Category Archives: Personal

To dream

I should actually be working as I write this – there are tons of things that are needed to be attended to, and a to-do list that is long, very long! But I was exchanging notes with someone very, very dear to me last evening (you know who you are), and that has, sort of, triggered this need to write. In a manner of speaking, scribbling my thoughts here, clears out the clutter in my head, metaphorically separates the grain from the chaff, and invariably leaves me happy and content. Come to think of it, I am always happy and content. So scratch that out – it makes me count my blessings. God has been kind to me.

Flashback. About 10 months ago, I had an epiphany, the proverbial Eureka moment. I had a dream. And I decided to chase it, come what may. Trust me when I say, it is larger than anything, anything I have ever even thought of. More on my dream at a later time. But this is what I think – it is not only the Martin Luther King’s, the Gandhi’s, and the Mandela’s who have a right to dream. It is ordinary folk – you and me – who need to dream. Dreams change the world. Dreamers change the world. Dreams make us better people. Dreams bring in the promise of a tomorrow better than today. So look within yourself, find that dream, and chase it – pursue it, and make it come true.

This one time, what makes me count my blessings truly are the people who have come forth to support me, and stand by me. The usual suspects are there, of course – those who have always held my hand – and there are some of my closest friends, but other than them, there are many, many others who till a few months back were complete strangers, as I was to them. These strangers of then are now with me, dear to my heart, sharing my dream, and making it come true. You all know who you are. You all know what you mean to me. To you, I shall be eternally grateful and indebted. Your faith and trust in me means the world to me. I shall never let you down. That is my promise.

They are the ones who remind me of what John Lennon said: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” So thank you for your courage and your indomitable spirit. Thank you for your faith. Thank you for believing in me. Let us change the world, one step, one moment at a time. You make my world a better place. You make this life worth living. You make the sun rise each day.

Everest Base Camp_Debesh Sharma-3431

There will always be the naysayers, the others who will be filled with disdain and doubt; with scorn and sarcasm; who are jealous and jaded. Don’t let them affect you. Do what you ought to. Do what your heart tells you. Do what is right. Be thankful for your friends, your companions in this journey, be grateful for their support each moment. Trust them with your life. Remember they have trusted you when ALL you have is a dream. Don’t let go of your passion. Even when it consumes you. There will be sleepless nights. There will be doubts. This is normal. Let it pass. Remember the sun shines brightest after the darkest of nights.

Everest Base Camp_Debesh Sharma-3285

And with no intention at all of being melodramatic (or despondent), I have often wondered what should my epitaph read. Maybe these words of apocryphal origin:

“I am not a star.

There is no halo over my head.

Fate doesn’t like the color of my eyes.

Struggle and strife are old friends of mine.

Who am I?

I am survival. I am guts. I am pride.

I like odds.

Especially when they’re stacked against me.

Because there will come a time,

When I will stare them in the eye.

And smile the smile of the one who’s pulled it off.

I am the guy who will have deep lines on his face someday.

And it’ll make me look good when I laugh.

Because that is the day I will fear no fear.

And taste sweat that is sweet.

And look back for the very first time and say,

I did it my way. The long hard way.”

Everest Base Camp_Debesh Sharma-3386

But now I am reminded of the words of Charles Lindbergh: “I owned the world that hour as I rode over it. free of the earth, free of the mountains, free of the clouds, but how inseparably I was bound to them.” I am torn. How about Atticus: “I hope to arrive to my death, late, in love, and a little drunk.”

But no, let me keep it short. I think I will settle for:

“He had the courage to dream.”

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My Eternal Childhood

It’s been about 10 days since I wrote my last post. I’ve been distracted and busy with work, and was out traveling. But I put all of that aside to write just now. And for some strange reason, Rabindranath Tagore has been on my mind through the day, perhaps because when I think of my photography and writing, I feel just how Tagore wrote: “I have spent many days stringing and unstringing my instrument while the song I came to sing remains unsung.”

The week before last, I had gone to Mahabalipuram.  This village is listed as a World Heritage Site and is an eclectic mix of sun, seafood and sand. Famous for its ancient rock carvings, especially the Shore Temple, it was once the second capital and seaport of the Pallava kings of Kanchipuram. Even to this day, it remains renowned for stone carving, and you’ll undoubtedly see and hear the constant tapping of hammer and chisel as artisans chip away at exquisite sculptures.

So I was up at 03:30 getting all set for a 100 mile drive to be there before sunrise and capture the pristine beauty of the Shore Temple at dawn, but God had other plans. The sky was overcast, the light bad, and daybreak brought along a dull, dreary, depressing gray sky – you know the kind I’m talking about. Anyway I did what I had to do…despite the poor light I got some nice photographs of the temple (at least I think so, and you can see those here).

Sometime later as I was strolling around town, I came across this old lady sitting against the fluorescent wall of a guest house. This was such a contrast, a paradox, an unforgettable moment!  The Shore Temple quite literally paled in comparison to this sight…I chatted a while with her and then requested her permission to photograph her. As a friend commented when she saw this image, “…she sits right at the meridian where the two colors meet…like a threshold to be crossed…from one realm to another… “

And then later I met this flower-seller in the marketplace who reminded me of the words of A.A. Milne: “Weeds are flowers, too, once you get to know them.” 

After a while it started raining and that was the end of my photography. But strangely I wasn’t disappointed. And I say “strangely” because I’d just driven 200 miles up and down to photograph a World Heritage Site at dawn, but didn’t quite manage to bring the shoot to its so-called logical conclusion. All I was thinking of on the way back to the hotel was actually the first photograph I’ve posted of the old lady against the wall. I just hoped it came out well. I was actually quite surprised by my own reaction. You see I’d just been to a World Heritage Site but wasn’t concerned about those photographs and I’m not embarrassed to say it aloud here.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, I know I can go around in circles at times. Photography happened to me by chance about two years ago. It wasn’t planned in the real sense of the word. And it has taken me about a year of “serious” photography with the usual repertoire of sunsets and sunrises, flowers, architecture and picture postcard shots (not to mention the thousands of bad photographs) thrown in for good measure to finally realize what really affects me – people. I want to create lasting photographs of those I meet and those who influence my craft, and more significantly me, indelibly. I also realize I have many miles to go on a journey that’ll never end. I have a dream. I critique my own photographs unabashedly and right now I feel that they are becoming predictable, boring and monotonous. And I’m not ashamed of confessing it here. This is my journey and I need to be honest rather than wonder what people might think if I say this. I need to do something different.

And what better way to tell you how I feel at this moment than to quote Rabindranath Tagore again:

“I travelled the old road every day, I took my fruits to the market, my cattle to the meadows, I ferried my boat across the stream and all the ways were well known to me.

One morning my basket was heavy with wares. Men were busy in the fields, the pastures crowded with cattle; the breast of earth heaved with the mirth of ripening rice. Suddenly there was a tremor in the air, and the sky seemed to kiss me on my forehead. My mind started up like the morning out of mist.

I forgot to follow the track. I stepped a few paces from the path, and my familiar world appeared strange to me, like a flower I had only known in bud. My everyday wisdom was ashamed. I went astray in the fairyland of things. It was the best luck of my life that I lost my path that morning, and found my eternal childhood.”

The journey has just begun. My eternal childhood.

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Where time has no meaning

I usually don’t photograph with anyone else – I go alone because then I am free to wander wherever I want, explore those nooks and crannies that I see. I can take my own time to stop, pause, stare. The act of photography is meditative for me, most times there are no thoughts in my mind – just a stillness that absorbs all that is around, sees what is often ignored. Those times I am even anti-social. But I prefer to say I am reflective. Most of all I am quiet. I enter a zone. People can’t understand this about me.

I realize I am monochronic. I can’t multitask. Or perhaps I won’t multitask. Is that surprising? When I tell people that if I am working or am busy with photography or editing my photographs etc., my phone will either be on silent or switched off, they find it incredulous. I find it better that way. It allows me to be in that moment completely. For instance, when I photograph someone, I am not with you, I am with them. I am not here. I am in the moment when the shutter release button is pressed; my fingertip at that point of time even senses the temperature of that button. And at that point of time then, I am lost. I am there.

Where time has no meaning.

And my phone being switched off reminds me that sometimes (or maybe most times) I find this hyper-connected world intrusive, claustrophobic, stifling, suffocating. We write a blog post, concurrently send a Facebook message, drop a text, and call someone else. Is that the way it should be? Isn’t when I am with you and only with you right now as I type fair to both you and me? Isn’t it better that I focus on each word that I write to you here rather than try and do it with one hand, eating breakfast with the other, thinking of what the day in office has in store for me? Why are we valuing superficial beyond exclusive? I still remember those days when the ring of the postman’s bicycle bell every two weeks or so meant a letter (yes, snail mail) from my grandfather and I used to be thrilled to bits. I didn’t need a mail from him each day to realize he loved me.  It was simple then. I miss simple.  This is what I am doing these days – making my life simple, perhaps emulating the people I photograph in some way. I am happy. I am at peace. I’ve never felt this way. I see this change in me. And people who know me personally also see this. This is what photography has done for me. I am exhausted today. I’m still writing. Nothing else matters. I love photography. I love writing. I am there.

Where time has no meaning.

I am reminded of all this when I more often than not talk to people I photograph. These are people who have influenced not only my craft (I still don’t call it art) but also me significantly. I have this affinity to stop and converse at length with those I place within my frame. They are simple. They are my teachers. At that point of time they are only with me. At that point of time I am only with them. They are me. I am them. Which is why those brief moments with them continue to linger in my mind forever. I remember each of those thousands of portraits that I made of people. I can’t tell you the aperture or the shutter speed, but I’ll tell you exactly where I stood and how and what I felt. I was elsewhere. I was there.

Where time has no meaning.

This is what happens when you fall in love.  Follow the silent whispers of your heart. Listen to it. Dream. Don’t be afraid of dreaming too big. Dream of the impossible. Chase that impossibility. Make it possible. Find what you love. Fall in love. Love with abandon. Love as if there is no tomorrow. Then you’ll know where I go to.

Where time has no meaning.

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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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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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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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I photograph, therefore I am

I’ve been a photographer for many years now – or let me rephrase that, I’d been a camera owner for a while before I could be called a photographer. A subtle, yet significant difference. As I reflect, from the first moment I used a camera, I had been on an image making journey – across different stages, different directions, but not really any final destination. Just the other day, I was reading an interesting article by the adventure photographer, Alexandre Buisse*. And I can’t help but identify with it; these are my ramblings…

As I started my photographic journey with a Nikon N6006, I had no real artistic intent; I only wanted to record memories – the usual suspects of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays etc. Of course, I also wanted to be seen with a state-of-the-art (at that time) Nikon and a fancy lens. Those images were not expected to be beautiful in any way, but simply to show what was happening at a particular moment. I was a mere camera operator, and only expected to keep my pictures sharp and well exposed. This too was a challenge, considering digital photography wasn’t on the stage yet.

Then as some (or at times few, far and between, most) of the photographs came out well, I discovered my interest in creating beautiful images and started twiddling around with my camera, but without any real direction or techni­cal knowledge. I usually followed the automatic (for Nikon, Program) mode of my camera but experimented randomly, delighted to discover the occasional good image, but still unsure of why it was good or how it was achieved. My portfolio now included the “cliché” images, of sunsets, mountains and flowers. This was a time of great creativity but with a relatively poor yield of good imagery. I pondered on the magic pill recipe to automatically make my photos great.

As I went along to the next stage, I real­ized that inadequate technical knowledge hindered my efforts and I made a deliberate decision to learn the craft and art of photography. I started focusing on technique and technology, started buying equipment (not too much though), perusing photography websites and read a lot on photography. My images improved dramatically, even to my untrained eye, at least from a technical standpoint, but they did not necessarily satiate me any more than before. My photographs were predictable and confined – rule of thirds, diagonals, and a frame within a frame determined most compositions. This was a strange and confusing time, as the unleashed zest and zeal of the previous stage, where everything was new and exciting, made room for the cold world of rules. Unbridled awe was replaced by the walls of imposition.

In a few years, I had an epiphany: focusing exclusively on technique was a complete cul-de-sac – a dead-end; composition, light and other such, not so tangible elements were equally (if not more so) critical in the success of an image. This was much more difficult to learn, since it was not nearly as quantifi­able as the technical aspects of photography. I also realized that the transitions from one stage to the next are intriguing. They can’t be forecast or forced, and it is only in retrospect that I realized I’d progressed to the next level and had stopped worrying about whether my camera’s 12 megapixel resolution was good enough, for instance. I became passionate, at times possessive of my work. I also started creating something deeply personal, which not only had memories, but also emotions. I listened to others, yet sought my own voice. I didn’t feel the need to mass-produce lowest-common-denominator images, which may please crowds but didn’t truly express my voice. But I also believed that if I live in an ivory tower and never consider any critique, convinced of my own genius, I would stop growing as an artist and repeat myself endlessly.

I am here now. Reflective. Meditative. Contemplative.

So what lies ahead? Somewhere along the line (hopefully), I will acquire the technical and artistic tools I need and then contemplate about what to do with them. I might be able to create a beautiful photograph, but realize I need more – I need to express. I need my vision, my voice, my language. I was a craftsman, I need to become an artist.

Finally I guess, I might find my voice. I will have a mes­sage to express, and know the language of expression. I also realize I might never fully reach this stage, the elusive destination called mastery. In fact, I don’t believe such a destination exists.

Of course I have had goals, both tangible and more abstract. But as soon as I reached one of those goals, I realized that they were not the real reason I make photographs. What really mattered to me was the journey itself, the evolution. I am a photographer because I love to photograph.

To rephrase Descartes, I photograph, therefore I am.

(* Alexandre Buisse is an adventure photographer and a mountain climber, raised in the French Alps and now travels to the world’s major ranges from his base in Scandinavia. Alexandre’s work can be seen at http://www.alexandrebuisse.org.)

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