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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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What you feel, not what you see

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So photograph what you feel, not what you see.

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