Crowds at Churchgate Station, India, 2011

“The photo was part of a National Geographic series on population. The folks in the office at the Geographic all wanted me to make this photograph at Churchgate Station. It’s been made before. But at that time the location was a lunchroom and anybody could go up there with a tripod and shoot a long exposure of people coming out of those trains. But after the 2007 terror attack it became a military control center. They didn’t let anybody in. As my fixer and I were traveling around, we hired a guy to go to all the security offices and try to get permission for me to do it, but we ran into brick walls everywhere. There was more pressure, with the office saying, 'Look, we’re gonna run someone else’s picture if you don’t get this.' So we tried again finally got a government official to say, 'If he was Indian, then we’d let him up there.'

The only Indian guy I trusted was my fixer, so I put together a photographic kit and sent him up there with a tripod. I then sent the runner to ferry the digital card back. It was taken at rush hour so we would get as many people as possible pouring through the frame. I would put the card in another camera, look at it, then send instructions back with that runner, saying, 'Wider,' 'Tilt it up,' or 'Longer exposure.' It was about ten trips in all! Mostly to fine-tune the shutter speed to get the blurring effect I wanted.

Meanwhile, I was sitting in a van outside in the street with G.I. Joe in Hindi blaring on the little DVD screen up front. [Laughs] I felt like I was doing something illegal, and at any moment I was going to get caught.

It took quite a while but there were a few frames that worked. And this is one of them.”

Location: Mumbai, India
Photograph Date: 2011
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 200

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About the Photographer

Randy Olson

Randy Olson is a photographer in the documentary tradition. His more than 30 National Geographic projects have taken him to almost every continent. For the last 10 years, Olson has concentrated on population issues, resource issues, and disappearing cultures. He has received numerous awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year and Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media. He is married to fellow photographer Melissa Farlow, with whom he frequently collaborates. They live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Q & A

One of your areas of specialization is disappearing cultures. Talk about “genetic islands” and why it matters that they don't disappear.

People tend to look at seed stocks and endangered species, like pandas, and that seems to make sense to them. But when you start talking about pygmies being valuable because they have GPS’ built into their heads, people are not so sure. Pygmies have this ability to go anywhere in a forest that they've never been in before and all meet up in the same spot. They are one of these old groups that are valuable in the same way endangered species are valuable. I've also photographed new, isolated groups of people with dwarfism in remote areas of Ecuador who are immune to cancer. They are valuable to all of us. So I'm trying to come to grips with these two types of groups: the old world genetics and the new world, isolated genetics. There are still places where people are all color blind or where women are all having twins or there are a lot of albinos. These genetic islands have been part of my work over the years.

What inspires you in your work, Randy?

If I look at a photograph and it moves something inside me, then I've done my job. It doesn't much matter what the rest of the world thinks. It just has to feel right to me. The other important thing is making images that are of some use. Before I worked for National Geographic, I spent seven years photographing a family with AIDS. This was before they knew there was AIDS in the family. It was a new plague that people were only just understanding. I photographed their deaths and, during that process, I felt I was doing the right thing. I hang on to that whenever I’m looking for story material, or shaping a story.

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Randy Olson By Simon Worrall

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