‘Almost an Afterthought’

Photographer Jorgen Opsann tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a picture from Agra.

By / October 2012

Tourists are good propagandists. They like to give the same predictable messages from the same popular places. Take the Taj Mahal. Every year, one can trace the footsteps of millions of moms, dads, and teenagers with cell phones to the edge of the reflecting pool. Here they put on the same rubber smiles while the stately white-domed mausoleum hovers in the background against a palette of blue. Then they carry the images home eager to tell friends and family how awed and wowed the famous monument left them.

I get it. It’s hard not to follow this formula. My wife and I spent two hours one morning last winter strolling around the manicured three acres or whispering our quiet thoughts inside among the coffins. We also stopped to pose for pictures, adding to the massive catalog with little to distinguish one picture from another besides the nationality represented. It feels a lot like a drive through suburban America, one house cut from the same mold as the next, more glamor than substance, more conformity than personality.

Jorgen Opsann, 56, is a freelance photographer based in Oslo, Norway.

It wasn’t my only experience, though. Earlier that morning, before the sun peaked out from underneath its dark blanket, I left my hotel and met a young taxi driver who I had recruited to take me to the north bank of the Yamuna River in Agra. This peninsula is not popular or touristy, but before my visit I had found inspiring photographs from people who had played around in what is essentially the landmark’s backyard, and I knew this was where I wanted to be, not so much because I knew what I would find but because it seemed to be the best place for something to find me.

When I stepped out of the taxi, it was still too dark to photograph, so I shuffled along the dirt and grass stubble about 30 meters from the river, taking in my surroundings. Nearby a crowd of about 200 people had gathered in the shallow water along the shore. Some bathed. Some used the restroom. Some washed clothes. There was not much sound, just hushed words that barely raised above the splashing of water. Soon the light broke, soft and dull, dispersing the crowd quickly and quietly, while prompting me to pull my camera out of slumber.

It wasn’t long before I noticed a young boy walking his camel over a trampled down fence and across the barren landscape toward the water. He walked with his head down and a deliberate pace, unconcerned at my presence, only about 10 meters away. I started snapping pictures, rattling off close to 50 in a matter of minutes, which made me a kind of laconic companion for his journey.

It is hard to put the two experiences up against each other. The one inside the Taj Mahal with my wife was special because we got to explore one of the world’s great wonders together. The one on the backside of the Taj Mahal is notable because I stepped out of line with the march of other tourists and had a moment that hasn’t been replicated to the point of repletion. I am only sorry that my wife wasn’t with me. I think she would have enjoyed it, not only for the wonderful contrast between this building, bathed in morning mist, and the somber boy dutifully performing a task, but for the chance to see the mausoleum in everyday life, its glorified presence almost an afterthought in the company of the common person.


— as told to Brandon Hoops