Published: April 2008
Ami Vitale
Interview by Glynnis McPhee

How did you go about meeting the rickshaw pullers?

I worked with the Samaritans—they're the union for the rickshaw pullers. They took me around and introduced me.

Pulling rickshaws is a man's profession. As a woman, did you find it hard to gain access to their personal lives?

There are moments when I would prefer to be a different sex on some stories. I mean, I really had to start slowly and visit often. I needed to be very respectful, especially because some of the deras were primarily full of Muslim men. And even if they weren't Muslim, it's strange to have this woman come with a camera at five o'clock in the morning when they're waking up. In the end, they were great, and they would recognize me in the city and wave to me as they were racing by.

So they ended up liking you. Did you get to know any of them very well?

There was one man that I had interviewed about two years ago, and I was so happy when I saw him again, because he was really special. His name is Mohammed Sakimen. He was a little bit older and a little bit smaller. Nobody really knows their exact age, but he thinks he's in his late 60s. He could have been older. He has this peace about him. Their lives are hard, and he still was always smiling and very content with his existence. I mean some of these guys have been pulling rickshaws for 45 years—it's amazing.

Given that you got to know some of them, did you ride in rickshaws?

I actually didn't feel comfortable riding in them that much, but I felt like I needed to. The drivers told me all these things—that they enjoy it. But at the same time, I don't know. It's hard. One time I actually had one of the rickshaw drivers get in, and I took him. It's really a creative design—the weight is distributed in a pretty incredible way. I just took him a little bit down the road. He wouldn't allow me to go too far. As inhuman as it may seem to an outside eye, many of the people I interviewed were really proud of what they do, and they feel proud that they have relationships with their customers. They said, "What's the alternative? What would we be doing if we weren't doing this?" On the surface everything looks one way, and once you start going beneath the surface you start to realize how beautiful and deep these relationships are—everybody is connected to each other in some way.

What happens when a rickshaw puller gets injured?

They keep working. I found this rickshaw puller who was just huddled up under his rickshaw, and I took him to a doctor because he looked miserable. The Samaritans have a health clinic twice a month that travels throughout the city. It's remarkable. They have to know where every hole is in the street to avoid getting injured.

You shot this during the monsoon season. Did that create any problems for you?

Well, one thing I learned is never wear flip-flops or sandals in the monsoon season. I actually thought before I went out, I shouldn't wear these. But it was completely dry. All of a sudden the sky darkened, and these torrential rains came, and the streets flooded. I fell into a hole and sliced my toe open, and I had to stop working. But it happened right outside a pharmacy, which was perfect. They stitched me up, and they put a plastic bag around [my foot], and I went out and hobbled around and tried to take more pictures.