Close Call at the Beach in Bombay

Ganesha3

This is the last frame I shot before I was attacked by a group of drunken revelers who pushed my head underwater (my camera was around my neck) while I was photographing the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Bombay. Remarkably, the roll of film still had images on it despite being submersed. You can still see the water marks on it. My camera and all of my equipment was destroyed in this incident.

I was photographing this amazing event on the last evening  of the festival about twenty minutes after sunset, illuminating the scene with my flash and standing in chest-deep water. Suddenly out of nowhere, a group of drunken revelers came over and started pounding me, grabbed my camera which was around my neck and pulled the camera and my head under water. I stopped worrying about my camera, and started thinking about the possibility of drowning. My assistant, who was in the water nearby, had virtually all the rest of my equipment. He was also thrown under the water and beaten up.  To add to my misfortune, I had borrowed a lens from a friend, Hoshi Jal, who is a Senior Assistant Photo Editor at the Times of India and who has photographed this festival over many years. His lens was also lost.

Eventually, one man came to my rescue and helped escort me back to the beach. I felt lucky to be alive at that point. I got back to my hotel room and tried to dry off my equipment with the hair dryer and called the National Geographic technical department. They told me not to bother drying it off, just to throw it away because unlike fresh water, salt water destroys lenses and camera bodies.

I’ve always had bad luck with water, having survived a plane crash in a frigid alpine lake in Slovenia. The saving grace of all of this was that I had kept my film in those plastic canisters so all my film was safe except for the roll that was in the camera. The last frame of that roll is shown at top with the water marks still on it.

I recently spoke to Hoshi Jal who explained that one of the reasons some people get agitated out in the water at the moment they submerse the image, is that they don’t want photographs taken of those idols broken or disfigured in the sea. Many of these images are made of plaster of paris and they break apart rather quickly.

INDIA-10009 

This festival is one of the most amazing events I have witnessed in India. People all over the region take part, but the most impressive place is the gathering at Chowpatty beach. Literally millions of people converge on this one small beach every year, usually between August 20th and September 15th, to honor the Hindu deity Ganesha, the half elephant, half human son of Shiva and Parvati.

Ganesha2

One of the wonderful things about Hinduism is the amazing inconography from Ganesha to the monkey-god Hanuman to the ten-armed Durga. During the months leading up to the festival, craftsmen all over Bombay create images of Ganesha which virtually every Hindu in the city will use to take part in a ceremony in which they take the images to the sea. People sometimes walk for miles with huge 20-foot statues to eventually immerse the icons into the India Ocean. This goes on for some days culminating in the final day known as the Anant Chaturdashi. The object is to walk the idol into the sea, often on top their head, and when the water gets too deep, to lower the icon into the ocean and let it float away.

Ganesha4

Bombay is one of the greatest cities in the world to photograph. I’ve always loved working there. In many ways, it reminds me of New York, but I think next time I’ll photograph the festival from the beach.

Addendum, August 28, 2009:
I’ve traveled to India (and entire South Asia) more than 80 times over the years. There’s no safer place on the planet to work or just walk around with or without your camera. There’s no neighborhood in Mumbai or Calcutta that I don’t feel I could go into any time during the day or night. Sadly, the same thing can’t be said for other parts of the world.

63 Responses to “Close Call at the Beach in Bombay”

  1. Dilipgiri Goswami Says:

    Respected Sir,
    I have no words for you, but salute for your work that done in worst situation.

  2. psmphotos Says:

    Dear Steve,
    I am really ashamed and apologize on behalf of my countrymen! I am a photographer – many a times I had faced similar situations but they were political. Those guys in Mumbai probably wanted to grab your camera. Thank God you and your assistant got saved. The two middle photos are just great. If you ever need any help in Calcutta or Bengal – please do let me know.

  3. RABIN CHAKRABARTI Says:

    Respected Steve,

    this is very shocking. being an amateur photo lover i am also sharing your grief and happenings.

  4. Raja Shekar Says:

    Mr. Steve,
    I am more than happy to see you too use film! Thats all I have to say.

  5. Hi Steve,
    As an Indian I feel ashamed for the incident. The political,social,economical scenario is changing fast in India. Particularly the political disturbance may be threatening for the photographers in some places. So photographers must be more cautions in photographing some sensitive issues and places.
    It is our relief that somehow you overcome the situation and the nasty drunken people.
    Regards.
    Partha

  6. Manoj Krishna Says:

    I saw you in NGC channel when I was in high school and checked out your pics, I have started my photography 3 years ago and I find your pics to be very inspiring.. Thank you Steve for that

    and what Mr Hoshi Jal answered you is absolutely rt. During festivals people are very excited and most of them are in spiritual trance.If they see a foreigner amongst them they sometimes mark it as intrusion and that might be the one of the reason.
    Also you can find pictures online of lord Ganesha’s statues disfigured on the beach.Now its a crime to shoot such pictures.The revelers must have misunderstood your motive…
    It doesnt happen every time.Most of them are friendly and carry a smile always. All I request to you is to shoot more pictures of my home country and would love to see a reply to this post from the Master who motivates me to take better pictures :)

  7. What an amazing story! It is an evidence of your passion and love of the art.

    I have not come across a time that my equipment has been damaged, but realize this day may cross my path. Steve, thank you for the addendum I have a high interest in visiting and photographing India. Your advisement to travel in Mumbai or Calcutta is taken in the highest regard. Finally, I appreciate the personal information you share such as standing in water to get a shot. It is these things one does not see to truly understand and appreciate passion in action.

    Safe travels ;o) and thanks for the inspiration!

    My best,
    Amy

  8. Unbelievable.. I honestly cannot imagine such a horrible incident occurring in India like this.
    I myself photographed this amazing festival (I can totally relate to what you say about it) and found that people *wanted* to pose for me – so much so, that I felt obliged to take images of these people even though I knew in my mind that these images would not be particularly ‘interesting’.

    http://www.tanya-n.com/?p=132

    The only thing I had to be careful of was being knocked over into the water by people charging into the sea.

    It’s a shame you had to endure a nasty experience and lose your equipment and pictures, and it’s admirable that you say India is one of the safest places to walk around with a camera despite this incident.

  9. Rajendra Biswas Says:

    I grew upi n mumbau even though i am native bengali,but behalf of indians and mumbaikars i apologise for waht they did to you,perhaps there was amisunderstanding…and festive people will rarely use violence

  10. Dear Mr.steve,
    Your photographs are like a short stories…I am living in Melbourne,originaly from Madras(now chennai) first of all I wish to say sorry to you for what happened in Bombay, those kind of people spoil the whole scene. Being Hindu I don’t think the drunkens behaving is having any kind of meaning…just they want to spoil, that is all. I want to visit you when I get a talent atleast 5% of yours. wish you best of luck all the time!
    -Siva.

  11. Must say you don’t have that bad of luck with water – you survived not only the plane crash but also got pics from a salt water logged roll- now that’s luck!

  12. This is disgraceful. I am ashamed that this could happen to you in my country. I apologise. I hope that redeems a little bit of the damage done.

  13. Awesome. You are all time fav.

  14. Sorry to hear that happened to you, must have been frightening. You go to such lengths to get these awesome photos. India always has a few surprises to throw at you! Hope nothing like that happens again.

  15. I was on my way to work which was through an area where they submerge the idols as well. I took my camera out and started taking pictures- some of the people were over enthusiastic and wanted to pose for the camera , but one guy came and shoved me out of the way and mumbled something about standing in the way. It was a pretty hard shove !! He obv belonged to the same category who destroyed your camera and nearly drowned you! I wish I could’ve taken more pictures- maybe next year!!!!

  16. WOW… What an experience! So glad to hear that you’re alright. You are certainly one brave man! Angels were watching over you, for sure!

  17. I was today in Perpignan to the International Festival to the Photojournalism (France). I love travelling and meeting people too. I appreciate your work, love it.
    Thank you for your photos and sharing them.

  18. Feel sorry for your equipment.. but glad the rolls were not washed out.
    Its a lil annoying ..
    The photographs have come out great and your write up is also much appreciated.

  19. I found your blog via The Sartorialist blog. You are a true inspiration!

  20. your photos are amazing and inspiring.
    love your work.

  21. Hey tomorrow is Ganpati Visarjan in India . I am from Mumbai and I can completely relate to the incident that happened to you . People would just randomly throw gulaal ( red powder) inside cars, autos and buses . But yes its a beautiful sight . Infact checking out different types of Ganpati Idols is another great part of this festival. Love your work Steve.. !!!

  22. HI. I’m a journalist based in Mumbai and I’d like to get in touch wih you about this incident. Could you give me your email address so I can write to you?
    And I’m sorry you had to go through this…
    Regards,
    Sweta

  23. I’m not even going to lie. That sounds so AWESOME. I mean danger is, well, dangerous, but these are the kind of stories that have fueled not just me but pretty much every other photography student at my school. One of our professors tells us all these stories- like one about how he beat off muggers in Morocco using his tripod. I am really happy to have run into your blog because your images have always stood out and inspired me. Expect excessive commenting from me =)

  24. Adriana T Says:

    Just a few things to say:

    1. Always have been a fan of your work. :)
    2. Perhaps a lower end SLR with an underwater housing for those times you are psychic about encounters with water?

  25. […] of a dark reality. Recently Steve McCurry, an award winning photographer, had an up close and personal taste of the real thing. It is interesting how, even after the incident, the photographer is enamored […]

  26. muir mackean Says:

    Hi – came to yr blog from the Sartorialist. Like it a lot – except for the white text on black, which fries my eyes. After reading about 3 lines I get white lines burned into my retina. Any chance you could change to dark text on a pale background ? Any one else have this problem, or just me ?

    muir

  27. Thank you for your reply, Steve. I shall certainly look for this issue now — and since you know the city, you will know what I mean when I say that I am sure to find it with booksellers on the streets of Bombay, who preserve such magazines with much more tenderness than any library I know.

    Good luck for all your future assignments, and please do keep blogging.

    Regards,
    Sharanya

  28. Hello Steve!

    What a sad and disturbing story. When I started reading I was very worried because I thought this would have happened recently – and I will be on the India trip with you in March …
    I suppose as someone else already wrote being commited to street / documentary photography like you are can be dangerous over the time.
    Fortunately you survived this terrible incident – hopefully without injury.

    I am looking forward to meet you in person.

    Kind regards from Germany

    Thorge

  29. I hope Ganpati Bappa punishes those who attacked you and brought bad name to our great city.

  30. I have seen in one of the interviews one of the prominent nat geo photographer said you are brave than any other photographers out there. This incident really proves that. I feel terrible that this incident happened to you, but then it did not stop you from coming back here. That’s Steve.

    Regards
    Anindya

  31. Glad to hear you’re ok. I just love indian culture. Just Beautiful.

  32. Great pictures Steve. Terribly sorry something like this happened with you, glad to know you’re okay!

  33. great deallllllllllll u r lucky too

  34. shekhar Says:

    Wow …….good one. why the people attacked u?

    • soooooooooooo sad but u r a lucky man & a man with great strength to overcome such a nasty situation great yaar ………………. u r a real fighter.

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Shekhar,

      Many thanks for your post. I spoke to my friend in India recently and he mentioned that some people get agitated when people photograph the idols as they are being submersed in the water. They do not want pictures of the idols as they become disfigured. Since they are often made of plaster of paris, they can dissolve rather quickly. Let me know if you have any other questions.

      Best,
      Steve

  35. Noni Chawla Says:

    When did this incident take place? This year (i.e. 2009)?

  36. cool story, glad you were able to get out and share it

  37. i like it as my blog wallpaper!

  38. Jyotindra Says:

    It is indeed frightening to get attacked by drunks and the experience of being almost drowned is by no means ordinary. Normally Hindus do not attack like this, may be the provocation lies in wrong belief of the attackers that they were being snapped for evidence of polluting the sea which of now is said to be banned for immersing the idols. My feeling is it is always best to take a local group in confidence and start to record the event keeping them close by. Hope you capture vivid facets of India over and over again.

  39. Thank you for sharing your experiences and photos! You have the gift of telling stories through your pictures. More power to you!

  40. The incident is as sad as the festivities are glorious. I’ve been mobbed before by auto chaps in bangalore, thankfully we were in a group and even though the police officer was a jerk we managed to get away rather unscathed.

    But these are also the incidents that tell you that in this crowded land, you are never far from danger…or from a miracle.

    Go ahead get into the water once more, be afraid, but don’t let it stop you from enjoying India :)

  41. Hello,
    Nice photos. Yes, it is quite an atmosphere in Mumbai during this time of the year. If you are still in India, you could go to Calcutta during the time of Durga Puja (if you have not covered that already). The atmosphere there is electric, I am told. And Bengali cusines are good too.
    Ullas

  42. Hi Steve,
    Great to follow your exploits on this blog.I was saddened to hear of your underwater experience, I’ve always felt so safe and never threatened in India, however the country is changing so fast with drugs and alcohol being so freely available and affordable, the country is becoming financially richer and I guess incidents like this are inevitable. I’m happy you and your assistant are ok and look forward to seeing more of your inspiring photographs.Julie

  43. Lucky for me you post appeared on the front page of Freshly Pressed otherwise I may never have come across your blog.

    Sorry to hear about the trouble you had while documenting the event.

  44. Terribly sorry to hear about the incident and loss of film. It’s tragic that such festivals often become a ground for louts.

    For what it’s worth the photos here are – as usual – gorgeous. Particularly of the half submerged man with the ganesh above his head. (The composition strangely draws a parallel to Krishna’s life – it immediately reminded me of Krishna’s father, Vasudev, carrying away a newly born Krishna atop his head to safety across a pregnant Yamuna.)

    I had visited this space in May – when only a couple of posts were up – and am so happy to come back and see so many new posts to read and pictures to see – What joy!

  45. This is really sad to know about the tragic incident happened to you. Didn’t you lodge a complaint with the police??

  46. This is a shame for us, the Indians. My sincere apology to you. I am from Kolkata and we have similar culture of immersing Durga idol in holy river Ganges. Sometimes, we see some discrete incedents but never have seen anything that happened to you.

  47. There is one really good thing in digital cameras, if you will have luck after your camera get drowned and if there will be no electrical circuit on compact falsh card the all files, all images will SURVIVE!
    I wash my cards twice and friend of mine lost his camera in water but all images are untouched.
    Great story like always when is happy end.

  48. Quite shocking to know about the attack. Its disheartning to see what overdose of alchohol can do to people. But thankgod that you survived the incident. Its and event like this that sometimes dampen the festive spirit. I hope you will be here in India for some more time because another very big festival is due in a months time in my hometown Calcutta. Would love to see your images from Calcutta. I hope you get your replacement gear soon. Take care Mr Mc Curry.

  49. Scary just hearing about that experience, Steve. Glad to know that you came out of it alright. The street — and here I use the word in its widest sense — can be scary, even for (or especially for?) those of us who’ve been photographing in this environment for a long time. The photographer can easily become a target, but the passion to photograph pushes us ever onwards.

    Wonderful images as always!

  50. manishrao18 Says:

    Must say that photographs are really a good quality even though you have to sacrify your camera and lens (I really feel sorry for that). But that’s how mumbai and india is. We have very diverse culture and variety kind of people here. I wish next visit to be safe, full of fun and fruitfull.
    Ganpati Bappa Morya!!!

    Regards,
    Manish

  51. Hello Steve,

    Which year did this incident happen? There are always some miscreants who give vent to their aggressive sides during such gatherings. Having worked in India for long, I’m sure you know that this place welcomes one warmly, and that such incidents are not the norm.

    Your work is a great source of inspiration and education. I hope you keep going for several years more.

    Thanks,
    -Shashi

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Shashi,

      Many thanks for your comment. The incident happened in 1994 when I was on an assignment for National Geographic. The article was then published in March of 1995.

      Best,
      Steve

  52. Daaaaaaaaam…

    Take care

  53. Wow, what a story. Glad to hear you and your assistant are OK.

  54. Steve,

    That is scary. Why did this happen? Did you try to find out?

  55. busyman1918 Says:

    lol wow thats crazy getting beat up for taking some pictures…and you survived a plane crash too? the crazy life of steve mccurry. The pictures that were able to processed are wonderful thanks for sharing

    retractablebannerstands.us

  56. I haven’t visited many cities, but I completely agree that Bombay is indeed one of THE greatest cities to photograph.

    On a related note, this wasn’t during THIS Ganesh Chaturthi was it? As in, today? You aren’t in the city right now, are you?

    And the photos that have been recovered — will they be published in Nat Geo? If yes, in which issue? I would dearly love to study them, and read the article.

    • Steve McCurry Says:

      Sharanya,

      Many thanks for your post and for your concern. The experience I wrote about happened when I was photographing the Ganesha Chaturthi festival in 1994. Some of the images from that trip to Bombay were published in National Geographic in March of 1995.

      Best,
      Steve

  57. Glad you are OK – ever figure out what provoked them to attack you?

  58. Steve,

    Glad to hear you are ok …. what a dreadful experience. As you say gotta look on the bright side … your film was safe …. and a good excuse to buy some new gear perhaps!!

    Have to tell you I had the pleasure of visiting your outstanding exhibition in Singapore a month or so back and was stunned by your photos … inspired me to buy two more of your books and to get out shooting some more myself.

    Safe travels.

    Stuart

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