Monthly Archives: April 2012

Who am I?

The answer isn’t on the “About” page, no it isn’t. And just in case you’re wondering, I don’t intend to become a philosopher and even remotely attempt to answer this question which has troubled many more illustrious sorts from Aristotle to Albert Camus. And no, I won’t be a New Age Guru either.  This question actually came to my mind when I was merely wondering why people should, or would want to, read my blog. What would they be thinking? Am I a Pulitzer award winning photographer or a Booker prize author? Am I delusional? Related to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or is this a prolonged Prozac moment? If your answer to my rhetoric is “none of the above”, then do continue reading.

I am just the regular guy next door who had not a cent when I bought my camera. I was in business school at that time. It was just after I graduated and I was doing research at Singapore with a Professor whom I requested for advance on my stipend and then used it for an SLR. And because I spent my entire stipend (it wasn’t much you see) on a measly camera (yeah right) I missed meals because I had no money to eat. How many people would do that? I am just this regular guy next door who after he got his camera studied (deliberate use of the word) photography and proceeded to win a competition within a month of my “miss-your-square-meal” acquisition. Of course, I promptly used the prize money to buy some more photography equipment. I am just this regular guy next door who in the middle of an Indian summer when it’s pushing almost 50 degrees Celsius steps out to photograph because the color of the sky is absolutely amazing. If I confess that I am this regular guy, what then is my claim to fame?

My claim to fame is this passion of mine, my burning desire to create images that are an indelible part of the inner me, which are from, and of my soul. My claim to fame is also my openness to share this journey with you, my trials and tribulations both, my angst and happiness in equal measure, so that you can see the world through my heart but as it appears through my lens. My claim to fame is that I am a voyeur as a photographer but also an exhibitionist because I am unabashedly naked with my feelings in my images and what I have to say here.

Yes, there are many better photographers than me, I agree. Also an equal number of writers, but I daresay that list gets rather pruned only because I do both with passion and honesty. On 14th March 1839, Sir John Herschel, in a lecture before the Royal Society of London, made the word “photography” known to the world. But in an article published on 25th February the same year in a German newspaper called the Vossische Zeitung, Johann von Maedler, a Berlin astronomer, had used the word photography already. The etymology of the word photography derives from the Greek photos, genitive of phos, “light” and graphé “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “writing or drawing with light”. So in a matter of speaking, I am writing as I create, and I also create when I write. Sometimes though my writing may not be legible even to me – this photoblog is an attempt to set things right.

A recurrent theme in my writing will always be “creation” – the process itself. What I felt, what stirred within me. It is that emotion which I will share. My website is in itself a classic example of my passion; I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t make money from either my photography or writing, far from it. But I have done this only because I believe that it’ll help me create better, and maybe a few others along the way as well. As an aside, I had a business blog (still do in fact) but I stopped writing there because my heart really wasn’t in it. As you can see, it wasn’t because I can’t write.

Now for this photograph – sure I can describe it using the golden mean and rule of thirds and diagonals and converging and leading lines etc., but more than that I should be able to express what I felt at that moment and describe it to you.  I believe I can, and I believe you can too, if only you learn to see with your heart.  As I crossed Choglamsar just off Leh, I passed by these chortens in a field. I paused and stared – which is what I always do when I am awestruck. What I witnessed was raw beauty, barren, yet pristine and pure. A dramatic sky. I felt and believed that the presence of God is everywhere you go, His beauty manifested in many forms. The paths along the parched earth in the photograph are all in different directions yet moving towards the chortens, the Universal Truth in many shapes, of many names. What I also felt was that as you move along this path, you will grow in stature from a small bush to a stoic tree as they are in the photograph. It is then that you see and experience the real expanse of the Universe, the vastness of the sky, the size of mountains. It is then that you’re closer to the Self, closer to your own being.

And for this photograph, I only want to use the words of Hermann Hesse, “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being”.

Isn’t it much better than saying “Oh, this is a nice snap”. I detest the word “snap” by the way. It is just too frivolous for something as beautiful as an image. It trivializes creativity. It reminds me of snapping my fingers or worse still, snapping at someone. So when I write about photographs that I’ve made and which have really touched me within, it helps me think, lets me see my images over and yet over again, allows me to introspect and figure out in words what was it that moved me within, what stirred my soul, what stayed with me. It is then that I get an inch closer to the answer.

Oh, what was the question again? Who am I?

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Eureka

I’ve designed my own website from scratch and had it up and running just this evening. Sure It has taken me the better part of the last two days to learn web-design from knowing it as well as an Eskimo is fluent in Swahili, almost sleepless nights with a few hours of turbulence, tossing and turning, missed meals, but though I am bleary-eyed, quite contrarily I am also wide-eyed and bushy tailed. I am really happy, and let me write about this. But then why would I want to write about my escapade (adventure?) of designing a website in my photoblog? What’s the similarity you might say? Well, lots actually.

When I saw the predesigned template for my blog, I wasn’t happy. Now don’t misunderstand me. It did my job, and it did it pretty well; I wanted to only write after all, and upload some images and albums and galleries. The usual shindig. But yet, the absence of zing nagged me. I kept pestering the website designers to tweak this, add that, change this a little, adjust that a lot. I knew what I wanted and tried to tell them, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand. This happened for quite a while. That’s when I gave up on the geeks. It’s pretty much the same thing when I make an “ordinary” photograph. When I see the image, even though it might look “good” and does the job (like my website did) of “capturing the moment”, I don’t feel happy, that feeling of being wowed is missing. Sure I have that “beautiful-by-all-standards” photograph with tack sharp focus or great bokeh either which way, amazing color, balanced contrast etc., but there is no emotion. It’s a snapshot in time, not a photograph, not a creation. It just doesn’t move me. It’s the difference between ersatz and real.  I want to be moved, whether to tears or to unbridled laughter doesn’t matter. But touch me within.

And why couldn’t the designers understand what I wanted? Maybe my language was different, I didn’t know techno-speak, or maybe I couldn’t express what I needed. Again such déjà vu with photography. Ever so often people who see images I create don’t really appreciate those I find the best, and for some strange reason I can’t fathom what they find in what I would categorize as “ordinary”. Perhaps I couldn’t really express what I felt, or needed to say in my self-classified “best images”, and maybe in others there was a language that I didn’t understand, yet captured by accident. But let me not be so harsh on myself, maybe I did express what I felt, but people couldn’t understand me; so if they be my audience, then I need to speak to them and for them.  Or should I really? I think not – I need to be true to myself which is why I designed my website on my own (returning to the subject at hand now, albeit briefly). I don’t make photographs for others, I do it for myself. If people like what I make, great; if not, that too is fine.  People found my last website nice, but I wasn’t happy and it was for me after all. I don’t write or photograph professionally, and certainly not for others. I only do it because I love it. To thine own self be true.

Once the decision to do my own web design was made, the rest fell into place. What came next?  I needed inspiration. I’ve written about this before I went to Ladakh in my post “This too shall pass” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/this-too-shall-pass/). I studied websites of photographers, I looked at design sites, fashion and art for inspiration to get the creative juices flowing.  Just what I did before I left for Ladakh to photograph. I studied before I went there. I saw photographs. I read about Buddhism. For no rhyme or reason, I saw maps of Ladakh. I had the times of sunrise and sunset with me. I thought of which places I would see on what day, and which were the best points-of-view and times to create images of those sights.  I didn’t do what most would do – use the easy way out, and accept what you get, either a pre-designed web template or a snapshot in lieu of a photograph. I needed to create, and so I did.

Then I made notes on what I want within my website: which pages should I have, which images to upload, what hyperlinks to use, how should the content look and so on. This is precisely what I do before I go on a photography trip. I make notes. Where do I go? When? What do I want to make a photograph of? What is this place about? What can I express though my image which either hasn’t been shown before or if it has, then how can I be different?  Even before I got to the programming and designing bit, I planned and much on the same lines, before I step out to make photographs, or attempt to touch my camera, I create. With a pen and a piece of paper, I create.  Now for this photograph which I made from the air just prior to landing in Leh. For my inbound flight, I knew I should be on the starboard side of the aisle because as the plane would bank in for the final approach, I would have the Indus on my side with the sun just rising behind me and that would make for hopefully a beautiful landscape if all else went well.  So that is where I checked in, front-row, window seat please, 2D thank you. And I didn’t forget my circular polarizer. Call it luck if you must, but as this apocryphal quote goes, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Well you could argue that with all of this, I would lose spontaneity. No sirrie, not at all. While designing my website, and inputting codes and script in HTMLS, CSS, PHP and the works, I sometimes got unexpected results. Not necessarily bad, but unexpected. Having said that, I needed to know why what happened, did happen. So I explored, and investigated and learnt even more. Same is the case with photography. You see I could never cater for that errant cloud coming across the sun and spoiling that postcard sunset shot which I had planned for after climbing to 4550 m. But because I had planned, I knew of another vantage point near at hand. I was in a sense the pilot who knew an alternative route in bad weather. And because I had failed and experimented and tried, I knew a blurred photograph in low light isn’t necessarily bad, but it needs to be deliberate. The photograph that follows was a spontaneous one… as an interesting aside, this couple was very happy to have their photograph made and this gentleman did pretty much the entire pre-photo op routine including adjusting his headgear, and yes, straightening the badge on it too. There was another lady sitting next to them in a rather straightforward outfit who I sort of “forgot to include” while composing the frame. Isn’t that defined as spontaneity?

Even after all of this, some cynics (and critics) would be ready with the repartee “I don’t need all this”. To this I daresay, don’t use a euphemism for being mechanical about photography. Remember the only mechanism in this whole process is the camera! Because the moment it clicks, you become a creator, an inventor.

And you should rightfully then be able to say “Eureka”.

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Explore. Dream. Discover

After a week in Ladakh, I feel the magic! I am happy. I was thrilled to hold my camera in my hand in Ladakh, morning, afternoon, evening. Yet I had been despondent same time seven days back, really miserable. Everything seemed right with photography, yet all wrong with my photographs (or at least so I thought). I was feeling blue when I wrote my last blog post, and promised to write about what worked for me, what allowed me to get into the creative groove from the creative rut, a subtle but evocative turn of phrase (and mindset).

All I needed really was to get out of where I was – the physical space. My environs had made me mentally claustrophobic, emotionally constrained. I’d stopped feeling. For me, the process of making a photograph, of creating an image is heartfelt…it’s not just about putting my viewfinder to my eye and pressing the shutter release button to capture whatever fills that frame. A photograph for me is a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But I’ll write about the photographic story some other time. For now, let’s return to what happened. When I kept visiting the same places, seeing the same people, the same things where I was, over and yet over again, I suffered from cognitive blind spots. I was inured, and for that reason, “trigger shy.”

I literally needed to get out for some fresh air. In the rarified high-altitude atmosphere of Ladakh, my brain may have been oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated. I felt everything with innocence, without thought, logic or reason, but through the awestruck eyes of a child seeing that brand new toy. My singular goal was to engage “photographic gears” of the heart, the eye, and the mind (in that order) so that better photographs could follow. I needed to feel again.

Working in unfamiliar territory (literally) often provides insights to me and offers new ideas and challenges. Again, this gets my brain working, solving problems, and leads to new approaches. For example, I don’t focus on any specific genre, but I rather create images of people, places, and things that stir me within, that make me feel deep inside long after I have made that photograph. But in Ladakh, I spent a long time photographing locals, talking to them, and that almost compelled me to look at photographic composition in ways that I hadn’t before.

On my first day in Ladakh, I was driving by when I saw this old man sitting on a broken-down chair in a junkyard by the roadside. I crossed him and went past for maybe about half-a-kilometre or so when I felt something tugging at my heart and wanting me to go back. So I turned around, went back, smoked a cigarette with him, and made a few photographs of Mr. Twinkling Eyes. Isn’t it strange how the eyes don’t have to be wide open for the universal language of an indulgent smile to be recognized? This place was en route to where I was staying in Leh and I crossed it each day. Every single day after that I watched out for this old man, but never saw him again. I’m glad I went back.

Lesson learnt – shoot at sight!

I experimented. I made some great images, and I daresay some masterpieces; and that was just because I felt free, felt liberated – there were no limiting boundaries of the “same old, same old”. I talked to people, listened to their stories. I created pictures of the same subject in many ways – over- and under-exposed, black-and-white and color, in focus and out of it. I had no rules, but for an imposition I placed on myself – I wouldn’t crop any images later. This ensured I walked (and slowly at that) to get the composition right, which also meant I saw and felt much more. When I moved physically, I saw my subject with a more open mind and fresher eyes. I approached the entire process of making a photograph in new ways and along those ways I learnt much about my photographic vision. My idea was to remember that there are a million ways to look at even the most “ordinary” subject. Having said that, I actually don’t believe that there are any “ordinary” subjects, just photographers with ordinary vision – I’d used that word, figuratively speaking, to put across a point. As Emerson profoundly observed, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament”.

Of course it helped that I was surrounded by conventional and classical beauty. And also beauty in the form that photographers with visual acuity see – the wayside sacrament variety. I had found my muse. I had discovered Ladakh. As an illustration, this photograph of prayer flags is possibly “ordinary”, but for me it has a meaning as it would for everyone who has been to places such as this. Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally woodblock-printed with texts and images, they have Buddhist Sutras inscribed which were then transmitted to other regions of the world by the wind. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by devas against their adversaries, the asuras. These horizontal prayer flags, called lung ta (meaning “Wind Horse”) in Tibetan, are in five colors representing the elements, and arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolizes sky/space, white symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. But for me the meaning is rather simple. Serenity. Belief. Faith. Hope

And so yes, that too did pass. All because I stepped out. Thank you Mark Twain for telling me that. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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This too shall pass

I’ve been feeling this way for a few days now. This dry spell is as if I was in the middle of the Sahara, but I suppose all artists, including photographers, go through it at some point of time or the other. I seem jaded, I seem spent. Is that why I’m focusing more on writing? The creative rut is obvious: it seems to be staring at me in my face, and I don’t like what I see. I have no ideas for new images; I am making photographs of things that don’t really interest me; I find myself photographing the same people, places and things, in the same “old” ways; I am finding my computer slow, my mouse unresponsive, and Photoshop a waste of time. I am finding fault with every photograph that I make. I am dreaming of changing my camera and other gear. In fact, I don’t even want to write about this, but I am.

Thank you Google for letting me know that “photographers block” hasn’t afflicted me alone. I found a psychologist called Graham Wallas. He talks about the phases of the creative process. Now Graham introduced one of the first models of the creative process in 1926, which happens to be en vogue still with the customary additions, deletions, and year-on-year reinterpretations. In Wallas’ model, the creative process has five distinct phases: preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification.

The first phase is preparation – defined as the moment when a goal is first set, generally as a question e.g. “What would be a better way to capture the landscape of the Indian Himalayas?” or maybe even more specific, such as, “How do I make a unique photograph of the Zanskar river in Ladakh?” For me the question is difficult, or rather the answer is: “What is my signature style?”

Next comes incubation – a time of subconscious reflection on how to get those photographs i.e. figuring out the answers to the questions. This is when the brain is working on the problem, and sometimes, it’s easy to confuse incubation with creative block. For me the important thing is to recognize that real inspiration does not come without serious contemplation of the issue at hand, and for this I need time. I need to stimulate my brain as much as possible so that it can come to the best, most informed solution. I need art, photography, paintings. I need to change my frame of reference. This is what I’m doing, but it needs patience, and yes, it is frustrating. Patience is not my forte.

After that is intimation (hopefully), the idea of which is pretty simple, even though it seems like divine intervention. I might get the feeling that the solution is “coming to me,” because, in fact, it is.

If all goes well, illumination follows; this is the moment when Archimedes jumped out of his bathtub! Illumination is the “eureka” moment. It’s the breakthrough, the instant when I’ll have a clear answer to my questions. I also realize it may come when I least expect it, while I’m in the shower or buying groceries, but it’s the result of a lot of work on the part of my faithful old brain.

The final phase is verification where my “lightbulb” idea will be confirmed. Because moments of inspiration come and go, I need my photographer’s notebook for my thoughts e.g. the next time I’m out on the street, stop down the lens, minimize ISO, force a slow shutter speed and make B&W photographs of scenes which dynamic motion. I have to remember that some thoughts may seem like radical ideas, but they’re also the kinds of things that will pop out when much time has been spent in trying to resolve a problem.

This is not new to me. I’ve done this before when I’d had enough of the “usual” sunsets, though at that time I didn’t ponder too much on this, simply because I didn’t know enough. Maybe too much theory on rules also obstructs creative license. In this photograph (one of my first after I “started” serious photography), for instance, I didn’t think too much. It is only now that I find I made it such that the railing of the pier was along the primary diagonal adding dynamism to the image and led the eye to the cabana and the sunset with radiant, golden hues. Classic Rule of Thirds.

In all of this, I guess if I could be creative then, I will be creative again. The important thing for me to believe is that creativity sometimes needs time to find a way out of the doldrums. I need to believe that creative block, for any artist is not permanent, much less fatal, and doesn’t need a medical policy. Note to self – quit being worried.

But what’s the solution I wondered? Again, Google to the rescue. From Project 365, to just point-and-shoot, to venturing into new genres, boot-camp photography, to studying the master’s, playing with toy cameras, old-school photography assignments, the full Monty – nothing has been left out. What’ll happen to me? I really feel like I lost my creative mojo. You would think I could come up with an answer – something, anything. Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

I don’t quite like this feeling of being in an inter-planetary galactic space at all. I feel restless. I need inspiration. I’m off to Ladakh for a week day after tomorrow. I’ll tell you what works when I get back.

And oh yes, Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.

This too shall pass.

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