Magazine Article


A Society in Transition
Documenting the Effects of Globalization in South Asia

view inside temple
David H. Wells

2 people getting materials
David H. Wells

clothes hanging on line
David H. Wells

4 men on motorcycle
David H. Wells

satellites on skyline
David H. Wells

Photojournalist David H. Wells has covered the news for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Examiner, Syracuse New York Herald-Journal, Newsday, Time and Life magazines for more than two decades. The first time he visited India in 1995 to meet his wife's family, he felt something profound was unfolding that he needed to document.

What he was witnessing were the effects of globalization in the country. Since 1996, Wells has photographed these ongoing effects in India—recently expanding his coverage to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—to build awareness about the topic.

Behind the Project

When he first arrived in his wife's native Bangalore, Wells was struck by the dichotomies he saw in everyday life. Clothes drying on clotheslines with construction sites in the background, men riding motorcycles in traditional Indian garb, satellite dishes standing before authentic Indian architecture checkered the streets and markets, exposing a society in transition.

"Bangalore, more than any other city in India, certainly more than New Delhi, Bombay, or Calcutta, is face to face with the changes globalization is bringing," Wells explains. Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India, its fifth largest city and, since India's independence in 1947, home to major industries—particularly aerospace, telecommunications, machine tools, heavy equipment, space, and defense. Accounting for 35 percent of India's software exports, the city is a microcosm of the globalization enveloping the country.

"In my images, I try to show everything happening simultaneously," he explains. "In globalization, there are winners and losers, cultural displacement, and visual chaos all rolled into one," he says. "The two most common losers in globalization are the poor and the environment. The poor are left behind in the digital divide, while the environment suffers from tourism and rural to urban migration."

Wells is more taken, though, by the winners in globalization, which he notes are women and the growing middle class. "I think in the aggregate, the benefits outweigh the losses," he says.

According to a report by the Asian Venture Capital Journal, India is the most lucrative private equity destination in Asia, attracting "$1,239.22 million worth of investments in January 2007, surpassing China ($609 million) and Japan ($980 million)." World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz praised India for its remarkable development at a press event this past April.

"Globalization is inevitable, like any other technology change," Wells explains. Ironically, as Wells was documenting India's transformation, his industry was transitioning itself from film to digital. In quite the same vein, Wells had to move with the undercurrents pushing him in the digital direction, even though it was unfamiliar to him.

"I shot this project with film until 2003, when we switched over to digital, so half of the project is shot in film, the other half digital," he explains. "I began using digital for the America 24/7 project. They gave us digital cameras and Photoshop. I started with an Olympus C-5050, a point-and-shoot. I tried to work with film and digital simultaneously, but it didn't work because I was looking for different things in terms of exposure. I switched to Minolta prosumer cameras—the DiMAGE A1 and A2—and learned how to shoot RAW files and how to build my own workflow. I now use Olympus Evolt digital SLR cameras."

Wells travels to India in three-week intervals a few times a year, dividing his stay between photographing scheduled events, shots he has conceived prior to his arrival, and spontaneous street photography. He uses leads from Indian journalists, hired to alert him when photo-worthy affairs are taking place, as well as his mother-in-law, who is always in the loop. "I never set up photos," he says. "I know that on certain days of the week a school program is going on, or an information technology fair is taking place, or women are working in an auto repair shop."

When photographing on the streets, he qualifies the cultural divide and language barrier by making eye contact with his subjects. "I look at them and hold my camera to my eye as if to ask them if I can take the picture, and nine times out of 10, they'll shrug, and let me take the shot.'"

To further connect with his subjects, he shows them the back of the camera so they know what the images look like. "If I am photographing in a public place like a market, I'll try to get a business card from one of the shop owners and make a note on the back that says, 'Tuesday afternoon, rice market crowd,' so I can send copies of the images to them," he explains.

A teacher at heart, Wells discusses India's transformation in his photojournalism classes at RIT, Maine Photographic Workshops, and Rocky Mountain School of Photography workshops. He plans to put together a book, but is guided more by a desire to document globalization as it happens, untainted by rewritten history or politics. An exhibition will include his images, "The Newly Global and the Eternal: Dualities in South Asia," debuts at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, on August 27, running through October 5.

Wells is exhibiting in universities and institutions that have international relations and South Asian programs. "I want to target people who can apply what they see in my images and make a difference," he says. "Of course, I'd be as happy as the next guy to exhibit in a gallery, but I'm more interested in using my project as an educational tool."

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