A sunset crop-burn in Assam, India

28 May 2016

It had been a long day’s shooting, that late November day in Assam. We’d been up at dawn to catch the fishermen on the foggy Brahmaputra river. The morning and afternoon had been spent photographing monastic life and religious theatre. And now we were heading for an appointment with farmers, fire and sunset.

The previous evening, we’d seen the opportunity as we drove past the fields on the way back from the day’s shooting. The farmers had been out stubble-burning and sections of the field were ablaze, pouring smoke into the sky. I reckoned if we set it up properly, backlit it with a decent sunset and got out in the thick of it, we’d bag some scorchers.

So our tireless Shoot Director had stopped the car, introduced us all round, and popped the question: “Are you going to be doing more stubble-burning tomorrow? And may we shoot it?”

Bemusement, amusement, then big smiles and nods. So we upped the ante a little.

“That part of the field would be good,” we said, pointing to where we’d get the longest sunset backlight. “And could it be in full swing one hour before sunset?”

No problem, says our farmer, as good-natured as he was handsome. I thought I’d need the sunset app on my iPhone to lock in the shoot start time, but I was forgetting you never, ever need to tell a man who works the land what time the sun rises and sets.

I did wonder a bit over the ethics of shooting the burning. Back at our lodgings I piggybacked the iPad onto the Shoot Director’s cellular data link and read up about the environmental impact of crop burning. And although it was clear that the practice is increasingly being pushed out of farming fashion, no laws were being broken. It was an established local practice and he was going to burn his fields come hell or high water, as farmers across the world have done for centuries, and even if I were minded to I wasn’t in any position to try to change that.

Which is why we now found ourselves tramping past our new farmer friend’s collection of chickens and miscellaneous mongrels en route to his fields.

It was spectacular if hot work. No posing here: the farmers were constantly on the move, managing the fires. And you can’t choreograph smoke: it goes where it pleases, sometimes right up your nostrils and into your eyes, so it was a busy sixty minutes or so. As I shot I noticed that the auto white balance was uncharacteristically out: it was shooting the scenes a bit cold despite all the orange pyrotechnics and warm sunset. Didn’t matter too much as I was shooting RAW as usual and could tweak everything back home; but hey, it didn’t look right so I switched over to manual white balance for the rest of the shoot.

As it grew dark, we synced up a flash and a remote trigger, threw a ¼ CTO gel onto the speedlight and got an obliging farmhand to stand still for a minute or two. Great fun, good practice and a nice thank-you print to drop off next time we’re in the neighbourhood.

Shoot this with us: