Monthly Archives: July 2012

No Man Is An Island

A few days back I stepped out to photograph one of those ubiquitous construction sites mushrooming all around Delhi to make a few B&W portraits. I had crossed this particular site quite a few times and for some strange reason I wanted to go there even though there wasn’t anything really “special” about it. Just before this I’d gone to Nizamuddin Dargah at Delhi when I made this photograph of an old man, a shopkeeper just outside the mosque there.

And I made this other photograph there as well, of a butcher with gentle eyes. It reminded me of a paradox – blood-stained hands and kohl-lined eyes…

Now getting back to the construction site – I spent a few hours there chatting with the workers and laborers and doing some photography. I photographed children. And then when I got back home and as I started processing my photographs, I began to think, why did I go there almost mechanically without much thought? Why not elsewhere, some other place classically beautiful? Why am I so intrigued and fascinated by people whom we call poor? I do it ever so often, as I did at Nizamuddin and then here. Here is one of the photographs I made of a young child who was washing his clothes in barely a trickle of water…

And here is another one of a baby in arms whose mother dutifully rubbed her face with powder just before I photographed her (just as I’m sure my mother got me ready for a photograph too)…

The answer to why I go to such places kept eluding me till I had my Eureka moment this morning when my aunt commented on a photograph that it made her cry. And someone else wrote to me and said that my images were Steve McCurry-esque. Now don’t misunderstand me, this is not self-adulation, I’m just stating what happened. I’ve also had people tell me what I write is tripe and trash which too is fine. And of course, I’ve had someone say to me (without knowing me) that I am being hypocritical when I write. That also is fine. Unfortunately these aren’t comments, but emails – if they were comments, I’d approve those too.

So yes, the answer came to me. I do it because these people have affected me within the deepest recesses of my heart. If I were unmoved by them, I wouldn’t ever have been able to create a photograph than can move someone to tears or for that matter compare my photographs to Steve McCurry, however distant a dream his art and craft is for me. These are people I am attracted to; they move me within, they affect a part of me which somewhere along the way had accepted that I will never be able to make a difference in their lives – how wrong I was! I love the stories that I hear from them – of trials and tribulations, of their daily grind, of how they treasure what we take for granted. I put my arms around them because they are no different from me and they need to know I care. I love sharing a meal with them sitting in the dust. I spend time with them because I would rather be there than with superficial people who can only discuss how comfortable the spring-collection Ferragamo loafers or Jimmy Choo’s are, while being blind to those walking barefoot on a tar road on an Indian summer day. I photograph them because this keeps me in touch with reality as it exists, not how I would wish it to be. I create images of them because it makes me more sensitive to their angst and pain, something we tend to ignore.

As I was photographing them, someone said about my camera that these are rich people’s toys. Well, yes I am rich in compare, but more often I think that those who don’t have what we possess in material terms are far richer than us. Can you see his toys?

But beyond his toys, what he has in his eyes are happiness and contentment – these really can’t be bought with cash in a shopping mall.

I repeat their stories to myself almost each day without fail, I relive those times whenever I see these photographs. What they want is recognition. What they need is empathy, not sympathy. What they desire is dignity. What they treasure is respect. These are the mantras I remember. And if in all of this, you hear their stories from me and you pause even for a moment and reflect and feel, then my photographs mean something else, and take on a different dimension entirely. Because then I am not only a photographer, but also a storyteller. And to complete this story that I am narrating now, let me use these words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own,
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know,
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

The world will be a much better place if you remember that those bells toll for thee as:

No man is an island.

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A wayside sacrament

I must confess I have some other thoughts in my mind which I’m going to write about later, but as I was trying to place everything buzzing around in my head into some semblance of coherent order, I thought about beauty. And this blog isn’t so much about what I have to say, but on what I’m thinking at the moment. Why is it so difficult for us to find beauty? Why do we need to look in all those hidden corners other than right in front of our eyes to see beauty? Why is it impossible to recognize beauty in all that we call “ordinary”?

I don’t ever remember opening a dictionary to see the meaning of beauty – well, I did just now. I don’t even remember ever using the words and “ugly” and “hate”. And before you think I’m being holier-than-thou, I can use language that would make a salty sailor blush.

beau·ty n. pl. beau·ties

– The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

– A quality or feature that is most effective, gratifying, or telling.

– An outstanding or conspicuous example.

With photography an indelible focus of mine, I have learnt that the only way to recognize beauty in each and every form is to slow down in life, pause and stare unabashedly. What other people find boring, I find interesting, what other people ignore, I find intriguing, what other people pass by, I stop at. Because now I see beauty in truthfulness, a representation of what really exists, as the Lord created. For that you have to scratch the surface, sometimes deep below. And it works the same way in relationships – we hasten to judge. I have. Think about it.

I discovered beauty in these trees as I walked the Himalayas, and I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s words when he said: “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with it fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” So the obvious isn’t necessarily the most important. Sometimes what lies beneath is even more so. 

As those other thoughts of what I should actually be writing on overwhelm my mind, all I want to remind myself is to slow down. And listen carefully to Ralph Waldo Emerson words: “Never lose the opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.”

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Through the Looking-Glass

Quite often I don’t know the words I’m going to write, as quite often I don’t know what I need to photograph. Yet I know I have to, I need to, I feel it within. There is this incessant pull which tells me – go ahead, write, photograph. And so I listen and heed and write and photograph because both allow me to say what I feel inside – this is one of those times.

As a photographer I’m constantly observing, wanting to figure out what I need to capture next through my lens and within the frame.  I’m always on the watch for new subjects. Sometimes I find them, sometimes I don’t. What often I gravitate towards (as most photographers I know also do) are old people and little children. Yesterday and today as I was rearranging portraits of people I’ve made across the last two years or so, I kept thinking why this affinity? Why children and old people? Sure we usually don’t go wrong with those photographs, but that is being rather simplistic – there must be more to it, more than meets the eye, figuratively speaking. 

That is when thoughts started buzzing around in my head, and to get them into some semblance of order, here I am doing what I always do – write. Writing allows me to express myself without interruption, to figure out what my own reasons are, however right and wrong those might be. About children I’ll write some other time – let this post be about the not-so-young. As I more often than not do, I talk to people whom I photograph. The old are astonished when I sit at talk to them often for an hour or so; they are surprised and quizzical when I ask them about what they do, about their life, about things which perhaps have no meaning for most. After all what would I want to do with their lives? Initially I would chat with them because it would allow them to open up and I would hopefully make a good photograph. But now I speak with them because I find them enigmatic, each and every one of them, and to listen to them about life (and their lives) is edifying to say the least. In the times I have been with them what comes forth is sometimes wistfulness, a twinge of regret perhaps, a bit of sorrow, often satisfaction at having led a full life, but usually there will always be an expression of melancholic loneliness that there is no one there for them. 

The sub-conscious operates in strange ways – since yesterday I have had thoughts of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass” in my mind – now I understand why. For those who haven’t read it, the book is a sequel to ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and a sort of mirror image of Wonderland – it uses frequent changes in time and spatial directions as a plot device, with many mirror themes, including time running backwards, and so on. So I stare through the looking-glass as I’m doing know, I see a mirror and I see the reflection of my life in the photographs I create, and I reminisce.

Their photographs, their stories remind me about the times I could have spent with my parents but missed out on those moments because I prioritized incorrectly. They tell me again of times I took my parents for granted yet was affronted when they did the same. We expect selfishly, shamelessly from them, yet are upset when they expect even a little from us. It has happened with me, I’ve done it and I say so openly. Have I been the proverbial prodigal son? Have I even been a “good” son always? Have I done all that I could for them each and every moment? The answer is an unequivocal no. And I also know I’m not alone in this. But that is, as is said, history, and it’s been much time since I changed all of that. What you and I can change is the present, the now, this moment, and in doing that we shape the future, our future. And “time running backwards” as Lewis Carroll said, I guess I could word it differently: Life comes a full circle, you see. We are children, and we yearn for our parents, then adults and yearn for and chase much in the world, ironically most of which doesn’t really matter, then parents maybe, and then children yet again in the twilight years and yearn for the touch and care of our children who are now, in some way, our parents.

Maya Angelou said it so beautifully: “I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as making a “life”. I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

So this post is for your parents and mine. Let them never forget how you feel. Wherever they might be, and wherever you are. Express that gratitude. Keep them in your prayers and your deeds – now and forever.  Remember you need to do it in the now, at this moment, which will then become forever. In reality, time doesn’t run backwards; it happened only in:

Through the Looking-Glass.

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