Monday, August 30, 2010

Trespass, rape and kidnap at f=2,8

The first hills appeared on the horizon as we aproached Kalka, the gateway of the Himalayas.

Kalka is a typically chaotic and dirty town, renown for being the starting point of the toy train to Simla. Having our own roads, we were just passing through...

...until I saw something interesting in a roadside shop. A small girl was tending to her grandfather and I immediately felt drawn into this scene of intimate tenderness amidst all the filth, noise and chaos.

Skirting a cow I approached the shop and leant over a table loaded with underwear and socks for sale, all dirty from street filth and exhaust fumes, wishing my 24-70 were just a little longer.

While I was vacillating whether just peeking inside into their intimacy and keep them undisturbed or say "hello" for politeness' sake, the girl realized I was there and turned around. Oups - she was not a little girl as I thought but a midget.

It was her truly innocent charm that cast a spell on me, though, topped with the happy contentment on the old tailor's face. To me, that was pure love although I could only guess what their relation was. Photography-wise it was a tricky situation. I wanted to frame them with their environment, to include the old Singer and the word "TAILOR" to the right, but that would have made them less dominate the picture. Focusing closer, the corner of the tablet protruded into the frame. A flaw I had to live with I guess... any arrangement or instruction would have caused the tender moment to disappear.

The good news was that the neighboring shopkeepers seemed to genuinely respect and take care of them. One of them, a Sikh, literally ordered me to show them the pics on the LCD and when I told him "I'll give them a much better gift" he asked, "what? MONEY???" with an expression on his face that promised nothing good. However, it was my Fuji Instax I reached for and the polaroid did its magic once again, making them perfectly happy. In return I got a kiss as a good-bye present.

On we drew towards Manali, or better to Kasauli where we hoped to arrive before nightfall. We stopped occasionally for tee & cigarettes at a dhaba, a roadside shack selling basic food and chai, which was good opportunity to get more acquainted to my new 24-70/2,8L. I received this magnificent lens only a few daysbefore departure and soon realized how much better it was than the 24-105/4L I used last year. My piece of last year was obviously flawed since I could never get it to focus accurately but the new lens performed extremely well. I missed image stabilization though because my hands aren't as steady as they used to be and it's very easy to get a photo blurred at 2,8, especially with such a heavy lens. Popping up ISO to 400-800 and faster shutter speed helped to eliminate this risk, and shooting RAWs made it possible to reduce the noise to a decent level afterwards. Another trick was to raise my left arm to my chest and lay the camera on it instead of holding it by my hands.

On the road, I tried to do more of my favorite juxtaposition: wide-angle shots of people with their mountainous land in the background.

But it was shortly before Manali where I found treasure. Another small dhaba, run by two girls. The dirty, smoke-stained wall was a perfect background for portraits in itself, and the younger girl with her big eyes, resembling dark diamonds, was just the perfect model for a close-up portrait.
My little model liked to pose but her older sister disapproved and despite trying to display my best maners, the situation got tense. We quickly finished our chai and left. Two lonely girls alone in a roadside dhaba - can't entirely blame them for being a little paranoid. I asked Soni why she was scared. He said, locals think I will sell their pictures for lots of money (I wish that was true!) or worse, show the pictures to bad people who then will come and kidnap the girls. What could I say? At this point I was already believing what Susan Sontag said about photography being a form of rape and violence, and kept pondering over this until we arrived in a foggy, rainy Manali.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A quest to kill the Buddha

You know the Zen saying: if you meet the Buddha, kill it.
I did never really get the meaning of this till now. It means: you can't meet something you're not supposed to meet. It can only be an illusion, and as such, you need to get rid of it. Translated into photographic language: if you capture the perfect motif on your travel, delete it. It's not the real stuff. Talking about India, it means that beautiful Rajasthani man with his turban, the big-eyed girls with their nose piercings, elephants in the sunset, the pink hue of the Taj at dawn, camels in the Thar desert. But subsequently a feeling of deja vu sets in: all these perfect motifs have been photographed and seen ten thousand times. We take a photographic inventory of all what's interesting and exotic, not realizing it's just a visual delusion that needs to be pierced. The challenge is to show something that tells a story beyond travel experience and exoticism. Taking photographs where the location is totally negligible, because they have something universally human to them.
Bottomline: if you meet him, kill the Buddha. If you go to India, don't take photographs about India.
I wanted to test this theory. By the way, why India? I love the Himalayas, the scent of pinewood and deodar; I love the history of the Raj, you know, Great Game and all; and last not least, Indian life saturates the heart both in a good and bad way, making it an experience that never fails to touch the soul.

Besides, I had some unfinished business there.

So, after arriving on 2 August at Delhi I hooked up with Soni and his trusty Scorpio and we headed immediately for Ambala. I had hoped to see Priyanka again. I took with me her photographs, some toys and a reasonable amount of money to make her life a little easier, and being an incurable dreamer I even asked my wife what she'd say if I returned with an adopted little girl in my luggage. (She liked the idea.) We made our way to their shanty opposite Ambala's Maronite church.

Disappointment waited, the first of many as it turned out later. Priyanka wasn't there - she traveled back to their village in Bihar with her family. What could I do? I asked the neighbors to give them the photographs when they return.

In turn, the neighbors came with their kids and asked to be photographed; however, they were all sick, some of them with a horrible skin disease all over their fly-covered faces. A proud father lifted up his son to the lens; he started to vomit. "Hey man, he's sick" I said but the man just kept him up laughing.

They showed me another woman and insisted I photograph her. She must have been la plus beau du quartier or something because they were really pushing me, and I reluctantly took a few shots because she didn't look too happy.

I asked to see her husband, because out of respect I thought I need to talk to him; the father of the vomiting baby disappeared in a shack and I saw him literally kicking awake a sleeping man. Judged by his eyes he was dosing off a healthy amount of alcohol or drugs, and probably didn't even get my meaning when Soni translated my words about "thanks for letting me taking photos of your wonderful wife etc. I wish well for your daughter may she be a mother of a thousand sons etc. please take this teddy bear and give it to her when she's bigger etc...". Disappointed, impotent in my wish to make a difference and sweating like a pig in the scorching heat, I told Soni: let's get the hell out of here and thanks to God for air conditioning. Climbing back into the car I realized: it's not about getting the hell out of this place, it's about getting out of hell.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Passage to India 2.0

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Or sick. Or just breaks your heart.