Jon Enoch is a photographer who’s not afraid to get personal. Following his 2020 award-winning Bikes of Hanoi series comes Jon’s next self-assigned project, The Candy Men, documenting the candy floss street vendors of Mumbai, India. Returning to this sweet spot between portraiture and social documentary, the neon pop of these nightscapes, hanging like a store sign, tells an unsaid story of something culturally bittersweet.
“Don’t plan an international photo shoot in the middle of a pandemic!” Words of earned wisdom from the London-based photographer looking back on the February 2022 Mumbai shoot that would become this popular series. Like nearly every other facet of the last three years, this photoshoot was waylaid by COVID-19.
I was all set to go but the week we were due to fly out to Mumbai, international flights were closed down due to the Covid lockdown in 2020. I had rescheduled my flight around a year later, but then found out there was a week’s quarantine on arrival (for a one-week shoot), which would not have been worth it. So by the time I actually made it there and started shooting, I’d been mulling it over for around three years.
But even without the pandemic, the project itself required high levels of preparation.
The planning was pretty extensive. We were there for one week but only shooting for three nights so I spent more time prepping than shooting. In cities like Mumbai, you need everything completely nailed down before you press the button. It’s just too hectic to think when you are shooting—so you need to do your thinking elsewhere. By the time we got on location, I knew exactly what I wanted and how we were going to approach it.
And in spite of the best-laid planning, there were native challenges in terms of logistics waiting for Jon and his team on location.
If you had to find the worst place to shoot in the world, I think Mumbai would give anywhere a run for its money. It’s hot, cramped, and finding a spare meter of ground to put a light on without eight people wanting to get past is near impossible. Just dealing with the noise and chaos and staying focused was difficult.
According to the UN, Mumbai is the second-most populous city in India after Delhi, and the eighth-most populous city in the world, with a population of roughly 20 million. Like any dense metro area, photoshoots can inevitably draw attention.
We shot quite late so the crowds were less than it would have been in the daytime. But we were still surrounded by a good 30-40 people and they all wanted to have a look at the laptop screen. It was just like on an advertising shoot really except rather than clients to manage we had random onlookers. I live in London so it’s hardly like I’m used to the quiet life, but it was chaotic!
Transportation around the city was not without its difficulties.
We shot in the location where the men worked and lived, which was not far from the beaches. Those backstreets had very narrow lanes, which were accessible only by rickshaw and then on foot. Getting around took forever because of the traffic. A mile could take a good hour at certain times of day.
And local authorities were a consideration as well!
Beyond that, we had to put a lot of time and effort into sweet talking the local authorities who would inevitably turn up—it was that kind of shoot. Certainly a stress tester.
When it came down to it, Jon’s extensive preparation, adaptability on location, and having a great team made this shoot possible.
My first assistant is unflappable and always good-spirited. The shoot was very stressful at times but a lot of fun!
As for the origin of The Candy Men series, Jon describes,
I’m looking to create images that really stop you in your tracks and create questions or make you think. Things that you don’t see all the time. No one needs to see another project on wild swimming, for example, so it has to be different.
When I plan a project, I’m looking for concepts that fit certain criteria. This idea ticked all the boxes. Like most things I research, I tend to do a fairly deep dive into the subject and the ideas that are good tend to get quite stuck in my mind and I’ll keep coming back to them. The only way to get rid of them is to go and do it.
And that’s just what Jon did. In this case, the idea which threads the series lurks in the contextual background of each candy man portrait, illumined by the recurring motif of the candy floss itself: a growing obesity and dental hygiene crisis amongst India’s low-income and impoverished communities, and an industry’s shortcomings in prioritizing the health of its consumers—joining the somewhat ironic historical fact that candy floss was invented by a dentist.
There is definitely an ominous tone to the images. There are many instances of clothing dye being used (not by these guys, I should add) to give the candy its neon pop. There have been instances reported where those bright colorings are carcinogenic and banned dyes, including Rhodamine B.
Anyone who has been to the Juhu beach area of Mumbai and the endless poverty (and wealth) knows there is very much a dark and rather tragic underbelly to the city.
This powerful series of portraits far from condemns the local vendors, but rather The Candy Men puts faces to and involves the viewer in what, in all its layers, truly is a human issue.
See more of Jon’s work on his website.
Read more about Jon on our Published blog.
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