FO2 Stage | 029 | Sham Verma

The COVID-19 pandemic has probably been the most devastating financial and social crisis of recent times, leading to the suspension of almost all economic activity and forcing a country wide lockdown. One of the most severely hit industries being the Tourism Industry.

The Indian tourism industry employs 8.75 crore people (12.75 percent of the total employed population in 2018-19), such as people from the hospitality industry, tour operators, travel agents, homestay owners, drivers, guides, small traders, artisans, and craftsmen among a host of other service providers. Disruptions in the tourism sector will render many people unemployed. One such category of people who have been badly affected is the inconspicuous and dwindling set of local photographers at all tourist spots. 

As if the tech boom in phone cameras and other social media innovations weren't enough to push every other person to click their own pictures, the pandemic has been a nail in the coffin for these guys. Most of the tourist places are secluded spots and have been devoid of tourists during the lockdown. While most of these locales have reported negligible or zero cases, the absence of tourists, who are the only source of income has hit these daily wage earners hard.

Team FO2 recently visited Maheshwar, a very popular tourist destination in Madhya Pradesh, and interviewed the local photographers there to understand how they were coping with the current situation.

Hi, I am one of the 35 photographers that exist at Maheshwar. We are wholly dependant on the income generated from the tourists visiting our village and the famous fort/ghat here. In spite of not having a single case in the village here, there have been no tourists visiting from March till July. The lockdown and the subsequent fear has kept all away from this otherwise bustling place. 

I used to be a boatman more than a decade ago and used to ferry tourists on the ghats of the Narmada river. Initially, Maheshwar was famous for the Maheshwar Sarees and was only popular as a tourist destination within MP and the tourists visiting were mostly from the state. However, things changed from around 2004. The government promoted tourism in the state and our beautiful village became one of the leading spots for tourists from other States. MP tourism built resorts and the Fort/Ghat became a star attraction. At that time, camera on phones was not so advanced and only a few tourists carried their cameras, so there was a huge demand for photographers to click their beautiful memories.

I and a friend of mine decided to take the plunge. We started as an assistant with the local photographers helping him with odd jobs of carrying stuff around, getting photos developed from studios and prints delivered etc. Soon we learnt photography and were able to click pictures on our own. We also learnt a few poses that amused/enthused the tourists to click a few extra photos from the regular ones. Soon the business grew and we were able to make a decent living.

However, as the business grew, so did the competition. More and more people entered this field and at one point in time, we had more than 50 photographers in Maheshwar during the peak tourist season. All of whom made a decent living. Then the Camera Phones came in. More and more tourists started clicking their own pictures. Selfies became a new trend. Even children started clicking their own pics. Income dropped but We still managed to stick on and continued with our business.

And then the Pandemic struck. Complete lockdown from march end. No tourists, no income. Within a month, most of the remaining 35 photographers started looking for alternate means of income. Some went back to boats, some took up odd jobs as labour, waiters etc. I decided to continue. Most of our savings was consumed during the 1st two months and we were hoping that the lockdown would get lifted sooner than later. However, in spite of the lockdown getting lifted, people were still wary of travelling due to fear and caution.

Only a few of us are now left in this profession. Income levels have dropped to 100 rupees a day on weekdays that increase to 200-300 on weekends. We are all hoping that the vaccine will soon arrive. Not for us, but for the tourists, who will then start travelling fearlessly. Something that will get our beautiful Maheshwar bustling as before. Hopefully, that will help us make our ends meet, our children back into schools, and somewhat a stable life for those of us who are still let in this profession.

- Sham Verma

Sham Verma's story was as heartbreaking as a motivational one. The resilient and the never say die attitude has made us stronger in these difficult times. Kudos to Sham and his likes who continue to follow their passion in difficult times.

Team FO2 would like to request each one of you to make it a point to visit local tourist spots in your neighborhood. For vacations. For Photoshoots. For any reason whatsoever. Use their services even though you might be a better, bigger photographer. Because you have an even bigger heart. Because you want to support those who aspire to be one amongst you. Share a few tips with them. Probably lend them a helping hand through collaboration or lend them a piece of equipment that they might need, Much much more than you do. And probably not afford it. Build the community. Help the community.

We salute Sham and many many more such vibrant souls and are proud to be a small spec in their beautiful journey.

Together, Further | Team FO2.IN

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