The Importance of Giving Back – A lesson from Madurai, India

Meet M Balasubramaniam. He’s a drinks vendor who runs a small stall opposite the historic Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, South India. My good friend Abhishek Kumar and I paid him a visit shortly after New Year, following a lengthy stroll around the temple compound. It was an opportunity to quench our thirst after a lot of walking during the hottest time of the day.

Mistaking my North Indian buddy for a Tamilian, Mr Balasubramaniam merrily chatted away in his mother tongue as he crushed ice and poured out syrup for his drink; Abhishek just politely nodded and smiled, throwing in whatever words of extremely broken Tamil he could muster. As I watched this interaction, I could see a great photo story in the making. On my behalf, Abhishek found a way of asking him for his permission for a few photographs. In English, Mr Balasubramaniam replied with a twinkle in his eye saying, “of course you can. I must be like a bride: so many people come to take my photograph… it seems I must be very beautiful!”

madurai drinks vendor making nimbu pani The Importance of Giving Back   A lesson from Madurai, India

M Balasubramaniam prepares a refreshing drink of nimbu pani near Madurai


Before getting down to capturing any images, I listened, enthralled, as the cheerful Mr Balasubramaniam told me stories of all the people from far away that he’s had the pleasure of getting to know at his little stall. He had certainly made a lot of friends, as the various bits and pieces he started pulling out from safekeeping revealed: various letters from people whose hearts he’s won through his jovial, good-natured conversation; a shirt gifted to him by a Swedish lady who’d tucked a Rs. 100 note into the lapel pocket and mailed it to him before flying home (he says he will not wear it till he hears the good news that she’s married her fiancé); photographs from tourists and even one other professional photographer; a homemade affidavit signed by an Englishman who was handing over ownership of his moped to this gentleman before returning to the UK (yes, really!); and – my personal favourite – a certificate showing that one venerable British tourist had declared Mr Balasubramaniam’s nimbu pani (lemon soda) the most enjoyable he’d had in India.

madurai drinks vendor holding photograph The Importance of Giving Back   A lesson from Madurai, India

Proudly posing with the framed photograph one thoughtful photographer gifted him, an image that presents Mr Balasubramaniam as a master of his craft.


The first rule of good humanitarian and travel photography, according to me at least, is to spend time building rapport. With this man, it was easy. He’s so amiable by nature, but I think it was also because I was clearly not the first to tread this way. He’s used to being a model! However, this does not guarantee an easy experience for every camera-wielding person that comes along. What made a huge difference here was that those that Mr Balasubramaniam had welcomed to his stall in the past, often (if our own experience is anything to go by) with the insistence that the customer should not pay, had made a point of giving back to him. This doesn’t have to mean gifting a scooter! The framed photograph above had made him so happy that he’d accorded it pride of place, positioning it for all to see under the clock behind him. He held it with great pride as he posed for this photo. And he’d carefully and lovingly preserved the certificate sent by his English friend, like the shirt with the Rs. 100 note in the pocket, in plastic so that neither would get dirty.

madurai drinks vendor certificate 1 The Importance of Giving Back   A lesson from Madurai, India

Reading the fond words of previous visitors brings back happy memories.


With so much goodwill having passed through this little stall before me, goodwill that was readily reciprocated through beautiful gestures, my work was a breeze. It’s so easy to simply take a photo and move on. Photographers and tourists alike do it all the time. We assume we’ll never see that person again. Soon, they just become another collection of pixels in one of the thousands of files on our hard drives. Yet the reality is that each person photographed continues to live on, their life impacted – even if ever so slightly – by the experience of being photographed. It’s not uncommon for ‘exotic native people’ (as they are often seen) to find big lenses poked in their faces with not even a gesture made for gaining permission. Click, click and they’re gone. How invasive! I know how it would make me feel if I were the subject.

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Showing off the good-humoured certificate presented by a particularly satisfied customer.


I’m sure Mr Balasubramaniam made it easy for those that passed his way from the beginning. It’s in his nature to be amiable, I think. But certainly, those who have given back through their gestures big and small have contributed in a big way. ‘Exotic native people’, especially those who appear poor, are often fetishised by those with cameras. Mr Balasubramaniam certainly lives by simple means. But the experience of being photographed over the years has not served to emphasise and reinforce this reality; in fact, quite the reverse. It’s proven enriching. The very human experience that his photographers have shared with him, and the gestures of appreciation and love that they’ve given him, have served to strengthen his sense of dignity and belief in common humanity.

Senegal – Travel in the Land of Hospitality

Senegal is lovingly referred to by its people as the land of ‘teranga’, which means ‘hospitality’ in Wolof, the country’s national language. Many countries’ tourism campaigns make considerable noise about how hospitable their people are make you feel, but the Senegalese really do seem to consider their particular kind of hospitality, which is warm and familial, to be a way of life and something they take pride in. During my recent visit to this small West African nation, I was lucky enough to experience teranga for myself in the homes of both the affluent and humble, and it filled me with an enthusiasm to engage with and learn from the local people as I travelled.

Senegal is compact enough that one can explore widely within a relatively short period of time. My trip took in the capital city, Dakar, the desert dunes of Lompoul (and a couple of jumping off points along the way), the former French colonial capital of Saint-Louis and the Senegal River that runs through it, the coast of Thiès and Fatick and the rural interior region of Kolda, close to the far Eastern tip of The Gambia. I enjoyed the insight that this mix gave me into the country, from traditional rural living to an urban cosmopolitan vibe, from beach bumming to exploring colonial history, from energetic river canoeing to letting a camel take the strain in the desert, and much that lay in between.

All the images below, along with others from the same series, may be purchased as beautiful colour prints, licensed for download or shared via social media platforms. To make your selection, just click on the ‘Buy | Share’ link at the end of any of the captions, or directly on any image, and you will be taken to the gallery entitled ‘Senegal – Travel in the Land of Hospitality’ in my Image Archive.


senegal dakar centre ville magic land tourism travel photographer aerial photography kenya airways 16820 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

Dakar, Senegal’s capital city, is vibrant, cultured, cosmopolitan, clean and laid-back, so a great place from where to start your exploration of the country. Unlike a lot of West Africa, it’s well-connected by air to much of the rest of the continent as well as Europe, the Middle East and North America. On a clear day – which means most of the year except for the rainy season of July to October – a window seat rewards the traveller with fabulous views of the city. They extend as far as the Centre Ville on one side (as in the image above) and Pointe des Almadies, continental Africa’s most westerly point and home to many of the city’s wealthy (not to mention its best surfing spot), on the other. Once you’ve settled into your hotel, you can start exploring Dakar’s colonial and slave legacy, try your hand at surfing, indulge at one of the city’s dazzling array of restaurants offering cuisines from both Africa and far further afield, and finally drink and dance the rest of the night away. Note that the happening night scene gets going around midnight and the vibe stays fresh until dawn! Buy | Share


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Dakar is home to many kilometres of beautiful beaches. Any one you choose is likely to reward you with a glimpse into the lives of those who call this city ‘home’, from fisherfolk to fitness fiends. Many Senegalese take exercise very seriously, as you can see from the snapshot of Yoff Beach above (left), but they also know how to chill, and Ngor Beach is an ideal spot for this (right). Buy | Share


senegal dakar yoff beach tourism travel photographer fishing boats 17481 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

The fishing industry is Senegal’s main export earner, and a stroll along Yoff Beach – originally a fishing village but now a Dakar suburb – can show you why. These waters are teeming with a wide variety of fishes, and the sizes of some of them will amaze you. Most fishing is done using traditional methods here, using colourfully painted boats like those pictured above. The country needs plenty more fish than what it exports, as this is the mainstay of the Senegalese diet. For example, one needs to cook marinated fish with tomato paste and several vegetables to make a meal of Thiéboudienne, the national dish that most people eat several times a week. Buy | Share


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Dakar may have you entranced for some time, but when your feet eventually become a little itchy you’ll find the rest of the country has much to offer, too. Once you’re ready to move on, don’t head to the airport as there are no domestic flights, with the one exception of Ziguinchor. Unless you’re hungry to defy travel warnings and visit the beautiful West of Casamance, you’ll need to take to the roads. Senegal’s major highways are in pretty good condition (though some expats love to complain about the potholes of certain routes), and once you’re out of Dakar you will seldom experience any kind of traffic jam. If you don’t have your own vehicle, the public transport options can be fun. Buses like those pictured here ply all over the country and mostly leave when full, with everyone’s possessions tied to the roof (including goats – see the right-hand image!). An exhilarating alternative comes in the form of sept-place share taxis, ageing seven-seater Peugeots that may be held together by wire and repeated welding, but travel considerably faster than buses and are sufficiently intimate to give you an excellent opportunity to practice your French, Wolof or another local language while balancing an over-burdened mother’s baby on your lap. Buy | Share


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After only a short drive of 40 km or so from Dakar, you’ll reach the turnoff for the Village des Tortues (Turtle Village). This sanctuary for turtles benefits from friendly staff who have a genuine passion for the creatures they nurture. The old man pictured above is now 106 years old. Fairly certain that he now has little interest in running away, he has been given the freedom to roam – very slowly – wherever he wishes. Repopulation of Senegal’s turtles is one of the centre’s main aims, and… yes, that grunting noise is indeed what you think it is! Buy | Share


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Another short hop by road brings you to Lac Rose (the Pink Lake). During much of the year, the waters appear pink owing to the presence of cyanobacteria. The salt content of close to 40% is similar to that of the Dead Sea, so it’s a wonder that tourism entrepreneurs have not yet set up shop offering the chance to be photographed floating in the lake, reading a newspaper. In fact, the main revenue-generating activity here is salt mining, which is done manually using the boats pictured above. I visited during the Muslim holiday of Tabaski (Eid al-Adha), which explains why you see all the boats moored neatly along the edge of the lake. At this time, people prioritise being with their families, and even Dakar’s streets seem deserted. Buy | Share


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The sand dunes of Lompoul, located roughly two-thirds of the way between Dakar and Saint-Louis as one drives North out of the capital, make up a mini desert of just 18 sq km (7 sq mi). In spite of its diminutive size, the dunes are well-formed. The landscape here bears greater resemblance to those of the Sahara and Mauritania than to surrounding parts of Senegal. Several tent-based accommodation options allow one to stay within the desert itself, eat a hearty communal meal in the evening and be enthralled by the rhythmic beat of traditional Senegalese drumming. An annual music festival, the Festival du Sahel, is held here towards the end of each year. With big-name support from Sahel-origin artists such as Baaba Maal and Habib Koité, it sets out to showcase the cultural and artistic richness of a transnational region too often associated with the scourges of poverty, drought, illegal immigration and terrorism. Buy | Share


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The 1,790 km (1,110 mi) long Senegal River forms Senegal’s natural Northern border with Mauritania. The image above was taken a little South of the city of Saint-Louis, whose Old City was built on an island within the river. From this point, it is separated from the Atlantic by a thin strip of land known as the Langue de Barbarie, before it finally reaches the ocean. The river has an ethereal look in the early mornings, a time when it’s a place of sublime peace and tranquility, interrupted at the very most by small-scale fishermen sleepily sorting their nets. Buy | Share


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Hiring a pirogue, the boat pictured above, along with someone to operate it, proves an excellent way to explore the slow-moving waters close to the mouth of the Senegal River. Buy | Share


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The wetlands of this region are a veritable paradise for birds. The nearby Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary, located North-East of Saint-Louis, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that plays host to almost 400 species of birds. Closer to the Senegal River’s mouth is the Parc National de la Langue de Barbarie, which consists of a 20 km (12 mi) length of intertidal flats and sand dunes and is particularly important for its large number of breeding and wintering gulls and terns. Buy | Share


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Located close to the village of Mouit, I can heartily recommend Swiss-owned Zebrabar as a place to base yourself while exploring this region. Its sprawling gardens have ample space for tents, cars and overland vehicles, and there are several quirky cottages for rent as well. There is a well-stocked bar and delicious home-cooked food is on offer three meals a day. But by far the best thing is the location, right on the riverside, with its own beach and pier. One can rent a canoe or small boat (right) and head out into the waters and to the deserted sands of the Langue de Barbarie on the other side (left), and in the evening one can enjoy a cold beer at the top of the observation tower while observing the birdlife returning to roost and stunning sunsets over the river. Buy | Share


senegal river saint louis mouit tourism travel photographer laamb wrestlers spectacular sunset beach jetty peaceful 17354 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

One evening, by the Zebrabar pier, I met these Laamb wrestlers. Laamb, the Wolof word for ‘fight’, is a traditional type of folk wrestling originally performed by the Serer people of West-Central Senegal. In recent times, it has become the country’s national sport. It is also a popular indication of male athletic strength and ability, though black magic is frequently performed before a bout to increase a competitor’s chances of winning. I assure you, by the way, that this image was not staged. The combination of a fascinating, deeply-rooted cultural activity playing out in a stunning natural setting at the most colourful time of day seems too good to be true, I know. The decision of the woman walking down the pier to spontaneously start shaking her stuff just as she passed between the two wresters was pure good fortune for me. The resulting image represents one of my photographic highlights of the year. Buy | Share


senegal saint louis tourism travel photographer unesco world heritage colonial homes backstreet 17069 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

UNESCO World Heritage Site Saint-Louis, the French colonial capital from 1673 to 1902, is located in Senegal’s far North, right before the country’s border with Mauritania. From 1920 to 1957, it also served as that colony’s capital under the French. The town’s colonial architecture, particularly in the Old City located on an island in the Senegal River, has been beautifully maintained and as such is a big draw for the tourist who can spend hours slowly rambling up and down its lanes. It might remind you of other cities of the ‘Creole Atlantic’, such as Bahia, Cartagena, Havana and New Orleans, and alongside Dakar’s Gorée Island it is the most characteristically French colonial destination in West Africa. Like Lompoul, this place is home to an annual international music event, the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, which is the most important jazz festival on the continent. If that doesn’t float your boat, there is also the annual regatta, or pirogue race, organised by teams of fishermen from Guet Ndar. Buy | Share


senegal saint louis tourism travel photographer unesco world heritage pouring tea attaya men street photography 17093 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

Down a Saint-Louis back alley, men bond over the tea drinking ritual of attaya. Traditionally, this distinctively Senegalese take on tea is served in three rounds: a first that is bitter and strong, a second that is a little sweeter and has the addition of a small amount of mint and a third that is much sweeter and has more mint. The reason the succession of rounds take this shape is both simple and beautiful: it is said to represent friendship, and the longer friends are together, the sweeter their friendship grows. That’s definitely something worth drinking to! Buy | Share


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As I strolled down Quai Giraud, looking out on the Senegal River and the pirogues moored on the Langue de Barbarie on the other side, I came across these boys playing football in the street. When I asked their permission to take some photos, they excitedly found all manner of ways to pose for me! Buy | Share


senegal thies joal fadiouth atlantic tourism travel photographer baobab trees 17746 Senegal   Travel in the Land of Hospitality

After concluding my trip up North, I returned to Dakar for some work before heading in a southerly direction, firstly to some spots along the coast of nearby parts of the regions of Thiès and Fatick. The baobab tree pictured above is one I saw growing by the sea in this area, but baobabs can actually be found all over the country and indeed the continent (they are especially famous in Madagascar, where six of the genus’ eight species are found). Particularly remarkable is their ability to store up to 120,000 litres of water inside their swollen trunks, enabling them to survive through harsh drought seasons. The tree’s leaves, fruit and seeds are put to a myriad uses across Africa. One that I particularly enjoyed was a frozen drink made from baobab fruit pulp. Very refreshing on a hot day! Buy | Share


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The seaside village of Palmarin in Fatick sits a little shy of the UNESCO World Heritage Saloum Delta, which then takes up most of the space between here and The Gambia as one journeys South from Dakar. Though its economy is dominated by fishing and agriculture, palm trees (left) and beaches (right) prove significant draws for the tourist dollar. Buy | Share


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Returning North towards the N1, the country’s main East-West artery, one soon reaches Joal-Fadiouth. Joal is on the mainland, while Fadiouth, linked by a bridge, lies on an island of clam shells. Here, a local lad had sits in quiet contemplation on the spit of sand that protects Fadiouth from the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. In a country that’s 90% Muslim, Fadiouth is something of an anomaly because its inhabitants are 90% Christian. The Grand Mosque of Fadiouth, which stands out from afar, seems to misrepresent the reality of a place where only 6% of the people are Muslim. Happily, as the islanders are fond of pointing out to visitors, adherents of the two religions live together in harmony here. Buy | Share


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Joal is home to Senegal’s largest fishing harbour. On the left, women can be seen meeting a pirogue laden with a fresh catch, waiting to carry the fish to the shore to be sorted and loaded into trucks and taken to market domestically and abroad. Almost 80% of the women in Joal are involved in fishing, particularly in processing and fish mongering. Horse-drawn carts (right) are also still used in the process of bringing the fish from the water for processing. Buy | Share


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Besides fishing and tourism, agriculture represents Joal’s other predominant source of income. Here, peanut farmers separate nuts from their plants using the traditional method of shaking a head load of the crop into the wind and allowing nature to do the rest of the work. The nuts fall into a pile at the farmer’s feet, while the unwanted plant material is blown into a pile behind. Buy | Share


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For a taste of something entirely different and special, I decided to round off my trip far from the beaten track. A full day’s drive in sept-places along the N1 to Tambacounda and then South along the N6 took me around The Gambia to the region of Kolda. This area lies sandwiched between that country to the North and Guinea-Bissau and Guinea to the South. The lingua franca here is Pulaar, and many that I met seemed surprised that there are people out there (such as me!) who cannot speak it. Thankfully, I had Peace Corps volunteer Rachael Honick (centre) with me, who – after two years of living in the village of Koumbadiouma – is practically fluent. (Not that having a fluent Pulaar speaker with you need necessarily be a prerequisite for visiting the region. Learning the art of communicating when one has no language in common can be great fun!) Buy | Share


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By stepping off the tourist trail into Senegal’s rural hinterland, I found that I was able to get an even richer experience of the ‘Land of Hospitality’. I met people who on the whole earn and possess very little, yet are by nature extremely generous with what they have. The man pictured on the left and his friends, for example, welcomed me with great warmth to a Sunday market near Koumbadiouma, while the lady on the right served up a hearty meal for me on the occasion of Tamkharit (Islamic New Year), despite the fact that I’d turned up unannounced. The concept of ‘kodho‘, meaning ‘to reside’ or ‘to inhabit’ and used when someone comes to stay with a family, is deeply-rooted in a culture in which individuality isn’t emphasised. Indeed, everyone is considered a member of a family, clan or village here. I myself was re-named Robin Camara during my stay, a local name (which I thought was very fitting for a photographer!). Buy | Share


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Warm smiles from Kolda: yes, teranga is alive and well in Senegal, and long may it remain so! Buy | Share