Tag Archives: vision

Heartbreak Hotel

I’ve been told that my blogs are too long, so I’m going to write this real short.

After a near cardiac-failure (read: hard-disk failure – those I suppose are synonymous for a photographer) last week, I was backing-up my images today on an external hard drive and came across this photograph which I had made in late January. I remember so clearly – that day had been disastrous to say the least, nothing seemed to be working out, everything was going wrong – an affaire de couer totally messed up. I was mad at the whole world (okay, okay, just her) and thought that maybe a photo shoot would put me in a better frame of mind (as it always does).

So I stepped out of my house with thoughts of wandering around and returning home with a CF card filled with great images, and my heart filled with gay abandon. The moment I exited my gate, I saw this picture of Sai Baba (an Indian guru, yogi, and fakir who is regarded by both Hindu and Muslim devotees as a saint) hanging on a tree. Now for the surprising bit – this particular tree is not more than 10 feet from my exit and I must have crossed it possibly a few thousand times, but yet I’d never seen this picture there.

For a photographer who prides himself on being observant, this is not only inexplicable, but also unpardonable. One out of two ain’t bad, so I won’t pardon myself, but explain I shall. That cold, winter day in January (Hemingwayesque?) I was feeling low, dejected, rejected, abandoned by God (yes, that is extreme emotion, I know) and how I felt “allowed” me to see this picture of a “discarded God” which I’d quite literally been blind to all these years. On that day, my innermost thoughts, feelings and emotions of angst and pain determined what I saw, and not the other way around. I’d written a blog earlier, “What you feel, not what you see” (http://debeshsharma.com/2012/03/what-you-feel-not-what-you-see/). Maybe the opposite is true – is what we see, a manifestation of how we feel? Conundrum?

Since I said that this blog will be short, I will keep my promise, and will answer that question later. And if you don’t already know how I felt that day, here it is:

“Well, since my baby left me
I found a new place to dwell
It’s down at the end of Lonely Street
At Heartbreak Hotel.”

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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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Explore. Dream. Discover

After a week in Ladakh, I feel the magic! I am happy. I was thrilled to hold my camera in my hand in Ladakh, morning, afternoon, evening. Yet I had been despondent same time seven days back, really miserable. Everything seemed right with photography, yet all wrong with my photographs (or at least so I thought). I was feeling blue when I wrote my last blog post, and promised to write about what worked for me, what allowed me to get into the creative groove from the creative rut, a subtle but evocative turn of phrase (and mindset).

All I needed really was to get out of where I was – the physical space. My environs had made me mentally claustrophobic, emotionally constrained. I’d stopped feeling. For me, the process of making a photograph, of creating an image is heartfelt…it’s not just about putting my viewfinder to my eye and pressing the shutter release button to capture whatever fills that frame. A photograph for me is a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. But I’ll write about the photographic story some other time. For now, let’s return to what happened. When I kept visiting the same places, seeing the same people, the same things where I was, over and yet over again, I suffered from cognitive blind spots. I was inured, and for that reason, “trigger shy.”

I literally needed to get out for some fresh air. In the rarified high-altitude atmosphere of Ladakh, my brain may have been oxygen starved, but my soul was satiated. I felt everything with innocence, without thought, logic or reason, but through the awestruck eyes of a child seeing that brand new toy. My singular goal was to engage “photographic gears” of the heart, the eye, and the mind (in that order) so that better photographs could follow. I needed to feel again.

Working in unfamiliar territory (literally) often provides insights to me and offers new ideas and challenges. Again, this gets my brain working, solving problems, and leads to new approaches. For example, I don’t focus on any specific genre, but I rather create images of people, places, and things that stir me within, that make me feel deep inside long after I have made that photograph. But in Ladakh, I spent a long time photographing locals, talking to them, and that almost compelled me to look at photographic composition in ways that I hadn’t before.

On my first day in Ladakh, I was driving by when I saw this old man sitting on a broken-down chair in a junkyard by the roadside. I crossed him and went past for maybe about half-a-kilometre or so when I felt something tugging at my heart and wanting me to go back. So I turned around, went back, smoked a cigarette with him, and made a few photographs of Mr. Twinkling Eyes. Isn’t it strange how the eyes don’t have to be wide open for the universal language of an indulgent smile to be recognized? This place was en route to where I was staying in Leh and I crossed it each day. Every single day after that I watched out for this old man, but never saw him again. I’m glad I went back.

Lesson learnt – shoot at sight!

I experimented. I made some great images, and I daresay some masterpieces; and that was just because I felt free, felt liberated – there were no limiting boundaries of the “same old, same old”. I talked to people, listened to their stories. I created pictures of the same subject in many ways – over- and under-exposed, black-and-white and color, in focus and out of it. I had no rules, but for an imposition I placed on myself – I wouldn’t crop any images later. This ensured I walked (and slowly at that) to get the composition right, which also meant I saw and felt much more. When I moved physically, I saw my subject with a more open mind and fresher eyes. I approached the entire process of making a photograph in new ways and along those ways I learnt much about my photographic vision. My idea was to remember that there are a million ways to look at even the most “ordinary” subject. Having said that, I actually don’t believe that there are any “ordinary” subjects, just photographers with ordinary vision – I’d used that word, figuratively speaking, to put across a point. As Emerson profoundly observed, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament”.

Of course it helped that I was surrounded by conventional and classical beauty. And also beauty in the form that photographers with visual acuity see – the wayside sacrament variety. I had found my muse. I had discovered Ladakh. As an illustration, this photograph of prayer flags is possibly “ordinary”, but for me it has a meaning as it would for everyone who has been to places such as this. Prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bon, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally woodblock-printed with texts and images, they have Buddhist Sutras inscribed which were then transmitted to other regions of the world by the wind. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by devas against their adversaries, the asuras. These horizontal prayer flags, called lung ta (meaning “Wind Horse”) in Tibetan, are in five colors representing the elements, and arranged from left to right in a specific order: blue, white, red, green, and then yellow. Blue symbolizes sky/space, white symbolizes air/wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth. But for me the meaning is rather simple. Serenity. Belief. Faith. Hope

And so yes, that too did pass. All because I stepped out. Thank you Mark Twain for telling me that. “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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This too shall pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This too shall pass.

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I am not a Zen Master

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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