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.

This entry was posted in General, Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .


  1. Sonny July 24, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    lemme quote another john…a line that stays at the back of my head when i raise my camera—

    “scenery is fine—human nature is finer “—john keats

    I know i dont have to explain to you what it means in this blogs context….:)

    of course d…your photographs make one pause….reflect and feel… do your stories…you know i am the last person to say so for the heck of it…..i remember my statement about shooting the poor in india as being so cliched….i still stick to that sentiment for a lot of people…..but not your work i should say……simply because to me a picture is the litmus test….it always reflects the ethos and the feel of the one who makes it…..and your pictures touch a nerve with so many ……

    and thats…..beautiful .

    my initial sentiment [ sorry i do think a lot ] was ….no..i disagree…these kids are not better off or more happy and content than kids who are better off financially….of course they need so much more….they deserve it…its their right…
    and then…

    i had this immediate scene flash in front of my eyes….most kids around us……being given a gift…or being asked what do you want…and the instant reply……i already have this..or i dont like this….and always….i have nothing to play with…nothing to do……never really content….food for thought….hmmmm…..

  2. Nripjit Singh Chawla July 24, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Debesh, I will say this again. You are a born photojournalist. Most photojournalists are only photographers but you have a mean way with language. Admirable! Very well written.

    If I may hazard an opinion. It is a well-established fact of psychology that the vast majority of our decisions are rooted in the unconscious. You may think that you are photographing these people because it keeps you in touch with “reality” but the fact may be different. Who knows?

  3. Michael Clivner July 24, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    Thank you. When we get it right we really do photograph from our heart.

  4. Nalanda July 24, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    These pictures are truly amazing and beautiful,and touch a chord in me…..the children their faces are full of happiness that even we do not possess……as we want too much,nothing satisfies us really….
    And I think you are truly justified in taking these pics because you will get the real story as compared to taking pictures of people who will show a different front to create the right image!!!!!

  5. Heidger Marx July 24, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    Dear Debesh,

    Thank you for another amazing post! I agree with Nripjit who commented before me. As I have been to countless places in India and made images of so many locals, I think I understand your, conscious or subconscious, motivation for doing so. It is irrelevant why we do go out and photograph there, as long as we do so. This is a small piece of the puzzle on our path.

    I had very similar experiences in Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Kerala.

    Again, congratulation on another amazing piece of work that cannot be from anywhere else then directly from your heart.

    Be well,


  6. Ranvir July 24, 2012 at 9:59 pm #

    Really appreciable……will restrain from adding more words, since it is a feeling. Looking forward to when you will start including their real stories, alongside the photographs. Bash on.

  7. Anu July 25, 2012 at 2:01 am #

    Another good read! It is amazing how articulately you express your thoughts and feelings…it is indeed a talent !

  8. Preeti July 25, 2012 at 10:13 am #


    You are a poet! Your photographs speak volumes. Like I said before, ‘You were born to do this!!’

  9. Mayank Gupta July 25, 2012 at 6:50 pm #

    ” 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”

    Perfect! That’s the best way to deal with such people. Your post made me comment, and me being a silent reader…. i think your writing style is human and that’s what matters to most of the people :)

    Loved your photos, they really make people glued for a while…

  10. emmgee July 25, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

    good and well articulated write .. but one thing .. hearts get wrenched when you have something more in excess or something intact which unfortunately the subject doesn’t have .. so are heart wrenching and emotional moments a meek sign of guilt of not sharing decently what we have with the have-nots ??? i am not answering a latent doubt but merely expressing beyond the common line of thought .. !!!!!!!!!!!

  11. Mayank Gupta July 26, 2012 at 10:38 am #

    A suggestion: Please fix the RSS link in the sidebar :)

  12. Greg Buck July 26, 2012 at 1:56 pm #

    Stunning work by Debesh. These images are so real about life, the pain, anguish, love, loneliness and hope.
    Everything about these Images tell a story of life from each face that touches the senses.
    The world is filled with hope and a wanting for a better future.
    The smile on each face reaches out to the viewer to say, “hope”.

    Thank you Debesh for bringing us to your stunning images.

    Wink and Blink Photography
    Perth, Western Australia

  13. Monteaux July 26, 2012 at 4:12 pm #

    Namasté Debesh

    I just have one thing to say which I hope can be understood as constructive. All your comments about why you photograph these people etc, are fine for your close friends. It is obvious that if you get close to your subjects, you are interested in them. What is mostly important is what you will do with these images.

    Best regards


  14. Cyretha July 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm #

    I think one true sign of a good photographer is that his/her pictures can tell a story without words. I think the same about a writer. One who can describe a setting without pictures. However, if one can put the two together, I believe it is a powerful combination. Your blog does just that!

  15. Fran Gallogly July 26, 2012 at 6:59 pm #

    What lovely, moving images.

  16. Debesh August 3, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    At the outset, I must apologize to all of you for this delay in replying to your comments. I was in the midst of some personal stuff which needed to be attended to, and so was rather tardy here…

    Sonika, thank you so much. When we start feeling what is around us within the depths of our soul, not only will the photographs slowly start getting “better”, but they will also convey a different meaning, a different perspective which should be the final intention. I believe photography is not so much about seeing, but about feeling. Maybe I’ll write about that someday.

    Noni sir, I am most touched by your words. I hold you in high esteem and deeply respect you, so your words are special for me. Yes I agree about the fact you mentioned and I don’t have an answer for that just yet – I think my writing is very much an indelible part of the journey to find the answer to that. Thank you once again.

    Thank you so much Michael.

    Nalanda, many thanks. I think we chase what is material little realizing all that matters is really not matter…

    Heidger my friend, I am most grateful to you for such kind words. The missing piece is what makes life worth its while right? If we had everything, what would we search for? I hope you are well my friend and I hope you come back here soon.

    Thanks Ranvir, Anu, Preeti – I so appreciate your words.

    Mayank: My friend, I am most grateful not only for your comments, but also for your suggestions which as you can see I have incorporated with immediacy. Thanks a lot.

    Thanks MG – I appreciate it.

    Greg: Sir, each time you write, I can feel the gentleness of your soul. It is amazing how we’ve connected. Your words, your photography inspires me. Thank you.

    Merci beaucoup Monteaux for our discussions on email; I am so grateful that someone as accomplished and experienced as you are made time for me. I take your advice most gratefully.

    Thank you so much Cyretha. You have been most generous with your compliments, and I am most grateful.

    Thanks a lot Fran.

  17. Peter J. Crowley August 3, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Great emotion! and skill in B+W prints/scans. The images have a feel of film. A feel of presence and respect. Great Work. enjoy pjc

  18. Anna August 3, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Emotinally the flow of your expression of empathy catches one. When we dare to let go off our guards, let our emotion deepen, and grow – both as intellectuals and emotional beings – we catch the true meaning of empathy. Emotional Intelligence shines through in your work – I am sure you will excel with you skill. Empathy is not draining factor – its a sense of maturity and understanding of human existence. Thank you for these reflections – I feel it from within – and thank you for being you. I appreciate it and your time :-)

  19. Debesh August 21, 2012 at 12:39 pm #

    Thank you so much Peter for being so gracious – I really appreciate your kind words. All the best.

  20. Pradhan Photography January 17, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Beautiful work, Debesh. And thank you for your thoughts – it makes your work that much more meaningful.
    Warmest regards,

  21. Debesh January 20, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

    Thanks so much Rachel. You seem to have gone back quite a lot in my posts…I am glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts, and I look forward to being in touch with you.

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