Tag Archives: visual language

To them, to you

Nothing seems the same anymore – the past has ceased to exist, and the future matters no longer. All that is important is the “here and now”.  That is truly how I feel at this moment. And for me to feel this way has been a long and arduous journey – almost ten years that began sometime late 2001. Much of those ten years were spent in darkness, a miasma – not literally, but figuratively. I was rather oblivious to feelings of those around me, people that mattered, and those who loved me, I ended up hurting, caused them deep pain and anguish in return for love.

But there will always be a tipping point, a watershed moment when things will change – I believe it to be karmic, that all of this ends when you change and when your deeds change; maybe it happens at the metaphysical level, maybe at another, but the world becomes a different place when I see it differently, when that darkness gets replaced with light. For me, it was when I stepped out with my camera alone for the very first time and went to the Himalayas in September 2011. I had time to reflect, time to retrospect and time to spring clean my soul. And when I did that, my perception of things changed. When I made this photograph of an old lady, these words of Auguste Rodin are just right for what I felt: “To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.” 

Getting to that inner truth, as August Rodin calls it, isn’t easy – it needs me to reach deep within the confines of my soul and confess finally to myself that much of what I see there is darkness; to replace that with light needs me to change. It really isn’t an easy journey – change never is; the harder right than the easier wrong, you see. But the easier wrong calls for punishment, or retribution if that is a better word. So I paid. And when I paid my dues and accumulated no more, everything changed. I believe that there is someone who is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, you might call Him by many names: Jesus, Allah, Krishna, but what’s in a name anyway? What I believe is that the Truth is within me, and not elsewhere. The light lies within. And that light once seen, illuminates all around me with beauty. As Audrey Hepburn said: “The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows and the beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.”  And these words came to mind with this photograph of an 102 year old Bishnoi lady admiring the finery of her grand daughter-in-law.

And you see as I introspect, I realize that I started seeing the light within only with my camera – which is why I always say that photography isn’t a passion anymore, it is spiritual for me. The etymology of photography, by the way, is Greek – “phot-” for light and “-graphos” for drawing. The act of creating a photograph is only after seeing the light. But more than that, I do believe a photograph has less to do with seeing the light, but more with feeling the light within. I don’t think I can create a photograph that means something, or even anything, with what I see…I can do it only with how I feel.

Because of photography, I see and feel things differently, I see magic and wonder in much that is often ignored. I find “ordinary” people fascinating, their stories compelling, when most either ignore them or worse, pity them. It is only when I can feel the magic of that which is around me, can I even begin to attempt and capture it. None of my photographs fall in the realm of art, and I would be delusional calling myself an artist. I am not one. My photographs are of what I see, you see, we all see everyday, not exotica, but perhaps the difference is that I see the magic in them, those ordinary people, I believe they have much more than I have. I believe that they are my gurus.

Which brings me to what is the meaning of guru. In the earliest known discourse of the word in the Markandeya Purana, in the form of a dialog between Shiva and Parvati, Shiva alludes to guru being the remover of darkness, bestower of light. Light. The Inner Light. Which is why I say that these “ordinary” people are my gurus – they showed me the light when all that I had was darkness. Which is why I respect them, no, I revere them. They taught me the real meaning of love. I revere you. You taught me the real meaning of love.

To them, I owe a lot.

To you, I owe a lot.

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A wayside sacrament

I must confess I have some other thoughts in my mind which I’m going to write about later, but as I was trying to place everything buzzing around in my head into some semblance of coherent order, I thought about beauty. And this blog isn’t so much about what I have to say, but on what I’m thinking at the moment. Why is it so difficult for us to find beauty? Why do we need to look in all those hidden corners other than right in front of our eyes to see beauty? Why is it impossible to recognize beauty in all that we call “ordinary”?

I don’t ever remember opening a dictionary to see the meaning of beauty – well, I did just now. I don’t even remember ever using the words and “ugly” and “hate”. And before you think I’m being holier-than-thou, I can use language that would make a salty sailor blush.

beau·ty n. pl. beau·ties

– The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality.

– A quality or feature that is most effective, gratifying, or telling.

– An outstanding or conspicuous example.

With photography an indelible focus of mine, I have learnt that the only way to recognize beauty in each and every form is to slow down in life, pause and stare unabashedly. What other people find boring, I find interesting, what other people ignore, I find intriguing, what other people pass by, I stop at. Because now I see beauty in truthfulness, a representation of what really exists, as the Lord created. For that you have to scratch the surface, sometimes deep below. And it works the same way in relationships – we hasten to judge. I have. Think about it.

I discovered beauty in these trees as I walked the Himalayas, and I was reminded of Thomas Carlyle’s words when he said: “When the oak is felled the whole forest echoes with it fall, but a hundred acorns are sown in silence by an unnoticed breeze.” So the obvious isn’t necessarily the most important. Sometimes what lies beneath is even more so. 

As those other thoughts of what I should actually be writing on overwhelm my mind, all I want to remind myself is to slow down. And listen carefully to Ralph Waldo Emerson words: “Never lose the opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting – a wayside sacrament.”

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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 Perfect Exposure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Perfect Exposure.

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The Photographer’s Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Photographer’s Heart.

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A non-zero sum game

I travel. I travel extensively. I photograph. I photograph extensively. I read. I read extensively.  I write. I write extensively.  Nothing about me happens in moderation. And yes, that also means I love deep, and it also means I hurt bad. I am emotional, sentimental and sensitive. That’s just the way I am, the way I am built.

I meet many people on my travels; I talk to many of them, and with almost all I create photographs of. But sometimes even without a conversation in words, we can speak the language of the heart. Each conversation, in words or silence, is a revelation, a story for me of their lives. I come back with many lessons, most of which I call my lessons for life. With this man I needed no words… all I needed to do was smile, and this is what I got in return. Much more than what I gave.

So you see I always come back richer than what I was before.

He reminded me of Cassandra Clare’s words in the “City of Glass”:  And he said, “You could have had anything else in the world, and yet you asked for me.” She smiled up at him. Filthy as he was, covered in blood and dirt, he was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “But I don’t want anything else in the world”, she replied.

A few days later on the same trip in Himachal, I was heading up to the summit of a mountain when I met another shepherd (one of the many with whom fortuitously my paths crossed) who was lying in his tent, or should I say, just an open tarp. For those who have been following my blogs, this was not Dighli Ram as you’d see, but another shepherd. I was fascinated by how he was – an open tent in that cold weather, tired eyes, chapped lips, wearing his patched coat, covered with a blanket, his life’s belongings strewn around, embers of the night’s fire still glowing and smoking. I stopped to chat with him and make a few photographs. I was mesmerized.

As I lay down that night in my tent, I tossed and turned, not because I wasn’t comfortable in my 900+ down sleeping bag, but I was uncomfortable with how I’d been that morning with my shepherd friend. Sure I’d chatted with him for about 15 minutes and spoken to him about what he does, where he is from, his family, his children, but all the while when I was talking to him, my thoughts kept wandering to the summit of the mountain and I didn’t spend as much time with him as I should have – which means to my heart’s content. I followed my head, not my heart. I’d been selfish. I “did” barely enough so that I could photograph him, and nothing more. Our meeting had become transactional, a bargain for me. This happened to me after many years. Even now this bothers me.

And that is when my thoughts wandered – to the innumerable, regrettable times I have done such things in my life in the past, perhaps even worse; to the times I never held an old lady’s hand to help her cross the road because I thought her hand was dirty, to how I’ve only offered a seat in the bus or the tube to those I consider “worthy” of my place, to how I’ve never even given a second glance to that bare-bodied, skeleton of a man pulling a hand-cart in the oppressive heat of an Indian summer, to how I’ve never had any remorse about not finishing the food on my plate without thinking of those scavenging in garbage bins for a few morsels. Yes, I’ve done all that and more, but I’m honest enough to admit it openly. Somewhere along the way, I realized all this, my unfounded arrogance, my selfishness and I resolved to change, and change I did, which is why I still feel guilty about spending maybe five or ten minutes less with my shepherd friend. When there are aberrations of self-centeredness like this, I feel miserable and castigate myself – you could call this blog my confession.

But what is the connection between meeting the shepherd and my past? Lots actually. In all of these instances, I allowed myself to be the center of my thoughts. It would have been no biggie had I spent some more time with him – maybe shared a cup of tea. We could have laughed some more together, I could have allowed him to use my camera – he would have been thrilled. Sure I can still turn around and say “Oh well, next time maybe”, but there is no next time. These moments past will never come back. I need to remember carpe diem. I need to remember that there is a purpose even in why I write this today. I need to remember to thank the Lord for all my blessings. I need to thank Him for something as “taken-for-granted” that I can read, write and express myself here, and there are many who understand where I am coming from. I need to thank Him for all of you, my friends. So thank you God. I need to remember to make you and others all my reasons.

These words “all my reasons” reminds me of the final scene in the film “A Beautiful Mind” when John Nash, (played by Russell Crowe) during the Nobel Prize ceremony, says this to his wife: “I’ve always believed in numbers and that equations and logics lead to reason and after a lifetime of such pursuits, I ask what truly is logic, who decides reason. My question has taken me through the physical, the metaphysical, the delusional and back and I have made the most important discovery of my career, the most important discovery of my life. It is only in the mysterious equations of love that any logical reasons can be found. I am only here because of you. You are the reason I am. You are all my reasons.”

This wasn’t planned – strange how this blog has ended with John Nash. It reminds me of the Nash Equilibrium and Game Theory. So I also need to remember that my life needs to be:

A non-zero sum game.

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To thine own self be true

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now vulnerability, tenderness, compassion and care.

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

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

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

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

To thine own self be true.

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The Lord is my Shepherd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank you Mr. Shepherd, for reminding me:

“The Lord is my Shepherd”.

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If Buddha taught photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If Buddha taught photography.

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The Bridges of Madison County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or I could whisper this to the clouds:

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

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

“The Bridges of Madison County”.

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