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Creating a new brand of golf in Mumbai’s slums

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A vision of golf as a subject had been floating around in my head for quite some time. Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed an article in an English-language Indian newspaper outside my hotel-room door in Mumbai. There wasn’t a single photo—only a few paragraphs describing a group of teens who played golf in the slums.  It sounded like the promise of something interesting.

We did not act immediately; I’m passionate about sports, but more tennis and biking, personally. So I felt obligated to do my homework and to learn something about the game. I am convinced that it is necessary to reach a certain level of intimacy with the subject to create a great story. Every project I undertake is preceded by months of gathering knowledge. Photography is a creative art, but no creation is fruitful when it lacks serious foundational knowledge. The principle applies to sports photography too.

It will never top cricket, but golf is growing in popularity in India. Young boys have the opportunity to caddie at expensive courses, so while they may not become professionals, golf offers a chance to make money. Of course they want to play themselves, but it’s hard to find greenery in the overpopulated slum townships, so they needed some creativity in inventing their own variety of golf. 

Compared to traditional golf, the rules are simplified and flexible. A normal golf course is, so to say, a two-dimensional space. Any urban space, even in slums, is three-dimensional, making each game a new challenge, an unrepeatable experience. In general, the ball should be played where it lies, and each player should have access to the same number of clubs. As the boys can’t afford a normal set of equipment, they play with self-made iron rods and cheap plastic balls. It seemed to me that their primary goal when playing was to practice the grip and the swing, to focus on their improvement.

When we decided it was time to find them, Murali, my friend and guide in India, managed to locate and contact some players in the slums. They turned out not to 

be the same guys featured in that article, but they were similarly passionate about the game. Murali broke the ice, and when I came they were already eager to be a part of the project.

They were all young boys in their mid-to-late teens. Ravi, Harish, Raja, Laxman, Viplav and Sanjay all lived with their families. The older ones had part-time jobs, while the younger ones were still going to school.

We were each surprised and impressed by the other’s equipment. I use a large-format Linhof Master Technika as my primary camera, as well as slow-speed, fine-grain films. With the lighting technology that is needed to shoot, it’s difficult to stay unnoticed. The observer effect becomes a difficult issue. I had to spend some time with them to get everyone comfortable with me watching and photographing. They gradually became accustomed to my presence and I had the impression that they behaved naturally and with great ease in front of the camera. I never tried their equipment because I am serious about how I spend my time when I’m shooting. Besides, that could have been dangerous to other people.

Tomasz Gudzowaty is a Polish documentary, portrait and art photographer. He’s won numerous international awards during his career and in 2000 was given the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta by the president of Poland.