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.

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