going the wrong way but insists no less then three times that he is in fact correct. When we arrive at the Eastern Gate entrance to the Taj I realise he is bluffing and find someone to explain to him where I really want to go. After this, we retrace our steps but are soon at the Mehtab Bagh which is owned by the Archaeological Survey of India who won't allow any tripod on their premises, a fact that I am only too aware of.

Photographing the Taj Mahal from the north side in the early morning does not produce much more than a silhouette yet the mist rising from the river is atmospheric while the rising sun's first rays also help to create drama particularly as it hits the east facing wall of the mosque that lies west of the tomb. Further interest is added by birds flying along the river below.

At about eight o'clock we leave for the Oberoi hotel, Amarvilas, that is said to have a superb view of the Taj Mahal. I eat breakfast here and afterwards ask to be shown to the terrace upstairs to make my photograph. Permission to do this is however refused.

The next stop is the office of the Archaeological Survey of India where a few weeks before I had been to sign and fill in the necessary documentation. On arriving here, I am told that permission will not be granted but when I point out my earlier visit, an officer suggests I come back after an hour. This is how I find myself sitting in an internet cafe in Agra, somewhat taken aback at the difference between the opulence of the Oberoi Hotel and a slum I have just seen from a nearby bridge.Such an observation might be considered western or foreign yet one can not avoid the disparity.

In an hour, I expect to be meeting Mr.Dwivedi at the ASI to see whether permission can be granted. If not, I shall visit the Taj Mahal and make my architectural style photographs without a tripod, focusing only on the buildings I have researched rather than the fascinating life that goes on around the monument during the day.

Sometimes, I wonder if I might make a book of my Taj Mahal photographs but the ASI (Archaeological Society of India) would probably block such publication unless perhaps they got some kind of royalty from it. Almost certainly, they would want to control the content but that would ruin the project as my photographing at the Taj Mahal is about envisioning a contemporary Taj Mahal rather than a monument from the past as this has been done and done and redone more times than one would like to remember. The Taj Mahal is more than an architectural marvel, it is a world icon.

I return to the office of the Archaeological Survey of India and am lead in to meet a woman who tells me point blank that it won't be possible for me to get permission to photograph today. She then asks me to be shown into another office where I meet someone else who in response to my enquiry, looks up for a split second to look at me, then looks down at the papers he is presently dealing with, offering me no reply.

I point out that I have been to this office before, almost a month ago, and filled in the appropriate form; the man asks me to wait which I do.

After about a quarter of an hour, I am shown a form with my name on it and asked if this refers to me. I reply in the affirmative and take out my passport as proof. Another ten minutes or so of paper shuffling, people coming in and out, and with a flourish, a form is presented to me which just needs signing. Against all the odds, I have acquired the necessary permission.

Reading the terms of the agreement, I notice that there does not seem to be too much in the way of copyright restriction; the ASI seem happy for one to use photographs of the monument in any publication, they do however request three copies free of charge. This seems quite reasonable. Formerly, they wanted three copies of every photograph one took which in the days of negative film was not really practical.

Now to the Taj Mahal and it is not long before I am outside the Eastern Gate, the first of the buildings that I am photographing as part of my assignment. Of course, photographing from the road outside the Taj Mahal complex, does not need written permission from the ASI yet it is not long before a security guard comes over to let me know in no uncertain terms that I am not allowed to photograph at this place. Although it is effectively irrelevant, I pull out a copy (I have had it photocopied 5 times) of the permission granted to me and the guard seems happy even congratulating me on having the permission. He hands it to another guard who also responds in an enthusiastic manner.

Once I have done my tripod mounted "Eastern Gate from the outside photograph", I enter the complex and am immediately challenged again. I present a copy of the permission granted to an officer who scrutinises it for a moment before disappearing along with one copy of the permission. Slowly, I make my way through the security check, emptying my pockets and taking everything from my bag to show the guard. In the background, I notice the guard who took my permission form, talking to one officer and then another, moving from one room and then another. Once through the security check, I am asked to wait awhile, not near the wall but next to the end of the line then again to wait near the wall as I would otherwise be blocking the flow of people coming in and out. After a few minutes, I am handed back the form and told I can proceed.

After making a few photographs of the Eastern Gate from the inside without any challenges, I move into the courtyard to photograph the second of my subjects, the Great Gate, which I do without any other challenges. Then moving through the Great Gate I setup the tripod and camera to photograph the mausoleum, to make the photograph that people associate with the Taj Mahal. As I am just starting to fine tune the focus and have the remote shutter release in my hands, I again experience the sound of someone shouting in my ear, "Not allowed! Not allowed! You can not use a tripod here!" and there seems to be no way to just finish the operation of making my photograph in spite of offering the permission form. Instead, I am lead to an office within the precincts of the Taj Mahal where a man behind a desk is ready to tell me that I am not allowed to photograph in the precincts of the Taj Mahal. On seeing my permission form, he insists on taking the copy for himself, which might have been problematic had I not had four others! I am now told that I shall be only allowed to photograph from the Great Gate and not venture from here into the gardens. My request to get closer to the Central Pool is ignored and at this point, I try to phone Mr. Dwivedi at the Archaeological Survey; his phone is switched off yet I sense this gesture has an effect on the official I am now confronted with. My form of permission is handed back and I am told that I can venture into the garden and that if there is any trouble, I should let him know.

For awhile, I make a number of photographs from the Great Gate platform, then I venture down the steps into the garden but have not taken more than one or two steps before I am again confronted by a guard of some kind; this one is dressed more informally and looks not unlike a gardener yet acts with the same kind of authority as the security guards. He does not want to see my papers so I suggest we return to the office in the Great Gate where the official is ready to confirm that I can photograph in the garden up to the Central Pool. Again I set off with this guard in tow and he helps me to make my photographs pointing out some rather cliched viewpoints. After an hour or so, I have finished and offer him some rupees which he refuses; probably not enough, possibly he considers it inappropriate, yet as I leave the garden complex, he gives me a warm handshake.

That seems to be the end of my troubles apart from noisy youths who try to get my attention and make jokes when I do not respond. Another photographer, who says he is a professional from Mumbai, asks me how to get permission to use a tripod; I mention the office nearby in Agra and give him the address but point out that he is unlikely to get it for today. He does not seem concerned but thinks he'll have time to visit the office before it closes. I wonder if he'll fare better as an Indian but I can't help but think he'll be met with glum looks and told to come back tomorrow; of course, on the morrow he'll be able to fill in the forms but won't get the permission.

I want to chuckle but find it hard to laugh. I had spent a lot of time to make a few photographs and been unable to really cover the subject as I wished. For that, more negotiation and forms would presumably be required. Of course, the ASI are right to act to protect the monument although tripods are unlikely to cause damage, rather it would be the even greater confusion of a mass of people swarming over the Taj Mahal trying to get past a sea of tripods that would further clog up the flow of people. The jostling on the Great Gate platform from where one can make a good photograph would be more than chaotic.