Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Perfect Exposure

I never expected my photography and blog to be in the shape and form in which they are today. When I started writing here a few months back, I didn’t expect such heartfelt and honest comments and notes and emails from people. Those took me by surprise and continue to do so. Just a few days back, someone wrote a really nice mail to me and requested me to write every day. It touched me for sure, it made me happy and I said so as well to the person who wrote to me. Apropos the request to write each day,  I could have easily said “yes, I’ll do it”, but in all honesty I said, “I can’t because then it won’t be from my heart, it won’t be the real me, it’ll only be perfunctory.” I’ll then be doing it for all the wrong reasons – I’ll be writing for someone else, and not writing for myself which is what I always do. I photograph and write for myself because then they give me serenity and peace, and those feelings are then what I can reflect in turn. Is this being selfish? There is no easy answer to this, and it all depends on how you look at it, which is what this blog is about – what is the truth?

My writing has changed across the last three months since I started here – you can see the earlier posts if you want. And I’ll confess that some don’t really touch me the way they did when I wrote them. Sure I can edit them and make those “better” by any standards or even delete them but I don’t. On similar lines all my photographs are on Facebook, not just the better ones. I can’t, I won’t, I don’t even want to wish them away. But I let them just be there. They happened because of me. I am the cause. I am the reason.  This is just the way I can’t wish my past away, all the mistakes that I made, all the people I hurt. Is every photograph and word embarrassing, everything of my past regrettable? Not at all in the least – but we tend to live with the guilt of our follies and foibles carrying this burdensome crucifix for ages. So you see, we need to let it be, but we also need to let it go. The past “was” real, the present “is” the reality, the truth.

But again what is the truth? I made these two photographs of butter-lamps at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. I’ve described the scene before, but let me try and recreate it. When I made the images 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 “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.” 

On a more prosaic note, both these images might “appear” to be the same at the first superficial glance –but they actually aren’t. Appearances are not reality. As Van Gogh wrote in a letter to his brother: “One may have a blazing hearth in his soul and yet no one ever came to sit by it. Passers-by see only a wisp of smoke rising from the chimney and continue on their way.”

Yes, these were made at the same place, almost the same time, with the same light, yet these are different. Without meaning to get into the technicalities of photography which you know I don’t get into, the difference in them lies in the settings of the shutter speed, aperture (or how much the lens is opened or stopped down) and ISO (or film sensitivity) which form what is called the “exposure triangle”.  I can juggle these into myriad combinations to create different photographs, but as photographers would tell you, only one combination is the “perfect exposure”.  Again perfect for whom?

As an analogy, I’d interpret these terms to be the pace at which we see things around us, how much we open our eyes to observe and not merely see, and how sensitive we are to that which we observe. An imbalance in any of these settings results in a “not so good photograph”, a distortion of reality, a misinterpretation of the truth. So we need to slow down in life, observe deeply and with more sensitivity. Coming back to where we were, again both images are real, you might like one, and I the other.  Having said that, in all these unique combinations of speed, aperture and sensitivity there will be one that comes closest to reality, on which both you and I will agree. The problem lies in reaching that agreement. We are unwilling to let go of our positions, of our dominant (predominant?) ego. Remember how difficult it is to say with absolute brutal honesty: “I’m sorry, I was wrong, I didn’t understand you. Please forgive me.”

I might not agree with you but I must recognize and realize that your perspective is real as well. On my “About” page, I wrote this: “In the continuum of time and space, intermediate finite moments shape our being and our perception, our mental prisms. After passing through our own prisms of perception, each refraction of reality contains only some pure essence of the light, only an incomplete part. So we will always experience some aspect of reality, of the truth, but only from our perspectives. None will see the whole, complete light. These are musings from my own refraction.”

Photography for me is a passion, but it is also spiritual. Just as my writing is. I can’t photograph or write at the speed of my thoughts. So I slow down to think and speak aloud as I type, observing carefully the tumult within me subside, as I become more sensitive to who I really am. And as I’ve said before, I don’t edit, I don’t rearrange. I photograph and write with honesty each time – and by doing that every time with honesty, it becomes easier for me to express the truth, and for me to be me. Rhonda Byrne called it “The Secret” – you can call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, psychologists can call it auto-suggestion, I merely say this is the truth. Or if you’d prefer to, you can just call it:

The Perfect Exposure.

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The Photographer’s Heart

Michael Freeman is a great photographer and also the author of many books including “The Photographer’s Eye”, “The Photographer’s Mind” and “The Photographer’s Vision”. Since he hasn’t copyrighted “The Photographer’s Heart”, I’m using it for this blog.

This will (I think) be a longish blog (and as a caveat, this blog is for everyone, not for photographers only).  I’ll also break my own rule and name people in this – after all, it is my rule and my blog. I just realized that I’ve written about lessons for life that people I’ve met and photographed on my travels have taught me, but I’ve never said a word on the lessons for life I’ve learnt from those who taught (and continue to teach) me photography. This is my attempt to set that right.

Flashback two years – I’d just purchased my camera and happened to be chatting with Willy Foo (www.willyfoo.com), quite easily among the best photographers in Singapore.  In response to a question of mine on a photograph of his, Willy proceeded to explain to me in absolute depth and complete detail, the story and the technicalities behind it. This was quite surprising for me – the photography equivalent of the “cat out of the bag”. So I said to Willy: “How is it that you’re telling me everything?” I don’t remember his exact words in response, but in effect he said that he was not only a photographer, but also a teacher and this was his duty. In these two years I met many others – I disturbed them at odd hours, all sorts of times, requested unedited files to see how those are prior to processing, compared edited photographs, asked for critiques, wanted them to teach and help me, and not once did I hear a “no” in response. Some, of course, have had significant influence on my craft – Laxmi Kaul showed me the beauty of monochrome and of the portrait, a debt I shall never be able to repay. Recently I’ve connected with many immensely talented photographers because of my photo-blog (in no particular order): Glenn Capers (wingedoracle.1x.com), Heidger Marx (heidgermarx.com), Chris Faust (chrisfaustphoto.com), Bruno Chalifour (brunochalifour.com), Matthew Pace (matthewpace.photoshelter.com), Greg Buck (winkandblinkphotography.com.au), Roy Money (rwmj.smugmug.com), Kim Ayres (kimayres.co.uk) Panta Astiazaran (panta-astiazaran.smugmug.com), Marcus Thomas (marcthomasphotography.com), Laura Kaczmarek (atgimages.zenfolio.com), and many others, none lesser than those named. The reason I’ve added their websites is rather simple – when you see their photographs, you’ll soon realize that in comparison to theirs, my images are a child’s “crayon-on-the-wall” drawing compared to a Matisse. But all of them, without fail, made time for me. So who said the world is different today and we don’t have time for each other? And the amazing bit is that other than Willy and Laxmi, for the rest I am just a LinkedIN or Facebook profile. Yet they showed me the way – for which I am, and shall always be, grateful.

Lesson for life #1: Give. The most precious thing you have is your time – give some of it, more if you can, to another. Sometimes your time is more valuable to them than to you. Lesson for life #2: Help. Help however, with whatever you can. You never know how much of a difference it makes to the other. Lesson for life #3: Teach. The greatest gift you can give someone is knowledge. Sow its seeds and watch people blossom. You will never get a better reward ever. Lesson for life #4: Share. Let your experience and wisdom be free. And here the mathematicians will squirm (or turn in their graves) – when you share, you don’t divide – you multiply.

And to the naysayer mathematicians, let me narrate from the Bible, Matthew 14:15-21 (Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand):

“As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to Heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.  They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”

So these are lessons for life that photographers have taught me. But we aren’t any different from anyone else, which is why I said this blog is for everyone.  We have just the same insecurities as any of those I’ve made portraits of, the same pain, the same fear. We’re also just as good as our last image. Perhaps the only difference that I can think of is that we see things with a difference. Therein lies the paradox, the irony – in that difference that we see, is also our likeness.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Khalil Gibran)

“Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
I know what you mean,” said the little old man.” (Shel Silverstein)

“In times of grief and sorrow I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own. When you cry I cry and when you hurt I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods to tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life.” (Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook)

Have you never felt these emotions? There is no difference between me and the people I photograph, but for a fraction of a second, and the side of the frame that we’re at.  When I see them up close and personal through my lens, I am reminded that all I can do always is to love, and love unconditionally. Yes, at times it hurts, but that doesn’t mean I stop loving.

Mother Teresa once said: “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.” I’ll rephrase that and say: “I am a little pixel in the hand of a creating God who is sending a picture postcard to the world.” This is what I have to say. This is from:

The Photographer’s Heart.

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A non-zero sum game

I travel. I travel extensively. I photograph. I photograph extensively. I read. I read extensively.  I write. I write extensively.  Nothing about me happens in moderation. And yes, that also means I love deep, and it also means I hurt bad. I am emotional, sentimental and sensitive. That’s just the way I am, the way I am built.

I meet many people on my travels; I talk to many of them, and with almost all I create photographs of. But sometimes even without a conversation in words, we can speak the language of the heart. Each conversation, in words or silence, is a revelation, a story for me of their lives. I come back with many lessons, most of which I call my lessons for life. With this man I needed no words… all I needed to do was smile, and this is what I got in return. Much more than what I gave.

So you see I always come back richer than what I was before.

He reminded me of Cassandra Clare’s words in the “City of Glass”:  And he said, “You could have had anything else in the world, and yet you asked for me.” She smiled up at him. Filthy as he was, covered in blood and dirt, he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “But I don’t want anything else in the world”, she replied.

A few days later on the same trip in Himachal, I was heading up to the summit of a mountain when I met another shepherd (one of the many with whom fortuitously my paths crossed) who was lying in his tent, or should I say, just an open tarp. For those who have been following my blogs, this was not Dighli Ram as you’d see, but another shepherd. I was fascinated by how he was – an open tent in that cold weather, tired eyes, chapped lips, wearing his patched coat, covered with a blanket, his life’s belongings strewn around, embers of the night’s fire still glowing and smoking. I stopped to chat with him and make a few photographs. I was mesmerized.

As I lay down that night in my tent, I tossed and turned, not because I wasn’t comfortable in my 900+ down sleeping bag, but I was uncomfortable with how I’d been that morning with my shepherd friend. Sure I’d chatted with him for about 15 minutes and spoken to him about what he does, where he is from, his family, his children, but all the while when I was talking to him, my thoughts kept wandering to the summit of the mountain and I didn’t spend as much time with him as I should have – which means to my heart’s content. I followed my head, not my heart. I’d been selfish. I “did” barely enough so that I could photograph him, and nothing more. Our meeting had become transactional, a bargain for me. This happened to me after many years. Even now this bothers me.

And that is when my thoughts wandered – to the innumerable, regrettable times I have done such things in my life in the past, perhaps even worse; to the times I never held an old lady’s hand to help her cross the road because I thought her hand was dirty, to how I’ve only offered a seat in the bus or the tube to those I consider “worthy” of my place, to how I’ve never even given a second glance to that bare-bodied, skeleton of a man pulling a hand-cart in the oppressive heat of an Indian summer, to how I’ve never had any remorse about not finishing the food on my plate without thinking of those scavenging in garbage bins for a few morsels. Yes, I’ve done all that and more, but I’m honest enough to admit it openly. Somewhere along the way, I realized all this, my unfounded arrogance, my selfishness and I resolved to change, and change I did, which is why I still feel guilty about spending maybe five or ten minutes less with my shepherd friend. When there are aberrations of self-centeredness like this, I feel miserable and castigate myself – you could call this blog my confession.

But what is the connection between meeting the shepherd and my past? Lots actually. In all of these instances, I allowed myself to be the center of my thoughts. It would have been no biggie had I spent some more time with him – maybe shared a cup of tea. We could have laughed some more together, I could have allowed him to use my camera – he would have been thrilled. Sure I can still turn around and say “Oh well, next time maybe”, but there is no next time. These moments past will never come back. I need to remember carpe diem. I need to remember that there is a purpose even in why I write this today. I need to remember to thank the Lord for all my blessings. I need to thank Him for something as “taken-for-granted” that I can read, write and express myself here, and there are many who understand where I am coming from. I need to thank Him for all of you, my friends. So thank you God. I need to remember to make you and others all my reasons.

These words “all my reasons” reminds me of the final scene in the film “A Beautiful Mind” when John Nash, (played by Russell Crowe) during the Nobel Prize ceremony, says this to his wife: “I’ve always believed in numbers and that equations and logics lead to reason and after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask what truly is logic, who decides reason. My question has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back and I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I am only here because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”

This wasn’t planned – strange how this blog has ended with John Nash. It reminds me of the Nash Equilibrium and Game Theory. So I also need to remember that my life needs to be:

A non-zero sum game.

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To thine own self be true

I am a fan of Bryan Adams; I admire his music greatly, a few songs in particular, of which “(Everything I do) I do it for you” happens to be one.  Strangely I don’t believe in the lyrics of the song anymore though:  “Walk the wire for you, yeah I’d die for you…”. Why would I want to die for someone if I loved them? I’d do everything that I can to live for them.  The incurable romantic that I was (I still am, and shall continue to be), I’ve used these words in the past without knowing the real meaning because it “sounded good” you see, a declaration, nay a proclamation of my “true, eternal” love which was eventually rather short-lived! And that is the difference now. I don’t use these words anymore, I won’t use these words anymore.  I no longer am who I “should” be. I am just me. But this transformation didn’t happen overnight.

I clearly remember it was the summer of 2001. I had just begun reading Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller “The Power of Now”. I flipped open the book and there on page one, these words stared back at me: “I cannot live with myself any longer. This was the thought that kept repeating itself in my mind. Then suddenly I became aware of what a peculiar thought it was. Am I one or two? If I cannot live with myself there must be two of me: the ‘I’ and the ‘self’ that ‘I’ cannot live with. Maybe I thought, only one of them is real”.

I stopped there. Page one. This book didn’t need to be read anymore. I felt a sense of déjà vu, not perhaps as extreme as Eckhart Tolle felt, but still.  As I thought about the meaning of these words, I realized I’d been on a journey becoming someone I wasn’t really, and for many reasons. I also realized I had to find myself, the “self” I had lost along the way.  There began my journey, my quest.  Many years, many miles down this path, photography happened to enter and become the center of my life in 2010. And that’s when there was focus, that’s when I saw light (pun intended).

What photography has allowed me is a retrospective, a means to reflect. The photographs I have made, the images I have created are milestones along this road of discovery I have traveled. My photographs are the essence of how I felt at that time, of who I was then. And I am my most critical, my harshest critique – not only of my images, but also of myself.  I’m not being self-deprecating here; merely factual and honest.

For instance, about two years ago when I’d just about started photography, I happened to be selected as an official photographer for the Audi Fashion Festival at Singapore. This was also at a time when I needed an identity; I wanted to be called a photographer. All my profile pictures on Facebook were with a camera, some with a bazooka-sized lens. Obviously to be in the middle of gorgeous women photographing them made me thrilled, absolutely ecstatic.  Sure I was attracted to the glamor, the glitz, the bling. We just don’t say it, but this was every man’s dream come true – to be a fashion photographer! It was a recognition of, should I say, talent but I didn’t even think about that. Far from it. All I could think of was the amazing models I’d be in the center of. Here are some of the photographs from that evening:

Now these are technically sound, not perfect, but sound photographs. You’re free to disagree though. I was delighted with the results then, but not any longer. You know why? Because today I look for something else in a photograph which these don’t have in the least. These images are ersatz, plastic, and artificial. They have no soul, they don’t strike a chord, they don’t touch me deep within, they don’t make me laugh, they don’t make me cry, they don’t make me feel.  I don’t remember them, and I won’t miss them when they’re gone.

Along these years, I also learnt the meaning of solitude. Being alone allows me to be reflective, to be meditative, to see all that I’ve done wrong, to find out what matters to me most, to figure out what should I do with my life. These are not easy things to do, easy questions to ask – believe me; sometimes you get answers you never wanted to hear. But someone did say “bitter truth”. These moments of solitude are primordial. As the Upanishads state succinctly in Sanskrit: Tat Tvam Asi , which can be translated as “Thou art that,”. The meaning of this is that the Self – in its original, pure, primordial state – is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the origin of all phenomena in this cosmos. I simply interpret this to mean that all the answers are within, not without. I’ve just returned from the Himalayas slightly less than a week now. These are some photographs with soul I made while I was wandering in such solitude:

Having seen it all, there is determination, yet a twinkle and mischief in the eyes.

And here is steely grit, purpose and perseverance writ large.

And now vulnerability, tenderness, compassion and care.

These people, these photographs remind me of JRR Tolkien’s words from “The Fellowship of the Ring”:

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.” 

Give me these “ordinary” people to photograph any day, every day. I’m happier with them. This is who I really am, and yes you can call me “ordinary”. I’m just being myself, not how I “should” be or how you’d rather have me.

To thine own self be true.

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The Lord is my Shepherd

In our high-speed and high-tech world, walking has sadly and unfortunately fallen out of favor.  “Pedestrian” is almost derogatory – a euphemism for something prosaic, rather ordinary and commonplace. Yet, walking with intention, walking for a purpose has deep roots. Australia’s aborigines walk during rites of passage, while Native Americans conduct vision quests in the wilderness; for many centuries, millenia perhaps, people have walked the Camino de Santiago, which spans across the breadth of Spain. I recollect having read someplace: All these pilgrims place one foot firmly in front of the other, to fall in step with the rhythms of the universe and the cadence of their own hearts. As one foot walks, the other rests. The fact of doing and being comes into balance. Remember “The Pilgrim’s Progress” written by John Bunyan?

I am one such pedestrian, one such pilgrim, and I am just back from walking in the Himalayas across a week and more, where I met another pedestrian, albeit slightly different. This is the story of Dighti Ram, a shepherd. At about sunset, I saw him standing in front of his dilapidated stone wall-and-tin roof shed staring out at the pasture; having nothing left to do but settle into my tent for the night, I walked up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few photographs with him. As I usually always do with the people I photograph, I chatted with him for a while even before I pressed the shutter. Why do I talk to people before I photograph them? One for reasons of photography: it puts them at ease and makes for more natural portraits, and two for selfish, personal reasons: always, each and every time without fail, I have walked away from such conversations with “so-called ordinary” people having (re)learnt invaluable, indelible lessons of life.

Dighli Ram is a 69 year old man who has tended to his goats and sheep across the last six decades in the sometimes verdant, mostly freezing, but always beautiful mountains of the Dhauladhar, the outermost fringe of the Himalayas. He has about 300 goats and 400 sheep, large tracts of farmland, and a house leased to a company, bringing his net worth to $120,000, wealthy by any standards in India. But this isn’t about Dighti Ram’s balance sheet or his assets – I’m just putting elements into context.  As we got conversing, I questioned if he ever got tired of doing the same thing day-after-day, walking the same stretch of land for sixty years, or for that matter did he compel himself to do it so that he could get more wealth, more property? His answer was to quote the Bhagavad Gita: “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction.” Lesson #1.

He invited me into his shed to share a cup of tea, and later made me promise to come and stay at his farm whenever I am there next – a promise I shall abide by. Now Dighti Ram didn’t invite me because he assessed me by my business card, my professional network on LinkedIN or my salary. His innate simplicity allowed him to invite me without questioning: “What’s in it for me?” Most of us believe that to give, we first need to have something to give. This is paradoxical and the trouble with that is, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Nowadays, people know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” We have forgotten how to value things which don’t have a price tag – things (or feelings) such as empathy and care and compassion and love.  When I’m reminded of this, I realize that true generosity doesn’t start when I have something to give, but rather when there’s nothing in me that’s trying to take.  The more I am with such people, the more I learn to love unconditionally. In our dominant paradigm, Hollywood has insidiously co-opted the word, but the love I’m talking about here is the kind of love that only knows one thing – to give with no strings attached. Purely. Selflessly. Lesson #2.

His face lit up as he, the proud father, told me of his sons – one a shepherd like him and the other a TV-and-radio technician. Then with a forlorn, longing, faraway expression he told me of his wife who tends to the farm and harvest all alone, as he roams with the herd in search of pastures and how he misses her whenever he is away even at this age (which of course was utterly romantic). It reminded me of Kuan Tao-Sheng’s evocative and expressive words: “ You and I have so much love, That it burns like a fire, In which we bake a lump of clay, Molded into a figure of you and a figure of me. Then we take both of them and break them into pieces, And mix the pieces with water, And mold again a figure of you and a figure of me. I am in your clay, You are in my clay. In life we share a single quilt. In death we will share one coffin.” Yes, for all of us, our love, our happiness, our pride is alike; we share the same fears, cry the same tears. The more I spoke with him, the more I became convinced how in the tangle and weave, warp and weft of the Universe, we are all different yet just the same. Lesson #3.

Somewhere down the line in the course of our conversation, we started talking about wildlife in the mountains and he told me of the number of times he had sighted bears and leopards. So I asked if his herd had ever targeted by wild animals to which he said: “Yes, but I am safe as I have a rifle” upon which he proudly brought out a battered and bruised worn-leather rifle case, assembled his rifle and posed with it.

My smartass attitude got the better of me and I said: “But do you really think this small-caliber, muzzle-loading rifle is good enough to protect you against mountain bears or leopards?” – to that he just smiled at my ignorance, looked down at the ground briefly and then to the sky for a bit, and said softly almost in a whisper, “But He is always there for me.” Which is when the 23rd Psalm of the Old Testament came to my mind:

“The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

So thank you Mr. Shepherd, for reminding me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd”.

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