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The Perfect Exposure

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

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

But again what is the truth? I made these two photographs of butter-lamps at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. I’ve described the scene before, but let me try and recreate it. When I made the images of the lamps, I was standing alone in a darkened sanctum sanctorum, the windows of which were covered in soot, the air heavy with the fragrance of incense and oil, the sound of monks chanting their prayers in my ears. It wasn’t cold but I shivered, and I had goose bumps, as God came to my mind and I felt “faith”. I cannot help but quote Rumi who said: “In your light I learn how to love. In your beauty, how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no-one sees you, but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” 

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Exposure.

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The Photographer’s Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Photographer’s Heart.

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To thine own self be true

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now vulnerability, tenderness, compassion and care.

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

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

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

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

To thine own self be true.

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The Lord is my Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank you Mr. Shepherd, for reminding me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd”.

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If Buddha taught photography

I am not religious. Spiritual yes, but not religious. If you ask this pseudo-Brahmin to recite a single mantra, he won’t be able to. But that to me means nothing. As I’ve said so myself, I am an iconoclast, but yet I believe there is a Divine Power that brings method to this madness. I’ve read a lot on religion, and deeply respect all of them. But for many reasons, too many to detail here, Buddhism has influenced me deeply, yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I am also a photographer. Just this morning as I was reading “In the Buddha’s words”, an anthology of discourses from the Pali canon, I concluded that if Buddha taught photography, his one and only lesson would consist of two words: “Yoniso maniskara”.

Without claiming to be an expert in theology (just as I don’t claim to be an expert in photography), if I were to distill the teachings of the Buddha, it would, in the final analysis, stem down to these two words. Buddha’s discourses begin by calling us to develop this faculty yoniso maniskara, which has many meanings and many interpretations in Pali, but the one most commonly accepted is “careful attention”. Buddha tells us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives, but instead pay careful attention to the simple truths that are everywhere available to us. If I were to put this in even more simple words, I would only use the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on the principles of mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are”.

For me, this is what photography is all about – careful attention. I’ve changed with the years, evolved maybe in some way, hopefully for the better as there always was a lot of room for improvement in me. With time (a euphemism for growing old(er)), I’ve realized that the best way in life is to be is in the moment. “The Power of Now” as Eckhart Tolle called it. I have an advantage – I can’t multitask, so I have no choice. Yet that didn’t stop me in many years to live in la-la land. But now, I am more conscious. I stare in awe even at the most mundane of things, I am aware, I feel. The only solution I have found to be in the “now” is to slow down. I live that moment. If I am talking to you, I am only there, while I am saying these words aloud as I type. If I am creating photographs, I am only doing that.

But the happiest times of my life are when it’s just the Three Musketeers in blissful solitude out of “civilization” as we know it, and the camera. We have no BlackBerry, no laptop, no internet, no newspaper to distract us. It is just the three of us – I, me, and myself. And the closer we three get, the more content we are. We live that moment – it’s called the joie de vivre. And when you live that moment, you see differently. And since this is about the Buddha, the single word that comes to my mind when I think of Him and reflect on His teachings is “compassion”.  Sure I can make a photograph with His face, as I so often have (in fact, you’ll find them on here too), but compassion can even be expressed through these images, which I made at the Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh, when I saw and felt it differently.

William Blake’s words from the “Auguries of Innocence” came to mind when I made this photograph: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, And Eternity in an Hour.”

I love to quote because like there are many more photographers better than me, so are there many more writers. This image reminded me of some more words that I believe in deep within my heart. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Yes, I do. Whatever I am, is You and Yours alone.

I stared unabashedly at the obvious, the Buddha’s compassionate eyes, feeling the serenity radiate, but from there, I went lower to his lips, always curved in that all knowing half-smile, amused and bewildered at our foolishness, yearning for either the past or the future, forgetting the present.

By the way, yoniso also means, literally, “to the womb”. The meaning is, getting to the core or essence of the matter, doing something with understanding of the pith and substance, understanding cause and effect, and maniskara simply means to keep something in mind. I interpret this to see and feel everything with childlike innocence and wonder and awe. Try it. You’ll feel the difference. You’ll live that moment. And when you live, you’ll create.

Tomorrow I am again off to the Himalayas again. I live, don’t exist. I am alive, not living. I am attentive, not absent. May my epitaph never read “He lived as if he were never going to die; he died as if he never lived”. I know now what He would have said. You know now what He would have said.

If Buddha taught photography.

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The Bridges of Madison County

Ecstasy. Not the pill. The feeling. If I could sing, I would – maybe Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the ceiling” would be the right choice; but sadly, my baritone doesn’t permit me. So I’ll write instead. I am this week’s featured member on Photocrati (www.photocrati.com), the people who power my website. And what a bunch of wonderful people they are! Each time I have had a glitch (all thanks to my non-geeky brain) they’ve been most understanding, not to mention patient. By the way, with a spot of immodesty perhaps, Photocrati provides WordPress solutions to 12,000+ photographers, and so for me, an amateur, to find his way there in just a month of being a member, is mind-blowing. Here’s the link: http://www.photocrati.com/featured-member-debesh-sharma/

Now while completing my profile for their website, I had to say who or what inspires me. Yes, Steve McCurry and David duChemin found their way there, but so did “The Bridges of Madison County”. This 1992 best-selling novel tells the story of a National Geographic photographer who visits Madison County to create a photo-essay on bridges in the area and discovers love while there. Of course, this never happened to me but the book, and later the film, did fuel an incurable romantic’s passion for photography.  Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep helped. My favorite part of the book is this:

“The night went on and the great spiral dance continued. He discarded all sense of anything linear and moved to a part of himself that dealt with only shape and sound and shadow. Down the paths of the old ways he went, finding his direction by candles of sunlit frost melting upon the grass of summer and the red leaves of autumn.

And he heard the words he whispered to her, as if a voice other than his own were saying them. Fragments of a Rilke poem, “around the ancient tower…I have been circling for a thousand years.” The lines to a Navajo sun chant. He whispered to her of the visions she brought to him – of blowing sand and magenta winds and brown pelicans riding the backs of dolphins moving north along the coast of Africa.

And he knew finally the meaning of all the small footprints on all the deserted beaches he had ever walked, of all the secret cargoes carried by ships that had never sailed, of all the curtained faces that had watched him pass down winding streets of twilight cities. And like a great hunter of old who has traveled distant miles and now sees the light of his home campfires, his loneliness dissolved. At last. At last. He had come so far…unalterably complete in his love for her. At last.

Toward morning, he raised himself slightly and said, looking straight into her eyes, “This is why I’m here on this planet, at this time. I know that now. I have been falling from the rim of a great, high place, somewhere back in time, for many more years than I have lived in this life. And through all of those years, I have been falling toward you.”

For me, when I see whatever I see within my frame, I remember these words, I feel this way. My loneliness dissolves.  There is no “her”. There is only what is framed that I am falling toward.  I could’ve said this to these children whom I photographed in the Khumbu on my way to Everest:

Or I could say this to the mountains aloud hearing my echo along the valley:

Or I could whisper this to the clouds:

I have finally discovered that elusive feeling of happiness – it comes when I have the camera in my hands, and with the sound of the shutter, creating what I always was falling toward but never knew. I know the meaning now. I am free. I am home.

In these few words, you just read the story of my life:

“The Bridges of Madison County”.

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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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Free Willy vs. Finding Nemo

Why would I name both these films together of all things? The only common thing between them is that they both did well at the box office, as you’d know for sure. But that’s where it ends – Free Willy is a 1993 film released by Warner Bros about a young boy who befriends a killer whale, named Willy. Finding Nemo is a 2003 American computer-animated film produced by Pixar Animation Studios, and released by Walt Disney Pictures, which tells the story of the overly protective clownfish Marlin who along with a regal tang called Dory, searches for his abducted son Nemo. And no, I am not going to describe the films in lucid detail anymore, so do read on.

If I were to summarize the plots of these films in just one word each, it would be “freedom” and “discovery”. Having said all of this, and lest I wander even further (which I am wont to), I shall remind myself that this is my photoblog, and not www.rottentomatoes.com. So this is where I get to photography.

In one of my earlier posts, “What you feel, not what you see” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/03/what-you-feel-not-what-you-see/), I wrote (sometimes I use the word “wrote” and at times, “spoke” because I do actually speak to myself while writing) about a signature style. How does one find a signature style? Is it needed? Is a genre to specialize in photography necessary for that matter? While the jury is still out on this one, let me say yes. As I see and study the works of all the so-called greats in art and literature, I see each with a signature style. Think Piccaso and cubism, Charlie Chaplin’s ubiquitous bowler hat, Gaudi’s tryst with modernism and the unfinished Sagrada Familia, Dali’s surrealism (not to mention his moustache), or even words such as Kafkaesque and Hemingwayesque.

Quite literally signatures don’t come with ease – my own experience says so. I experimented with quite a few before I settled on my scribble of now, and if I had my way, I would change that too. Unfortunately, my bankers and the passport office would not agree, but fortunately with photography I can keep trying till I find that elusive signature, and even then change it if somewhere down the line if I want (or need) to. Signatures start with learning to write, first in block script and then cursive, initially with a pencil and then pen. Continuing the analogy, photography is pretty much the same; I started with thinking so much (maybe too much) before making an image about aperture, shutter speed, focal length etc., that quite often I missed the shot. Now I don’t think (not literally) about these things, it comes more naturally and what I focus on is composition, about getting the elements in the right place, seeing the light and about making sure the image works. And as my handwriting matured along the way, so has my photography. Just as I see my handwriting of a few years back in utter disdain, I see my images pretty much the same way and think “What the …. was I doing?”. But then I realize that it’s not about where I was, it is about where I am; and it is not about anything else, but about this amazingly beautiful journey of learning how to write, and the signature will follow by itself.

I made these images last year when I went to Mt. Everest. This one is of Tabuche – it almost seemed as if the mountain was on fire with the rays of dawn, it reminded me of a volcano about to erupt.  I can’t even begin to explain the feelings that overwhelmed me as I witnessed this…as night changed into day and this magical moment appeared. At that time I had stopped, unable to climb any further – I was exhausted and the almost zero oxygen in the atmosphere at that altitude did nothing to help. As I saw this sight unfold, I began climbing again, with renewed resolve and energy, all tiredness forgotten. I’d posted this image on Flickr and someone criticized (not critiqued) it about how the angle should have been different, the image sharper etc. I didn’t respond at that time, but let me say what I should have said to him then: “Try hanging off the side of a mountain at almost 6000 m holding on to its side with one hand for dear life, the other holding your not-so-light camera with a not-so-light zoom, an icy wind blasting you and threatening to blow you off the face, while gasping for each breath at that altitude, hands and fingers frozen – then I’ll give you carte blanche”.

And this is my first view of Everest from Namche Bazaar just before sunrise – the unpredictable jetstream is to the right.

And I made this photograph of Ama Dablam, perhaps the most beautiful mountain I have seen, framed by prayers flags at Dughla at dawn.

None of these are technically or maybe even aesthetically perfect images, but then are there any really? What I can say for sure, is that not only for that 1/250th of a second or whatever duration that the shutter worked for, but for the entire time that I made these photographs then, and even later, I lost myself in the “freedom” of those moments; I wasn’t here, I was elsewhere. And by being there, lost in that land-with-no-name, I experienced what love is, what passion means to me, and that brought me closer to who I am. As I wandered aimlessly in that wantonness, I began to find myself – I learnt the meaning of “discovery”.

So go ahead and find yourself by losing yourself. This isn’t philosophy, it’s only about the journey – it’s about Free Willy vs. Finding Nemo.

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P.S. I love you

Why would I want to write a love letter for the world to read? Why should I, an intensely private person with my feelings, declare undying love on my blog? Why must I, the doubtful one, say that yes, I do believe in love now? Only because this time, it is different, I feel it within – I am in love with my muse.

It was love at first sight with Ladakh, where on clear mornings, peaks of mountains part cirrus clouds and rise into azure blue skies. Beneath those skies lies a lost kingdom, Ladakh, which literally means “land of high passes” and is part fantasy, part reality. Out here the forces of nature conspired to render a magical, unrealistic landscape, a smorgasbord of extremes – both desert and blue waters, burning sun and freezing winds, glaciers and sand dunes – a veritable, primeval battleground of titanic forces.

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Ladakh is a forgotten moment in time, an anachronism if you must, with villages carved out of mountainsides, stupas reaching for the sky, chortens in fields, monasteries virtually hanging from cliffs and crags, their interiors filled with priceless antiques and art. It lies is isolated from the modern world, almost insular. Authentic to the core, it remains faithful to ancestral customs where life is characterized by intense spirituality. Rich traditions of Buddhism flourish in their purest form here, and it oftentimes has been referred to as Little Tibet. On most days as the first rays of the sun cast their crimson-gold hue on the mountains, monks sound large copper trumpets from the rooftops of monasteries, while in the courtyards below, still others in maroon robes and masks prepare for rites and performances. The music slowly rises to a crescendo; wafts of incense fill the air with fragrance, as another group of monks in ceremonial attire comes out to unfurl the “thangka” – a large painted scroll. Just another “ordinary” day in paradise, where the doorway to Heaven lies.

But I am straying from what I want to say. This isn’t a travelogue, but a photoblog. So now getting to business – why did I say “I am in love” in my opening proclamation, and not use the contemporary, “I’ve fallen in love”. Because the word “fall” implies that the process is in some way inevitable, uncontrollable, risky, irreversible, or that it puts me in a state of vulnerability. I only agree with the first adverb, not the others, as I am not really contemporary. In ways more than one, I am classical in my thought and belief, a purist at heart who bought his digital SLR much after the world had transitioned to bits and bytes, because I believed that photography is either about film, or it isn’t. I still much rather prefer the expression of B&W. Even today, I rarely, if ever, crop the images I create because I believe composition is within the frame, not in the digital darkroom. Strange, yes I know.

So in the classical world which I believe in, “love at first sight” was understood as passionate love, a kind of madness or, as the Greeks put it, theia mania (“madness from the Gods”), and was explained as a sudden and immediate beguiling of the lover. Which is just what happened to me with my muse. Now a muse either exists in a photographer’s life, or she doesn’t; she ignites passion, infuses fire, ignores rules, embraces abandon. Without this freedom and desire, I can’t create. In a sense, my muse is the stone from which my sculpture, my art is created. She is there, everywhere, but yet not. To recognize her needs time, patience, a deliberate slowing down to see your own art; when that art comes from within, when it is the creation of your soul, your entire being, when each time you see it, you feel something stir inside, then you have found your muse. So now go forth, wander, and find your muse, whoever, whatever, wherever she might be. It is only then you will discover the meaning of creativity (I also wrote about this in small measure in my earlier blog “Explore. Dream. Discover” http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/explore-dream-discover/).

And by the way, the word “muse” itself comes from the ancient Greeks, who started with three muses and then went to nine. Eventually Plato named Sappho, born on the island of Lesbos, as the tenth muse – the poetic muse, as she was known. (I also think of photography as poetic, visual poetry so to speak, which is why I write). Much after the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 38 invoked the Tenth Muse:

“Be thou the tenth Muse, ten times more in worth, Than those old nine which rhymers invocate.”

Well Mr. Bard of Avon, I found the eleventh. So there.

P.S. Ladakh, I love you.

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I’ve designed my own website from scratch and had it up and running just this evening. Sure It has taken me the better part of the last two days to learn web-design from knowing it as well as an Eskimo is fluent in Swahili, almost sleepless nights with a few hours of turbulence, tossing and turning, missed meals, but though I am bleary-eyed, quite contrarily I am also wide-eyed and bushy tailed. I am really happy, and let me write about this. But then why would I want to write about my escapade (adventure?) of designing a website in my photoblog? What’s the similarity you might say? Well, lots actually.

When I saw the predesigned template for my blog, I wasn’t happy. Now don’t misunderstand me. It did my job, and it did it pretty well; I wanted to only write after all, and upload some images and albums and galleries. The usual shindig. But yet, the absence of zing nagged me. I kept pestering the website designers to tweak this, add that, change this a little, adjust that a lot. I knew what I wanted and tried to tell them, but they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) understand. This happened for quite a while. That’s when I gave up on the geeks. It’s pretty much the same thing when I make an “ordinary” photograph. When I see the image, even though it might look “good” and does the job (like my website did) of “capturing the moment”, I don’t feel happy, that feeling of being wowed is missing. Sure I have that “beautiful-by-all-standards” photograph with tack sharp focus or great bokeh either which way, amazing color, balanced contrast etc., but there is no emotion. It’s a snapshot in time, not a photograph, not a creation. It just doesn’t move me. It’s the difference between ersatz and real.  I want to be moved, whether to tears or to unbridled laughter doesn’t matter. But touch me within.

And why couldn’t the designers understand what I wanted? Maybe my language was different, I didn’t know techno-speak, or maybe I couldn’t express what I needed. Again such déjà vu with photography. Ever so often people who see images I create don’t really appreciate those I find the best, and for some strange reason I can’t fathom what they find in what I would categorize as “ordinary”. Perhaps I couldn’t really express what I felt, or needed to say in my self-classified “best images”, and maybe in others there was a language that I didn’t understand, yet captured by accident. But let me not be so harsh on myself, maybe I did express what I felt, but people couldn’t understand me; so if they be my audience, then I need to speak to them and for them.  Or should I really? I think not – I need to be true to myself which is why I designed my website on my own (returning to the subject at hand now, albeit briefly). I don’t make photographs for others, I do it for myself. If people like what I make, great; if not, that too is fine.  People found my last website nice, but I wasn’t happy and it was for me after all. I don’t write or photograph professionally, and certainly not for others. I only do it because I love it. To thine own self be true.

Once the decision to do my own web design was made, the rest fell into place. What came next?  I needed inspiration. I’ve written about this before I went to Ladakh in my post “This too shall pass” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/04/this-too-shall-pass/). I studied websites of photographers, I looked at design sites, fashion and art for inspiration to get the creative juices flowing.  Just what I did before I left for Ladakh to photograph. I studied before I went there. I saw photographs. I read about Buddhism. For no rhyme or reason, I saw maps of Ladakh. I had the times of sunrise and sunset with me. I thought of which places I would see on what day, and which were the best points-of-view and times to create images of those sights.  I didn’t do what most would do – use the easy way out, and accept what you get, either a pre-designed web template or a snapshot in lieu of a photograph. I needed to create, and so I did.

Then I made notes on what I want within my website: which pages should I have, which images to upload, what hyperlinks to use, how should the content look and so on. This is precisely what I do before I go on a photography trip. I make notes. Where do I go? When? What do I want to make a photograph of? What is this place about? What can I express though my image which either hasn’t been shown before or if it has, then how can I be different?  Even before I got to the programming and designing bit, I planned and much on the same lines, before I step out to make photographs, or attempt to touch my camera, I create. With a pen and a piece of paper, I create.  Now for this photograph which I made from the air just prior to landing in Leh. For my inbound flight, I knew I should be on the starboard side of the aisle because as the plane would bank in for the final approach, I would have the Indus on my side with the sun just rising behind me and that would make for hopefully a beautiful landscape if all else went well.  So that is where I checked in, front-row, window seat please, 2D thank you. And I didn’t forget my circular polarizer. Call it luck if you must, but as this apocryphal quote goes, “the harder I work, the luckier I get”.

Well you could argue that with all of this, I would lose spontaneity. No sirrie, not at all. While designing my website, and inputting codes and script in HTMLS, CSS, PHP and the works, I sometimes got unexpected results. Not necessarily bad, but unexpected. Having said that, I needed to know why what happened, did happen. So I explored, and investigated and learnt even more. Same is the case with photography. You see I could never cater for that errant cloud coming across the sun and spoiling that postcard sunset shot which I had planned for after climbing to 4550 m. But because I had planned, I knew of another vantage point near at hand. I was in a sense the pilot who knew an alternative route in bad weather. And because I had failed and experimented and tried, I knew a blurred photograph in low light isn’t necessarily bad, but it needs to be deliberate. The photograph that follows was a spontaneous one… as an interesting aside, this couple was very happy to have their photograph made and this gentleman did pretty much the entire pre-photo op routine including adjusting his headgear, and yes, straightening the badge on it too. There was another lady sitting next to them in a rather straightforward outfit who I sort of “forgot to include” while composing the frame. Isn’t that defined as spontaneity?

Even after all of this, some cynics (and critics) would be ready with the repartee “I don’t need all this”. To this I daresay, don’t use a euphemism for being mechanical about photography. Remember the only mechanism in this whole process is the camera! Because the moment it clicks, you become a creator, an inventor.

And you should rightfully then be able to say “Eureka”.

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