Musings: India’s New Drug Subculture

When Enrico Fabian quit his job as an IT systems manager for a hospital in Germany to move to New Delhi, he wasn’t entirely sure what he would do when he arrived.

“I had a steady income, an easygoing job, great colleagues,” he explains, “but still there was something missing. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure I would pursue photography when the decision about India came up.”

His girlfriend at the time had received a job offer to work for an NGO in New Delhi, and Fabian saw an opportunity for change. Without any firm plans, he decided to go with her. “I sold everything I had and asked my company to give me one year of unpaid holiday.”

Nearly seven years later, Fabian was the first-prize winner for his photojournalism portfolio during FotoWeekDC—a photography festival in Washington.

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Mohammed, a 15-year-old addict, watches closely while an older addict prepares an injection. For young addicts the relationships to the older and more experienced users can mean safety and danger at the same time. Crime and violence among the users is quite common.

When I asked Fabian what sparked his interest in photography, he told me that since his late teens he’d had an interest in all forms of visual content. He discovered the work of James Nachtwey, and was extremely moved by “what he was willing to give in terms of spending time with people and in terms of the very rough areas he was working in.”

When Fabian arrived in India, he said he felt immediately at home. “Even if there were many things I found confusing, I felt very comfortable there, immediately. The visual input was overwhelming.”

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A 16-year-old boy prepares one of his daily injections. A so-called “set”, consisting of an ampule of Buprenorphine (semi-synthetic opioid), an ampule of Diazepam (Valium), an ampule of Avil (an antihistamine,) and two disposable syringes is sold for 50 rupees—a little less than $1. Regular customers of the local pharmacies sometimes even get a discount or an extra strong painkiller tablet for free

His decisive moment to pursue photography came while he was walking through a central part of New Delhi and heard someone screaming: “The masses of people opened up, and in the middle of the road there was this man whose right leg, his right foot, looked like it had been ripped off freshly … he was basically sitting there begging for money, screaming for money.”

Fabian was stunned by the fact that everyone, including himself, was just passing by. He decided to bring his camera there the next day. “I just felt the really urgent need of somehow documenting it.”

The man wasn’t there the next day, but Fabian still took photographs of the scene. Although not the quality he wanted them to be, he explains, “for me, it felt like, at least I did something, even if it was nothing.”

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Wasim, 16, lies on the floor of the family’s living quarter, his hands and feet tied behind his back, while one of his younger brothers watches. His mother tied him up, with the help of a neighbor, after arguing about money for drugs. Wasim is the oldest of five children, living in one of the many slum settlements in Delhi.
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A young girl, left, searches for something in a cupboard drawer, while her father’s friend, Pakori, injects drugs.
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A boy stands amidst the evening rush on a main road. The close-by Azadpur Mandi, one of India’s largest vegetable and fruit wholesale markets, attracts thousands of people every day, making it an ideal ground for both legal and illegal trafficking. The area is well-known for drug abuse and drug marketing.

I was curious to know what he thought was the most challenging part of working as a photographer in India. Fabian reflected a moment.

“What is challenging obviously is that you are confronted on a daily basis with the roughness of life, but I find it almost more empowering and more integrating because it gives me a constant reminder of how lucky I am. Actually, it really motivates me to continue the work.”

View more of Enrico Fabian’s work on his website, as well as on Facebook and Instagram.