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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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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?

Posted in General, Personal, Philosophy Also tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

This too shall pass

I’ve been feeling this way for a few days now. This dry spell is as if I was in the middle of the Sahara, but I suppose all artists, including photographers, go through it at some point of time or the other. I seem jaded, I seem spent. Is that why I’m focusing more on writing? The creative rut is obvious: it seems to be staring at me in my face, and I don’t like what I see. I have no ideas for new images; I am making photographs of things that don’t really interest me; I find myself photographing the same people, places and things, in the same “old” ways; I am finding my computer slow, my mouse unresponsive, and Photoshop a waste of time. I am finding fault with every photograph that I make. I am dreaming of changing my camera and other gear. In fact, I don’t even want to write about this, but I am.

Thank you Google for letting me know that “photographers block” hasn’t afflicted me alone. I found a psychologist called Graham Wallas. He talks about the phases of the creative process. Now Graham introduced one of the first models of the creative process in 1926, which happens to be en vogue still with the customary additions, deletions, and year-on-year reinterpretations. In Wallas’ model, the creative process has five distinct phases: preparation, incubation, intimation, illumination, and verification.

The first phase is preparation – defined as the moment when a goal is first set, generally as a question e.g. “What would be a better way to capture the landscape of the Indian Himalayas?” or maybe even more specific, such as, “How do I make a unique photograph of the Zanskar river in Ladakh?” For me the question is difficult, or rather the answer is: “What is my signature style?”

Next comes incubation – a time of subconscious reflection on how to get those photographs i.e. figuring out the answers to the questions. This is when the brain is working on the problem, and sometimes, it’s easy to confuse incubation with creative block. For me the important thing is to recognize that real inspiration does not come without serious contemplation of the issue at hand, and for this I need time. I need to stimulate my brain as much as possible so that it can come to the best, most informed solution. I need art, photography, paintings. I need to change my frame of reference. This is what I’m doing, but it needs patience, and yes, it is frustrating. Patience is not my forte.

After that is intimation (hopefully), the idea of which is pretty simple, even though it seems like divine intervention. I might get the feeling that the solution is “coming to me,” because, in fact, it is.

If all goes well, illumination follows; this is the moment when Archimedes jumped out of his bathtub! Illumination is the “eureka” moment. It’s the breakthrough, the instant when I’ll have a clear answer to my questions. I also realize it may come when I least expect it, while I’m in the shower or buying groceries, but it’s the result of a lot of work on the part of my faithful old brain.

The final phase is verification where my “lightbulb” idea will be confirmed. Because moments of inspiration come and go, I need my photographer’s notebook for my thoughts e.g. the next time I’m out on the street, stop down the lens, minimize ISO, force a slow shutter speed and make B&W photographs of scenes which dynamic motion. I have to remember that some thoughts may seem like radical ideas, but they’re also the kinds of things that will pop out when much time has been spent in trying to resolve a problem.

This is not new to me. I’ve done this before when I’d had enough of the “usual” sunsets, though at that time I didn’t ponder too much on this, simply because I didn’t know enough. Maybe too much theory on rules also obstructs creative license. In this photograph (one of my first after I “started” serious photography), for instance, I didn’t think too much. It is only now that I find I made it such that the railing of the pier was along the primary diagonal adding dynamism to the image and led the eye to the cabana and the sunset with radiant, golden hues. Classic Rule of Thirds.

In all of this, I guess if I could be creative then, I will be creative again. The important thing for me to believe is that creativity sometimes needs time to find a way out of the doldrums. I need to believe that creative block, for any artist is not permanent, much less fatal, and doesn’t need a medical policy. Note to self – quit being worried.

But what’s the solution I wondered? Again, Google to the rescue. From Project 365, to just point-and-shoot, to venturing into new genres, boot-camp photography, to studying the master’s, playing with toy cameras, old-school photography assignments, the full Monty – nothing has been left out. What’ll happen to me? I really feel like I lost my creative mojo. You would think I could come up with an answer – something, anything. Nada. Nothing. Zero. Zilch.

I don’t quite like this feeling of being in an inter-planetary galactic space at all. I feel restless. I need inspiration. I’m off to Ladakh for a week day after tomorrow. I’ll tell you what works when I get back.

And oh yes, Ansel Adams said, “Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop”.

This too shall pass.

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I am not a Zen Master

Many years ago, awestruck or perhaps even infatuated by water colors and crayons, I tried my hand at painting. My biggest fans were my parents who proudly displayed my works of art to each guest who came home. Sadly, our visitors were not connoisseurs of the fine things in life and couldn’t appreciate my stick figures and awry brush strokes painting sunrises (or sunsets) across fields and that ubiquitous pond. But soon I was jaded and trashed my dreams of being the next Picasso. Even at that age I was miserable, because I never could figure out no matter how much time I put into it, why my paintings always had “that” amateurish look!

Had I known what vision and composition was all about, I could have saved myself much frustration and maybe exhibited my works at Peggy Guggenheim. Sure, I loved painting, I could draw, get my proportions right, mix the right colors and shades etc., but the paintings never really worked because my subjects were not in the right place. I could never discover that ‘hidden secret’ that the masters knew. Much after I’d discarded my paint brushes and colors, I heard about vision and composition. By then, my amateurish attempts at painting had been replaced by equally amateurish attempts at photography. The saving grace was – it wasn’t too late. After I’d discovered and began learning (which I still am) this elusive secret, the visual language, it started becoming apparent which artists knew their craft and which hopeful ones would be like I was with painting – lost in translation.

Of all the photographers-writers, Michael Freeman, Chris Orwig, Susan Sontag & co., whom I have read, one stands out as brilliantly eloquent in his writing,– David duChemin. His books “Within the Frame” and “Photographically Speaking” are works of art in themselves, and David’s passion shines through. After reading these authors, I started asking myself “What is it that I want to say with this photograph? How can I say it best? Will it be understood?” The answer to the first question is a function of my vision and intent, to the second my expression, and to the last, interpretation.

For me, a “successful photograph” is a metaphor for a feeling that the artist is trying to express to the viewer. It is not about the subject or object, place, or event of the photograph, but rather about the feeling generated within the artist as part of making that image. And my opinion is that the success of the photograph should be evaluated only and only by the creating artist in whether his or her sense of feeling has been conveyed to the viewer through the image. This feeling is an indelible part of the photographer’s vision and intent which addresses what you decide to include in your frame and why. What you choose to keep within should mean something to you, or else be left out. As David puts it: “Intent matters. It is the prime mover. Without it, we are engaging in little more than accidentally exposing light to film or a sensor.”

Now as important a question our intent for a photograph is, it remains confined within us, unrealized, until it is within the frame. Our way of getting our inner feelings out is the photograph. Not the camera; the photograph. The camera is just the tool. The photograph is the very expression of our inner feeling experiencing freedom. How we make that photograph, with the tools at our disposal, and how close it comes to expressing what we hope, determines how successful that image is. To do that well, we turn to the language spoken by the photograph which is the subject, the subject matter and the composition, each of which give meaning to our photograph which is the story we want to tell. After that, interpretation is up to the ‘reader’. It is awareness and use of this visual language that allows us to move on from merely having vision to being able to express it. The better we know the language, its grammar, punctuation, syntax, the better our expression. Greater awareness of the language leads to an expanded and refined ability to use that language to express ourselves.

As an example, I made this photograph of an old man in Jaipur after watching him for about 15 minutes. He was sitting in the winter sun against this fascinating blue wall, with his “lathi” (bamboo staff) cradled in his lap and a withered “tulsi” (basil) plant up in front, while just behind him was a bright green potted plant. What I felt was a sense of time, of how we walk, oftentimes with support (the “lathi”) from one part of life to the other, from being an all green plant to a withered one. Was I able to express what I felt? I hope so.

We need to slow down – a mindful approach to our photographic process – being conscious of what we want to say and how we want to say it – will allow us to create images that are more able to express our unique inner voice that seems to prefer the camera as a means to getting those words out and onto paper. In our case the words are the elements around us, the paper is the photographic print. We’re left with arranging those elements within the frame – our visual language. Like a writer uses words and grammar to tell a story, photographers use the elements available in a scene and make decisions to create a story in a frame. Photographic elements such as lines, shapes, forms, textures, patterns, repetitions, color and light, when combined with the choice of optics and settings available, can be then arranged to express our vision. A grasp of what’s going on within the frame, and a mindful approach to creating photographs that speak this language, is enough to create powerful photographs that express something deep within us that stirs as we feel, not see. As David says, “Vision isn’t the goal. Expression is the goal”.

The better I am able to express, the better I’ll be interpreted and understood. I want to be understood, which is why I learn the visual language. So I don’t express in koans. I am not a Zen Master.

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What you feel, not what you see

I’ve often wondered what truly is a “memorable image”. Is it merely adherence to the rules? Understanding the Golden Mean? Getting the horizon straight? Capturing a child’s innocence? That glorious sunset? Sure it is most of this, and yet more. Now this may seem familiar: you’re with a great subject, you photograph it, but when you look at the picture later on, it has nowhere near the impact the actual scene had.

That’s because many things have happened between “composition and click”. Our brain tends to focus on only the parts we want to see. Selective retention, psychologists call this. It sees that evocative portrait imagining it in high-key B&W, yet disregards the clutter at the top of the frame and the rubbish piled up at the bottom. Having been there, done that, I am now more conscious of not only what I see around me, but also what I see through the lens. I slow down when I photograph. Later I put aside time to see my own pictures critically, without the benefit of post-processing. I see a brilliant photograph, but for the fact that I got my subject’s left hand only till the wrist and missed the fingers. This helps me the next time.

Another reason for the less-than-ideal transition from “reality to roll” is that mak­ing a photograph (I prefer the term “make a photograph” to “take a photograph” because it better reflects the creative process of photography) means going from three dimensions (width, height, and depth) to two, eliminating depth. There are a number of techniques to improve “spatial” dynamism in pictures, i.e. better manage the loss of depth. These include working with leading lines, incorporating di­agonals in images, framing with the rule of thirds in mind, using shallow depth of field to isolate foreground from background, wide-angle lenses, etc. Therefore, a big part of creating compelling photographs is trying to translate or even exaggerate that feeling of depth into my final, two-dimensional image.

There’s yet one more reason, and another important dynamic in photog­raphy: when I’m making a photograph, I’m actually not only cut­ting out the third dimension of depth, but also the fourth: a photograph is not only a spatial crop (a frame from a bigger scene), but also crop in time. The best way to translate a feeling of time (or timelessness), and there­fore dynamism, into a picture is to work with the shutter speed.

But this is not about the technicalities of making an image. To answer the question that I started from, I need to figure out why is it that of the thousands of pictures I’ve seen and studied, a few instantly come to mind, and why is it that those photographs of mine that I find best, people don’t quite appreciate, or perhaps understand. A simple answer is association. We are all comfortable in our zones, and so for example a “great” photograph with a deliberate blur might not catch the fancy of many. But in itself the feeling of time induced by that blur tells a story. The complex answer lies within me. The problem is in my vision, intent, expression and finally interpretation. More on this in my next post.

What I do need to do is capture that moment within the frame, and to create an image that stands alone and tells a whole story in a single frame, is challenging. It requires a different approach than a photo essay or telling a story over several images. Capturing a moment requires the viewer to have instant recognition and, perhaps also, instant surprise. A momentary image tells a universal story. I made this photograph of a child of maybe 5 or 6 years in mid-step as he was walking towards me carrying his load of plastic and glass bottles, and empty cans, quite obviously from a garbage dump. Even from about 30 feet or so, his eyes told a story…but in that 1/200th of a second, I couldn’t know the story; maybe even in a lifetime, I’ll never know it. All I knew instinctively was there was a story, maybe of unfulfilled desires and broken dreams, but surely of hardship and pain.

And this rickshaw-wallah at Amritsar, just outside the Jallianwala Bagh. I watched this man for a few minutes, and then went up to him to see if he’d agree for me to make a few images with him. He smiled this most beautiful smile and said “yes”. I often wonder when I make photographs of people, why is it that I’m fascinated with people who have so little (as we know it), yet smile from their hearts? Every time this happens, it gives me great belief in the resilience of the indomitable human spirit, the inner strength we all possess but fail to recognize. It gives me hope. It gives me faith. Maybe that is why I see these images over, and yet over again.

These are stories in a universal language, no translation needed.

For these moments to be recognized (as opposed to predicted), I need to be aware, I need to feel. Photographers, as in any other creative, literary or artistic pursuit have a signature style. I am figuring mine out, and as I evolve I have slowly started using the litmus test of “capturing my emotion”, vs. “capturing my sight”. From simply saying “I was here”, I now want my photographs to say “I felt this”. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye”.

So photograph what you feel, not what you see.

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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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