Monthly Archives: May 2012

If Buddha taught photography

I am not religious. Spiritual yes, but not religious. If you ask this pseudo-Brahmin to recite a single mantra, he won’t be able to. But that to me means nothing. As I’ve said so myself, I am an iconoclast, but yet I believe there is a Divine Power that brings method to this madness. I’ve read a lot on religion, and deeply respect all of them. But for many reasons, too many to detail here, Buddhism has influenced me deeply, yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I am also a photographer. Just this morning as I was reading “In the Buddha’s words”, an anthology of discourses from the Pali canon, I concluded that if Buddha taught photography, his one and only lesson would consist of two words: “Yoniso maniskara”.

Without claiming to be an expert in theology (just as I don’t claim to be an expert in photography), if I were to distill the teachings of the Buddha, it would, in the final analysis, stem down to these two words. Buddha’s discourses begin by calling us to develop this faculty yoniso maniskara, which has many meanings and many interpretations in Pali, but the one most commonly accepted is “careful attention”. Buddha tells us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives, but instead pay careful attention to the simple truths that are everywhere available to us. If I were to put this in even more simple words, I would only use the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on the principles of mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are”.

For me, this is what photography is all about – careful attention. I’ve changed with the years, evolved maybe in some way, hopefully for the better as there always was a lot of room for improvement in me. With time (a euphemism for growing old(er)), I’ve realized that the best way in life is to be is in the moment. “The Power of Now” as Eckhart Tolle called it. I have an advantage – I can’t multitask, so I have no choice. Yet that didn’t stop me in many years to live in la-la land. But now, I am more conscious. I stare in awe even at the most mundane of things, I am aware, I feel. The only solution I have found to be in the “now” is to slow down. I live that moment. If I am talking to you, I am only there, while I am saying these words aloud as I type. If I am creating photographs, I am only doing that.

But the happiest times of my life are when it’s just the Three Musketeers in blissful solitude out of “civilization” as we know it, and the camera. We have no BlackBerry, no laptop, no internet, no newspaper to distract us. It is just the three of us – I, me, and myself. And the closer we three get, the more content we are. We live that moment – it’s called the joie de vivre. And when you live that moment, you see differently. And since this is about the Buddha, the single word that comes to my mind when I think of Him and reflect on His teachings is “compassion”.  Sure I can make a photograph with His face, as I so often have (in fact, you’ll find them on here too), but compassion can even be expressed through these images, which I made at the Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh, when I saw and felt it differently.

William Blake’s words from the “Auguries of Innocence” came to mind when I made this photograph: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, And Eternity in an Hour.”

I love to quote because like there are many more photographers better than me, so are there many more writers. This image reminded me of some more words that I believe in deep within my heart. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Yes, I do. Whatever I am, is You and Yours alone.

I stared unabashedly at the obvious, the Buddha’s compassionate eyes, feeling the serenity radiate, but from there, I went lower to his lips, always curved in that all knowing half-smile, amused and bewildered at our foolishness, yearning for either the past or the future, forgetting the present.

By the way, yoniso also means, literally, “to the womb”. The meaning is, getting to the core or essence of the matter, doing something with understanding of the pith and substance, understanding cause and effect, and maniskara simply means to keep something in mind. I interpret this to see and feel everything with childlike innocence and wonder and awe. Try it. You’ll feel the difference. You’ll live that moment. And when you live, you’ll create.

Tomorrow I am again off to the Himalayas again. I live, don’t exist. I am alive, not living. I am attentive, not absent. May my epitaph never read “He lived as if he were never going to die; he died as if he never lived”. I know now what He would have said. You know now what He would have said.

If Buddha taught photography.

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The Bridges of Madison County

Ecstasy. Not the pill. The feeling. If I could sing, I would – maybe Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the ceiling” would be the right choice; but sadly, my baritone doesn’t permit me. So I’ll write instead. I am this week’s featured member on Photocrati (www.photocrati.com), the people who power my website. And what a bunch of wonderful people they are! Each time I have had a glitch (all thanks to my non-geeky brain) they’ve been most understanding, not to mention patient. By the way, with a spot of immodesty perhaps, Photocrati provides WordPress solutions to 12,000+ photographers, and so for me, an amateur, to find his way there in just a month of being a member, is mind-blowing. Here’s the link: http://www.photocrati.com/featured-member-debesh-sharma/

Now while completing my profile for their website, I had to say who or what inspires me. Yes, Steve McCurry and David duChemin found their way there, but so did “The Bridges of Madison County”. This 1992 best-selling novel tells the story of a National Geographic photographer who visits Madison County to create a photo-essay on bridges in the area and discovers love while there. Of course, this never happened to me but the book, and later the film, did fuel an incurable romantic’s passion for photography.  Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep helped. My favorite part of the book is this:

“The night went on and the great spiral dance continued. He discarded all sense of anything linear and moved to a part of himself that dealt with only shape and sound and shadow. Down the paths of the old ways he went, finding his direction by candles of sunlit frost melting upon the grass of summer and the red leaves of autumn.

And he heard the words he whispered to her, as if a voice other than his own were saying them. Fragments of a Rilke poem, “around the ancient tower…I have been circling for a thousand years.” The lines to a Navajo sun chant. He whispered to her of the visions she brought to him – of blowing sand and magenta winds and brown pelicans riding the backs of dolphins moving north along the coast of Africa.

And he knew finally the meaning of all the small footprints on all the deserted beaches he had ever walked, of all the secret cargoes carried by ships that had never sailed, of all the curtained faces that had watched him pass down winding streets of twilight cities. And like a great hunter of old who has traveled distant miles and now sees the light of his home campfires, his loneliness dissolved. At last. At last. He had come so far…unalterably complete in his love for her. At last.

Toward morning, he raised himself slightly and said, looking straight into her eyes, “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all of those years, I have been falling toward you.”

For me, when I see whatever I see within my frame, I remember these words, I feel this way. My loneliness dissolves.  There is no “her”. There is only what is framed that I am falling toward.  I could’ve said this to these children whom I photographed in the Khumbu on my way to Everest:

Or I could say this to the mountains aloud hearing my echo along the valley:

Or I could whisper this to the clouds:

I have finally discovered that elusive feeling of happiness – it comes when I have the camera in my hands, and with the sound of the shutter, creating what I always was falling toward but never knew. I know the meaning now. I am free. I am home.

In these few words, you just read the story of my life:

“The Bridges of Madison County”.

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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

I am overawed, yet humbled. I’ve had almost 8000 hits on my photo blog since it went live on 15th April, and I was just wondering how and why did this happen in just one month? Not that I’m complaining, but I’m curious. Of course, many (or most) of my friends have done more than their fair share in creating a buzz about my website, for which I’m grateful.

But seriously, this is beyond all my expectations. I don’t write for anyone; I only write because it helps me think about the hows and whys and ifs and buts of my photography, and might help some others in the same boat as me, but that’s an adjunct. Though I did mention in my last post that I speak while I write, and for those of you who know me personally, you’d agree that I do love the sound of my own voice! So that’s another benefit.

Many people have spoken and written to me across the last month about my website – and in those conversations some recurrent critiques have been that I am very personal in my writing, too intimate, expose myself more than what is needed, serious more often than not, and of course, last but not the least (pun intended) too long.

Quite some years ago, I decided to make my life an open book. It’s easier that way. Whatever you ask me, you’ll get an answer. There are no boundaries, no limits. I broke those walls down. I am now more open and I feel happier. So yes, my blog will be personal, it will be intimate, because if I can’t be honest to myself which is whom I am writing for, then I’m not being true.  As the geeks in Silicon Valley would say, “WYSIWYG – what you see is what you get”.

I am serious. There is perhaps a carefully crafted veneer of self-deprecating frivolity around me, but scratch the surface and you’ll find intensity.  That’s the real me. Maybe I have this mask just to see who’ll bother to wait awhile and know the real me. But forget psychology.

Yes, I write long. I write the way I speak, just how I think. I ramble, I wander and I jump from topic to topic because at any one time, I have a million thoughts buzzing in my head.  I’ll go from one subject to another, which is a complete non sequitur, in just a second. Don’t tell me you weren’t warned. Perhaps that is why I have quintessential wanderlust, but yet can be comfortably alone in my solitude.

Without being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I am a sum of opposites, of contradictions, of yin and yang. I suppose all of us are in some way or the other. But I am honest enough to admit it, and my personality is reflected in the images I create, and in my words. I made both these photographs at Shanghai while strolling through the French Concession. This photograph is of an upmarket pseudo-French fine-dining restaurant; as I stood thinking of my composition, I couldn’t help but wonder as how we all at some point of time or the other, try and become what we’re not. Sino-French cuisine anyone?

Just across the street, not more than 100 feet from this restaurant, was this shikumen belonging to the old Shanghai.

So you see I saw both these sights, diametrically opposite, literally and figuratively, in equal measure and framed them, I daresay as they ought to be for what they represent, the meaning that they convey. The façade of the restaurant, its architecture, the gleaming glass windows, the chalk-and-blackboard imitation of a French street café menu is the China of today. The stark, imposing, cloistered, bare stone shikumen with closed windows and a barren tree complete the picture of yesterday’s China.

Opposites – coexisting, same as within me. I don’t know which of these opposites is better, and I don’t want to know either. They’re just different, and both yearn to be recognized and understood. And if you’re wondering how long did it take for me to ramble on from when I started writing to where I am now, about 30 minutes. I don’t edit, I just type while I speak. I do a spell-check though.  This is just the way I make photographs – without thinking too much, but with instinct, and with minimal editing. And since things happen to be working out just fine till now, I only need to remember:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

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A Brief History of Time

I read this book many years ago, but for some strange reason, suddenly this book came to my mind this afternoon as I was working on my photographs. How and why I don’t know really. What Amazon has to say about this #1 New York Times Bestseller is this: “A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God – where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.”

But what are the secrets at the very heart of this creation, where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected?

Without meaning to compete with either Stephen Hawking (or God), I believe that there are only two secrets to every creation. If you’ve just thought of “imagination” as being one of them, no it isn’t – imagination is obvious, a given, not a secret. Without imagination, there is no art. I could have quoted Picasso here, but I’d much rather use Einstein’s words who said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” And I know, I’m rambling.

Getting back to the secrets – the reason why it is so easy for me to say that there are two with utmost conviction is because I have just been arranging and rearranging my images in folders to better manage them, and so I’ve had a quick look at the tens of thousands I’ve made. As I viewed those photographs, especially the contrast between the ones I had made at the beginning of my image-making journey to how I make them now, I had this epiphany.

To illustrate those secrets, I went through my photographs and finally settled on two; I wanted two images: monochrome, simple, and stark, which could convey these secrets. So stop, observe, reflect – and think of just one single word which could convey the meaning of these photographs.

Here is the first photograph:

This photograph of butter-lamps was made by me at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. When I made the image of the lamps, I was standing alone in a darkened sanctum sanctorum, the windows of which were covered in soot, the air heavy with the fragrance of incense and oil, the sound of monks chanting their prayers in my ears. It wasn’t cold but I shivered, and I had goose bumps, as God came to my mind and I felt His presence. I thought of “faith”. I cannot help but quote Rumi who said: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.”

And here is the second:

The second image is of the mountainside en route to Phyang Gompa on the outskirts of Leh. Phyang was one of the villages affected by the flash floods of 2010, detritus of which still remains testimony to the havoc and destruction wrought, and on which I stood attempting to balance my tripod in futility. The monastery itself is just about a few hundred meters from where I made this photograph, and was untouched. A matter of faith perhaps? As I stood there in that valley of barren fields staring mesmerized at just granite, dwarfed by rock and mountain, the icy wind whistling past, I could only think of “endurance”.

Maybe you got the same (or similar) words, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you think differently. But these are my secrets, for photography, and for life. Faith and endurance. But does this mean, I won’t (or don’t) fail? I never said so. Of course I’ve failed often…at almost everything I’ve tried, work, relationships, photography, writing, but I never give up. I learn from what I did wrong, and I try, and try yet again. It’s frustrating, yes I know, but if I am to be true to my craft, my art, and beyond everything else, to myself, then these are my mantras to creation. Keep the faith. Keep walking.

And because I don’t give up, because I believe, because I have faith, as I go along that journey of creation, sometimes weary, sometimes not, I find myself truly blessed to witness and capture “a brief history of time”.

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Free Willy vs. Finding Nemo

Why would I name both these films together of all things? The only common thing between them is that they both did well at the box office, as you’d know for sure. But that’s where it ends – Free Willy is a 1993 film released by Warner Bros about a young boy who befriends a killer whale, named Willy. Finding Nemo is a 2003 American computer-animated film produced by Pixar Animation Studios, and released by Walt Disney Pictures, which tells the story of the overly protective clownfish Marlin who along with a regal tang called Dory, searches for his abducted son Nemo. And no, I am not going to describe the films in lucid detail anymore, so do read on.

If I were to summarize the plots of these films in just one word each, it would be “freedom” and “discovery”. Having said all of this, and lest I wander even further (which I am wont to), I shall remind myself that this is my photoblog, and not www.rottentomatoes.com. So this is where I get to photography.

In one of my earlier posts, “What you feel, not what you see” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/03/what-you-feel-not-what-you-see/), I wrote (sometimes I use the word “wrote” and at times, “spoke” because I do actually speak to myself while writing) about a signature style. How does one find a signature style? Is it needed? Is a genre to specialize in photography necessary for that matter? While the jury is still out on this one, let me say yes. As I see and study the works of all the so-called greats in art and literature, I see each with a signature style. Think Piccaso and cubism, Charlie Chaplin’s ubiquitous bowler hat, Gaudi’s tryst with modernism and the unfinished Sagrada Familia, Dali’s surrealism (not to mention his moustache), or even words such as Kafkaesque and Hemingwayesque.

Quite literally signatures don’t come with ease – my own experience says so. I experimented with quite a few before I settled on my scribble of now, and if I had my way, I would change that too. Unfortunately, my bankers and the passport office would not agree, but fortunately with photography I can keep trying till I find that elusive signature, and even then change it if somewhere down the line if I want (or need) to. Signatures start with learning to write, first in block script and then cursive, initially with a pencil and then pen. Continuing the analogy, photography is pretty much the same; I started with thinking so much (maybe too much) before making an image about aperture, shutter speed, focal length etc., that quite often I missed the shot. Now I don’t think (not literally) about these things, it comes more naturally and what I focus on is composition, about getting the elements in the right place, seeing the light and about making sure the image works. And as my handwriting matured along the way, so has my photography. Just as I see my handwriting of a few years back in utter disdain, I see my images pretty much the same way and think “What the …. was I doing?”. But then I realize that it’s not about where I was, it is about where I am; and it is not about anything else, but about this amazingly beautiful journey of learning how to write, and the signature will follow by itself.

I made these images last year when I went to Mt. Everest. This one is of Tabuche – it almost seemed as if the mountain was on fire with the rays of dawn, it reminded me of a volcano about to erupt.  I can’t even begin to explain the feelings that overwhelmed me as I witnessed this…as night changed into day and this magical moment appeared. At that time I had stopped, unable to climb any further – I was exhausted and the almost zero oxygen in the atmosphere at that altitude did nothing to help. As I saw this sight unfold, I began climbing again, with renewed resolve and energy, all tiredness forgotten. I’d posted this image on Flickr and someone criticized (not critiqued) it about how the angle should have been different, the image sharper etc. I didn’t respond at that time, but let me say what I should have said to him then: “Try hanging off the side of a mountain at almost 6000 m holding on to its side with one hand for dear life, the other holding your not-so-light camera with a not-so-light zoom, an icy wind blasting you and threatening to blow you off the face, while gasping for each breath at that altitude, hands and fingers frozen – then I’ll give you carte blanche”.

And this is my first view of Everest from Namche Bazaar just before sunrise – the unpredictable jetstream is to the right.

And I made this photograph of Ama Dablam, perhaps the most beautiful mountain I have seen, framed by prayers flags at Dughla at dawn.

None of these are technically or maybe even aesthetically perfect images, but then are there any really? What I can say for sure, is that not only for that 1/250th of a second or whatever duration that the shutter worked for, but for the entire time that I made these photographs then, and even later, I lost myself in the “freedom” of those moments; I wasn’t here, I was elsewhere. And by being there, lost in that land-with-no-name, I experienced what love is, what passion means to me, and that brought me closer to who I am. As I wandered aimlessly in that wantonness, I began to find myself – I learnt the meaning of “discovery”.

So go ahead and find yourself by losing yourself. This isn’t philosophy, it’s only about the journey – it’s about Free Willy vs. Finding Nemo.

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Heartbreak Hotel

I’ve been told that my blogs are too long, so I’m going to write this real short.

After a near cardiac-failure (read: hard-disk failure – those I suppose are synonymous for a photographer) last week, I was backing-up my images today on an external hard drive and came across this photograph which I had made in late January. I remember so clearly – that day had been disastrous to say the least, nothing seemed to be working out, everything was going wrong – an affaire de couer totally messed up. I was mad at the whole world (okay, okay, just her) and thought that maybe a photo shoot would put me in a better frame of mind (as it always does).

So I stepped out of my house with thoughts of wandering around and returning home with a CF card filled with great images, and my heart filled with gay abandon. The moment I exited my gate, I saw this picture of Sai Baba (an Indian guru, yogi, and fakir who is regarded by both Hindu and Muslim devotees as a saint) hanging on a tree. Now for the surprising bit – this particular tree is not more than 10 feet from my exit and I must have crossed it possibly a few thousand times, but yet I’d never seen this picture there.

For a photographer who prides himself on being observant, this is not only inexplicable, but also unpardonable. One out of two ain’t bad, so I won’t pardon myself, but explain I shall. That cold, winter day in January (Hemingwayesque?) I was feeling low, dejected, rejected, abandoned by God (yes, that is extreme emotion, I know) and how I felt “allowed” me to see this picture of a “discarded God” which I’d quite literally been blind to all these years. On that day, my innermost thoughts, feelings and emotions of angst and pain determined what I saw, and not the other way around. I’d written a blog earlier, “What you feel, not what you see” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/03/what-you-feel-not-what-you-see/). Maybe the opposite is true – is what we see, a manifestation of how we feel? Conundrum?

Since I said that this blog will be short, I will keep my promise, and will answer that question later. And if you don’t already know how I felt that day, here it is:

“Well, since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel.”

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P.S. I love you

Why would I want to write a love letter for the world to read? Why should I, an intensely private person with my feelings, declare undying love on my blog? Why must I, the doubtful one, say that yes, I do believe in love now? Only because this time, it is different, I feel it within – I am in love with my muse.

It was love at first sight with Ladakh, where on clear mornings, peaks of mountains part cirrus clouds and rise into azure blue skies. Beneath those skies lies a lost kingdom, Ladakh, which literally means “land of high passes” and is part fantasy, part reality. Out here the forces of nature conspired to render a magical, unrealistic landscape, a smorgasbord of extremes – both desert and blue waters, burning sun and freezing winds, glaciers and sand dunes – a veritable, primeval battleground of titanic forces.

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Ladakh is a forgotten moment in time, an anachronism if you must, with villages carved out of mountainsides, stupas reaching for the sky, chortens in fields, monasteries virtually hanging from cliffs and crags, their interiors filled with priceless antiques and art. It lies is isolated from the modern world, almost insular. Authentic to the core, it remains faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterized by intense spirituality. Rich traditions of Buddhism flourish in their purest form here, and it oftentimes has been referred to as Little Tibet. On most days as the first rays of the sun cast their crimson-gold hue on the mountains, monks sound large copper trumpets from the rooftops of monasteries, while in the courtyards below, still others in maroon robes and masks prepare for rites and performances. The music slowly rises to a crescendo; wafts of incense fill the air with fragrance, as another group of monks in ceremonial attire comes out to unfurl the “thangka” – a large painted scroll. Just another “ordinary” day in paradise, where the doorway to Heaven lies.

But I am straying from what I want to say. This isn’t a travelogue, but a photoblog. So now getting to business – why did I say “I am in love” in my opening proclamation, and not use the contemporary, “I’ve fallen in love”. Because the word “fall” implies that the process is in some way inevitable, uncontrollable, risky, irreversible, or that it puts me in a state of vulnerability. I only agree with the first adverb, not the others, as I am not really contemporary. In ways more than one, I am classical in my thought and belief, a purist at heart who bought his digital SLR much after the world had transitioned to bits and bytes, because I believed that photography is either about film, or it isn’t. I still much rather prefer the expression of B&W. Even today, I rarely, if ever, crop the images I create because I believe composition is within the frame, not in the digital darkroom. Strange, yes I know.

So in the classical world which I believe in, “love at first sight” was understood as passionate love, a kind of madness or, as the Greeks put it, theia mania (“madness from the Gods”), and was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover. Which is just what happened to me with my muse. Now a muse either exists in a photographer’s life, or she doesn’t; she ignites passion, infuses fire, ignores rules, embraces abandon. Without this freedom and desire, I can’t create. In a sense, my muse is the stone from which my sculpture, my art is created. She is there, everywhere, but yet not. To recognize her needs time, patience, a deliberate slowing down to see your own art; when that art comes from within, when it is the creation of your soul, your entire being, when each time you see it, you feel something stir inside, then you have found your muse. So now go forth, wander, and find your muse, whoever, whatever, wherever she might be. It is only then you will discover the meaning of creativity (I also wrote about this in small measure in my earlier blog “Explore. Dream. Discover” http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/explore-dream-discover/).

And by the way, the word “muse” itself comes from the ancient Greeks, who started with three muses and then went to nine. Eventually Plato named Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, as the tenth muse – the poetic muse, as she was known. (I also think of photography as poetic, visual poetry so to speak, which is why I write). Much after the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 invoked the Tenth Muse:

“Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth, Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.”

Well Mr. Bard of Avon, I found the eleventh. So there.

P.S. Ladakh, I love you.

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