Walking through the nearly 130-year-old Mallick Ghat flower market in Kolkata, Danish photographer Ken Hermann’s eye was drawn to the men carrying long garlands of orange marigolds.
“I liked that these men, some strong and masculine, were handling the flowers with so much care, like it was their precious thing,” said Hermann, recalling the moment.
Hermann visited the colourful, chaotic and loud market along the Hooghly River for the first time in 2010 while on his way back from Jharkhand, where he had been working on a photo project on the coal miners of Jharia. On the final day of his trip, Hermann’s guide for the day – a flower seller – took him to the flower market. Hermann knew at once that he would have to return and photograph the place and its inhabitants.
“I wanted to do the portraits on a plain and simple background so that the flower sellers really stand out,” he said. “I liked the way the different men posed with their different flowers – the masculine man and the beautiful flower.”
The photographs from this trip were published in a coffee table book titled Flower Men in October.
In 2014 Hermann finally returned to Kolkata during the monsoon with his Move 1200 outdoor photography kit, which he calls his “partner in crime”. He spent the next ten days at the flower market.
“The biggest challenge was the heat,” said Hermann. “It was 45 degrees Celsius every day and after a couple of hours of shooting, my clothes were just completely soaked in sweat. The flower sellers too were posing under the mid-day sun, which can get really hot. On top of that, some were carrying heavy loads of flowers on them.”
Hermann had initially wished to photograph both men and women, but the idea of being photographed by a stranger made the women uncomfortable. “Most of the men didn’t mind being photographed as long as it didn’t take too much time,” said Hermann. “They were very busy and their focus was on not losing out on too much business while posing for me.”
The photographer’s portrayal of these men removes them from the frenzy of the market place and places them against the backdrop of the Hooghly.
“My idea from the beginning was very clear and conceptual,” said the 38-year-old. “I wanted to shoot them on a very quiet and natural background to make them stand out. I wanted these images to be very bright, almost over-exposed, so all the portraits were shot when the sun was very strong and straight above.”
In most photographs, the flower sellers stand alone, their faces neutral as they showcase their wares – some wear them, some hold a bouquet or string of flowers in their hands. One man wears a bunch of Ashoka leaves that cover his head completely, making him look like a human shrub.
In some frames the monotony is broken by a flapping towel, a passer-by or a dog.
In the introduction to the Flower Men, photographic and film art director Gemma Fletcher writes:
The significance of Flower Men goes beyond its otherworldly charm... Hermann has transformed an irreverent observation into something miraculous. Creating universal images that transcend the barriers of language, culture and geography, while making us more conscious of our past as well as our present. Flower Men is an exquisite tribute to tradition and a poignant future relic.
Hermann’s interaction with these men was mostly through his local guide and it was through him that the photographer would go about convincing people to pose for him. “There is also a lot of superstition and religious beliefs that are attached to flowers in India,” said Hermann. “Some sellers flat out refused to be photographed because for them their flowers were holy and meant to be used at the time of worship. They believed that they would lose their power and purity if they were photographed.”
This is not the first time that Hermann has been fascinated by India. Since his first backpacking trip nearly 20 years ago, he has looked to India for inspiration.
His other portrait project, Coal Mines, documents the miners of Jharia. Hermann photographed men and women with a focus the shape of his subject’s soot-covered face and clothes against their background.
Another body of work by Hermann titled Holy Men includes images of sadhus, ascetics and monks that he has met in his travels across India and Nepal.