Tag Archives: Ladakh

On gratitude

Almost a lifetime. That is how long it feels now that I am here finally writing a post. Words don’t come easy. I am stumbling, staring at the blank sheet of paper as I attempt to find expressions that can convey what and how I feel. Nothing yet.

But I know the photographs I want to share, and those I hope will render this easy. For the last 3 months I have been in the deserts of Iraq on work, but yearning for the mountains that I love.  Those are the photographs I have open at this point of time – waiting, hoping that there will be this sudden surge of inspiration. The mountains do something for me. And not going there makes me feel as if I were incomplete. In the same way, photography and writing make me complete. I am different from what I was when I left for Iraq. I have been told that by those who know me. And what I have been told hasn’t been good. I have changed, and not for the better. This is what happens when I don’t photograph, when I don’t write and I don’t find myself in the mountains. These are what I am, this is who I am.

After months of travel, I finally got around to editing some photographs of Ladakh where I was in April, and found quotes as I often do for them.

For this one, I thought of what Andy Rooney said: “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” ­

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And this is what Pablo Neruda said in 100 Love Sonnets:

“So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.”

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“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” – Cynthia Hand, Hallowed

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As as I beheld spring, the words of Ernest Hemingway came to mind:  “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

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I feel better now as I write. I know this post isn’t great, but this is just how I feel without having photographed or written for months. I just hope the photographs compensate for my words.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ­– Hunter S. Thompson

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It is much later such as now when I contemplate deeper on what that moment meant to me, do words come out and find their place, intruding as they were on my feelings. It is only in retrospect that I can actually apply logic and creativity and composition and all such things to the frame. Not then.

The feeling of being there, both in solitude and otherwise, is something I cannot explain in words. Not possible, even for me.  But I’ll do the best I can. The feeling is meditative, of being immersed in the here and now, utterly and completely awestruck by the sheer beauty of it all. As I reflect on how I feel then, I realize that more often than not, I have no thoughts. Everything is still. And somewhere in that meditative frame of mind, I put the camera to my eye and press the shutter. I don’t compose. Or let me put it differently – I cannot compose. At least not according to me. I am in a zone.

Sometimes not always, there are those errant tears that run down as I see whatever is in front of my eyes. It is Creation. No, it is the Creator.

And there is only one thought if at all that overwhelms me then:

Of gratitude.

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The Last Aryans

This post is long overdue, I know. Somehow things have just conspired to happen this way. Anyway, I was out in Ladakh for quite a few days in April, then Spiti for a while in May and as I write this post, I am sitting in Iraq on work. So it were the mountains that beckoned me for two months in a row and now the deserts should I say, of Assyria?

And indeed JRR Tolkien’s words from ‘The Fellowship of the Rings’ are for me: “Not all those who wander are lost.” That is what I believe. I am, what can only be described as, an inveterate traveler with a classic case of the wanderlust. I travel to photograph. And write. I travel to discover. And each time I do, I discover more about me than that outside of me.

Let me explain.

I am, as I said, a mountain person. I climb. I trek. Alone. People often question me why? Quite honestly, I can never come up with a one-line answer. But it is just the reason why I headed off to Ladakh a few weeks ago. Just to be in solitude, with myself and my thoughts, in the mountains. And of course, I needed a muse to photograph. Much of my photography is about portraiture. I’d read about the ‘Last Aryans’ in Ladakh sometime in the past, and being with them was part of my ever increasing, to-do bucket list. I needed to tick this one off. It was long overdue.

When I met the so-called ‘Last Aryans’, the words that instantly came to mind are: ‘forgotten’ tribe; a few thousand people who even now speak their own language and worship their own Gods, almost isolated from the world. The Brokpas (or Brogpas (literally meaning mountain dwellers, Brog meaning hillock, and Pa for an inhabitant), of Ladakh are an indigenous tribe of only about 4000 people, and are amongst the smallest ethnic groups in the world. They are, by and large, isolated from ‘civilization’, living in a remote area – the Dha Hanu valley of Ladakh, a region of the turbulent Indian state of Kashmir.

Most people head to Ladakh to the usual suspects of Leh and around, Pangong Tso and of course, Khardung-La for the mandatory photo-op. Now don’t get me wrong – these are all beautiful places, but Ladakh is much more than that. Ladakh’s less visited ‘second half ’ is its northern part – sparsely populated Buddhist Zanskar and the slightly greener Shia-Islam Suru Valley, which have much to offer. En route north to this area from Leh, is the Dha Hanu valley. Across this part of the world, the Indus flows gently, enhancing the romance of a landscape that is otherwise surreally barren, possibly even more than what Ladakh is otherwise known for.

Some of the Brokpas also inhabit the Baltistan region, and pretty much the same, they speak an archaic form of the Shina language unintelligible with other dialects of Shina. I found it fascinating that between themselves they would converse in their dialect, yet with me they were comfortable in Hindi, or even a smattering of English. While Brokpa folklore says that their ancestors migrated to this valley several centuries back, probably due to the harsh environmental conditions, some believe that they migrated from Gilgit during the turmoil of warring chieftains. There is another view, apocryphal perhaps, that they are actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, whose Genghis Khan-like sexual decadence is a matter of legend!

Whatever might be their origin though, the Brokpas are now considered (or conjectured) to be the last Aryans of the Kashmir-Himalayan highlands, and the purest descendants of the ancient Indo-Europeans. This theory is not lost of them. In all my conversations across villages, the young and aged both reiterated that they were ‘true’ Aryans innumerable times. On these lines, it is noteworthy that they are predominantly Caucasoid in contrast to the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh. DNA samples drawn from the Brokpas have been sent to the Genographic Project for analysis, based on which the community has been determined to be “ancient” and “isolated”. There isn’t enough global data, though, to ascribe their true location of origin.

What marks the Brokpas out, however, is that they have lived isolated for centuries in such an inaccessibly harsh terrain (where temperatures plummet to minus 40 degrees in winter) that their “Aryan” DNA “seemingly” remains untainted. Because of this isolation, fraternal polyandry and polygamy was also prevalent. Having read about this, I broached this subject with some finesse after the ice was broken; I was told by the villagers that this was the case about a century ago; however, is changing under the influence of Buddhism and Islam. It has also been documented that in the past, some foreigners had found their way to Brokpa villages to be impregnated by Brokpa men, tantalized by the prospect of exotic Aryan purity.  In my conversations with them, this was attributed to an urban legend, pun intended.  That being said, in 2007, filmmaker Sanjeev Sivan released his documentary “Achtung Baby: In Search of Purity” based on German women travelling to these villages to be impregnated by men they believe to be racially pure Aryans. The Brokpas do qualify as exotic on most counts, beginning with the elaborate floral headdresses that the women wear even when they work in the fields – rather Fridaesque. The headdress includes rows of coins, some dating as far back as the 19th century, stitched together for ornamentation, and bright ribbons. The typical attire of the male consists of a turban with a flower or two, and a long woolen gown held at the waist by a girdle of cloth, and woolen trousers.

The Brokpas are nominally Buddhist; however animist and Bön rituals still survive. And yet the Buddhism they practice is markedly dissimilar from that followed in central and eastern Ladakh. Their customs differ from those of the Tibetan-descended population of those areas; and their cosmic system shows distinct traces of pre-Buddhist animistic religion. I sure hope to see this in full flow in September, which is when I have been invited to their Bonana-na festival at harvest.

This community is relatively more backward economically than the Baltis or other communities of the region, and their general socio-economic condition remains poor. The main sources of livelihood for the Brokpas are animal husbandry, and agriculture with apple, mulberry, apricots, walnuts, cherry, peaches, pears and grapes grown in these villages.

The traditional Brokpa diet is based on locally grown foods such as barley, wheat prepared most often as tsampa/sattu (roasted flour), and potatoes. Other food includes radishes, turnips, and a brewed tea made of black tea, butter and salt, which I quite enjoyed, reminiscent of my travels in the Khumbu in Nepal when I had this with the Sherpas. Religious taboo bans dairy and poultry sources, as the deity venerated here detests cows and chicken, and so both are considered unmentionable. It is a question though as to how this uniqueness gels with the Aryan image, a race popularly deemed to be of cattle herders in ancient times?

The sum of it all remains the indelible truth that no one really knows where Brokpas come from. The confusion is amusingly represented in a blurb on them in a Lonely Planet guide to India. Titled ‘Lost Tribes’, it says in all earnestness, ‘The facial features of the Brokpa (also known as Drokpa or Dards) ‘people of the pastures’ have led to speculation that the tribe has descended from Alexander the Great’s invasion force or even a lost tribe of Israel.’

Possibly that means that the Brokpas could have come from anywhere.

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Through the Looking-Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Through the Looking-Glass.

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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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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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A Brief History of Time

I read this book many years ago, but for some strange reason, suddenly this book came to my mind this afternoon as I was working on my photographs. How and why I don’t know really. What Amazon has to say about this #1 New York Times Bestseller is this: “A landmark volume in science writing by one of the great minds of our time, Stephen Hawking’s book plunges into the exotic realms of black holes and quarks, of antimatter and “arrows of time,” of the big bang and a bigger God – where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected. Stephen Hawking brings us closer to the ultimate secrets at the very heart of creation.”

But what are the secrets at the very heart of this creation, where the possibilities are wondrous and unexpected?

Without meaning to compete with either Stephen Hawking (or God), I believe that there are only two secrets to every creation. If you’ve just thought of “imagination” as being one of them, no it isn’t – imagination is obvious, a given, not a secret. Without imagination, there is no art. I could have quoted Picasso here, but I’d much rather use Einstein’s words who said, “Logic will get you from A to Z; imagination will get you everywhere.” And I know, I’m rambling.

Getting back to the secrets – the reason why it is so easy for me to say that there are two with utmost conviction is because I have just been arranging and rearranging my images in folders to better manage them, and so I’ve had a quick look at the tens of thousands I’ve made. As I viewed those photographs, especially the contrast between the ones I had made at the beginning of my image-making journey to how I make them now, I had this epiphany.

To illustrate those secrets, I went through my photographs and finally settled on two; I wanted two images: monochrome, simple, and stark, which could convey these secrets. So stop, observe, reflect – and think of just one single word which could convey the meaning of these photographs.

Here is the first photograph:

This photograph of butter-lamps was made by me at Spituk Gompa in Ladakh. When I made the image 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 His presence. I thought of “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.”

And here is the second:

The second image is of the mountainside en route to Phyang Gompa on the outskirts of Leh. Phyang was one of the villages affected by the flash floods of 2010, detritus of which still remains testimony to the havoc and destruction wrought, and on which I stood attempting to balance my tripod in futility. The monastery itself is just about a few hundred meters from where I made this photograph, and was untouched. A matter of faith perhaps? As I stood there in that valley of barren fields staring mesmerized at just granite, dwarfed by rock and mountain, the icy wind whistling past, I could only think of “endurance”.

Maybe you got the same (or similar) words, maybe you didn’t. Maybe you think differently. But these are my secrets, for photography, and for life. Faith and endurance. But does this mean, I won’t (or don’t) fail? I never said so. Of course I’ve failed often…at almost everything I’ve tried, work, relationships, photography, writing, but I never give up. I learn from what I did wrong, and I try, and try yet again. It’s frustrating, yes I know, but if I am to be true to my craft, my art, and beyond everything else, to myself, then these are my mantras to creation. Keep the faith. Keep walking.

And because I don’t give up, because I believe, because I have faith, as I go along that journey of creation, sometimes weary, sometimes not, I find myself truly blessed to witness and capture “a brief history of time”.

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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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Who am I?

The answer isn’t on the “About” page, no it isn’t. And just in case you’re wondering, I don’t intend to become a philosopher and even remotely attempt to answer this question which has troubled many more illustrious sorts from Aristotle to Albert Camus. And no, I won’t be a New Age Guru either.  This question actually came to my mind when I was merely wondering why people should, or would want to, read my blog. What would they be thinking? Am I a Pulitzer award winning photographer or a Booker prize author? Am I delusional? Related to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or is this a prolonged Prozac moment? If your answer to my rhetoric is “none of the above”, then do continue reading.

I am just the regular guy next door who had not a cent when I bought my camera. I was in business school at that time. It was just after I graduated and I was doing research at Singapore with a Professor whom I requested for advance on my stipend and then used it for an SLR. And because I spent my entire stipend (it wasn’t much you see) on a measly camera (yeah right) I missed meals because I had no money to eat. How many people would do that? I am just this regular guy next door who after he got his camera studied (deliberate use of the word) photography and proceeded to win a competition within a month of my “miss-your-square-meal” acquisition. Of course, I promptly used the prize money to buy some more photography equipment. I am just this regular guy next door who in the middle of an Indian summer when it’s pushing almost 50 degrees Celsius steps out to photograph because the color of the sky is absolutely amazing. If I confess that I am this regular guy, what then is my claim to fame?

My claim to fame is this passion of mine, my burning desire to create images that are an indelible part of the inner me, which are from, and of my soul. My claim to fame is also my openness to share this journey with you, my trials and tribulations both, my angst and happiness in equal measure, so that you can see the world through my heart but as it appears through my lens. My claim to fame is that I am a voyeur as a photographer but also an exhibitionist because I am unabashedly naked with my feelings in my images and what I have to say here.

Yes, there are many better photographers than me, I agree. Also an equal number of writers, but I daresay that list gets rather pruned only because I do both with passion and honesty. On 14th March 1839, Sir John Herschel, in a lecture before the Royal Society of London, made the word “photography” known to the world. But in an article published on 25th February the same year in a German newspaper called the Vossische Zeitung, Johann von Maedler, a Berlin astronomer, had used the word photography already. The etymology of the word photography derives from the Greek photos, genitive of phos, “light” and graphé “representation by means of lines” or “drawing”, together meaning “writing or drawing with light”. So in a matter of speaking, I am writing as I create, and I also create when I write. Sometimes though my writing may not be legible even to me – this photoblog is an attempt to set things right.

A recurrent theme in my writing will always be “creation” – the process itself. What I felt, what stirred within me. It is that emotion which I will share. My website is in itself a classic example of my passion; I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t make money from either my photography or writing, far from it. But I have done this only because I believe that it’ll help me create better, and maybe a few others along the way as well. As an aside, I had a business blog (still do in fact) but I stopped writing there because my heart really wasn’t in it. As you can see, it wasn’t because I can’t write.

Now for this photograph – sure I can describe it using the golden mean and rule of thirds and diagonals and converging and leading lines etc., but more than that I should be able to express what I felt at that moment and describe it to you.  I believe I can, and I believe you can too, if only you learn to see with your heart.  As I crossed Choglamsar just off Leh, I passed by these chortens in a field. I paused and stared – which is what I always do when I am awestruck. What I witnessed was raw beauty, barren, yet pristine and pure. A dramatic sky. I felt and believed that the presence of God is everywhere you go, His beauty manifested in many forms. The paths along the parched earth in the photograph are all in different directions yet moving towards the chortens, the Universal Truth in many shapes, of many names. What I also felt was that as you move along this path, you will grow in stature from a small bush to a stoic tree as they are in the photograph. It is then that you see and experience the real expanse of the Universe, the vastness of the sky, the size of mountains. It is then that you’re closer to the Self, closer to your own being.

And for this photograph, I only want to use the words of Hermann Hesse, “We must become so alone, so utterly alone, that we withdraw into our innermost self. It is a way of bitter suffering. But then our solitude is overcome, we are no longer alone, for we find that our innermost self is the spirit, that it is God, the indivisible. And suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of the world, yet undisturbed by its multiplicity, for our innermost soul we know ourselves to be one with all being”.

Isn’t it much better than saying “Oh, this is a nice snap”. I detest the word “snap” by the way. It is just too frivolous for something as beautiful as an image. It trivializes creativity. It reminds me of snapping my fingers or worse still, snapping at someone. So when I write about photographs that I’ve made and which have really touched me within, it helps me think, lets me see my images over and yet over again, allows me to introspect and figure out in words what was it that moved me within, what stirred my soul, what stayed with me. It is then that I get an inch closer to the answer.

Oh, what was the question again? Who am I?

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Eureka

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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