Because it’s there!

Stonehenge| Wiltshire | England

There has been a sad shift from art being created to it being questioned. The photographs were meant to be created as visual delights. A new process, technique, or aesthetic appeal. Words were for writers as they didn’t paint. They explained in thousand words what a photographer could in one frame. 

Then came the period of mass-manufacturing of cameras and photographers – the wave of ‘every person is a photographer’. 

They were. 

Are.

So if everyone is photographing the Stonehenge, then someone who is making a big deal out of photography will now need to concoct some cock-and-bull to somehow convince the world that only their photograph of the monument is worth hanging on the museum and living room walls over the millions of other photographers’ images of the same scene.

That’s all it takes.

People are attracted to the poorly lit/composed image because they are made to believe it’s created that way on purpose, for a reason. It’s deliberately pixelated, and not because the amateur forgot to adjust the camera settings…. The Mosaicy Feel – first ever. Even a bad day of photography got sold.

This not only compromises the effort of a real genius, but also encourages mediocrity as those who shout the loudest get heard, get sold. Mediocrity rules. 

Though, a few geniuses have learnt to shout too. The professionals are having to adapt. 

If my photographs are good enough, then why am I not considered close enough? How did Capa get away with it then?

I’m far from being a genius, but also far from being a mediocre. So, if an image I create evokes awe, then why do I need to explain it? 

Should my answer to why something was photographed be not as straightforward as Mallory’s reason for wanting to summit Mount Everest? 

“Because it’s there”?!

…..Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

The Messiah Must Reside In Such Quietude

Sarkhej Roza, Makarba, Gujarat.

It was an early start. Ahmedabad has changed to an unrecognisable extent. I drove from there through S.G. Highway to Makarba one July morning in 2018 as per the directions given by Bubbles in a cutely sincere manner – two lefts,  then right,  then straight for 2 kms,  then three rights, and so on. It must have been the combination of her accuracy and my ability to grasp that I reached the masjid with sheer ease. The light from the golden torch was making its way to the earth before bribing its way into the roza’s courtyard.

Bhavna Ramrakhiani – Convenor of Ahmedabad Community Foundation

Bhavna stood there to greet me. Oh, what a beautiful face she had. Those eyes!! She instantly came across as a warm person willing to share her knowledge of the place. She spoke a welcome mix of educated English and raw Hindi. We entered the monument, removed our shoes, covered our heads.

Morning scene
Man reading the morning papers

A typical morning scene. Touchingly serene. A few men, unperturbed by my presence, read the morning papers. I felt at home. I kept taking photographs as Bhavna’s soft voice kept singing in my ears. We Indians are spoilt. Our history dates so far back that we casually declare a six centuries old structure as recent. We even neglect it. 

Morning arrivals
Sarkhej Roza

This was Sarkhej Roza, once the home of sufi saint, Ganj Baksh. To one side stood a stone pavilion in a sad state of disrepair and to the other, a courtyard with a masjid and quietly guarded tombs. Several mausoleums, an old well, hundreds of wide steps leading down to a dried tank and the infinite expanse. One part of the mosque, with its tall pillars reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens. It was too much for me to take in on a short morning tour. 

Stone pavilion in state of disrepair
Pillars of the mosque
Path to the mosque

Once in a while a person will walk the white-painted path, that led to the masjid, to speak in private to the supreme being. This path was also taken by the Sun to kiss the cheek of the messiah who must most definitely reside in such quietude.

Prayers
Connecting with the messiah
Girl playing
Well-wheel spoke shaped like a bird
Spoke on the wheel of the well resembling a bird

A small girl jumped and skipped on the steps oblivious to all. A spoke of the well-wheel pulley made to resemble an exotic visitor to the Sabarmati River. A cormorant or a spoonbill perhaps. The little bookshop opened early. A few men sat selling to no customers at all. Bhavna enjoyed a nice chat with them. A silvery bearded man in immaculate white clothes and matching taqiyah takes over the shop. “Maybe he’ll sell only one book today,” I thought. I buy one. But he will remain all day no matter what. Dedication. Service. We all can learn.

Men in the book shop, Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.
The Old Man with silvery beard and immaculate clothes. Sarkhej Roza, Gujarat.

The cleaner, with her younger grandson in her arms, complained about her useless son-in-law. From Bhavna’s story to this – it felt like I had changed the radio station. 

The cleaner with her younger grandson and running commentary

Her elder grandson played near the main gate. His angelic face captivated me so much that I took several photos of him. He kept changing poses. A young man sat on the chair. 
Maybe, that was the accused.

The elder grandson
Angelic face
The accused. Maybe. Maybe not.

My gaze locked on a woman sitting outside the room that housed the tombs. She was not present there. She appeared to be talking to someone. But there was no one. She then laughed, and continued to laugh. Her ankles were swollen. She was a regular I was told. She walked out as aimlessly as she had walked in.

She spoke to the spirits
Woman selling balloons

Outside the mosque, another lady sold balloons. “She’s my friend,” announced Bhavna. Where did these people buy such delightful smiles from when they could not even afford a decent meal? How can they afford such precious attributes?

On my drive back to Ahmedabad, and before I hit the highway, I saw the lady who spoke to the spirits. She was on her way to… nowhere.

On My Jack Jones

Ramillies Street, Soho, London

I am pretty much bored of taking photos. There is no challenge around, nil creativity, internet deluged with mediocre work, everybody falsely praising everybody else, sycophantic and sugar-coated comments becoming the norm, and art critics dead.

Just when I thought I was done, I am able to envision images before shooting, and also getting the results. Oh, no, I am still far from being labelled an expert. Karma is playing a role here. Photography is not letting me go. It loves me. It misses me when I ignore it. It pushes itself in my face, in my psyche, my heart, my hands, and my dreams. It is entrapping me with fluke shots.

Last couple of days I have walked aimlessly on London streets. Like any other metropolis, this too is busy. Too busy to pause, look, or care. The anonymity it lends to individuals is sort of nice. I can sit, think for hours. It won’t impose on me its speed. I won’t be pushed or shoved if I didn’t allow. I am part of a slowly exposed still.

I stop noticing people. They are like a motion blur. My camera is restless. I spend money and time to be there. One good shot would be a bonus. I have shot almost everything on those streets. I start to create ‘odd’ images in my head, and then fire the camera. God damn it! I am starting to get exactly what I pre-see in my head. I have the camera on full manual settings, including the lens. I don’t want perfect results. I want blurs, poor compositions, over-or-under exposed shots, and other such results that will convince me enough that I am not cut out to be a photographer. It is not happening. Something out there is not letting me give up just yet. I want to travel. Have adventure. Spend my days walking and observing life, and nights in dimly-lit rooms in near silence. No camera to distract me.

It won’t happen yet. My camera is intelligent. It programmes itself to my visualisation. It is giving me the results with very little effort on my part except the part where I am being a fantasist. Canon baby is making my fantasies come true. This will last until I fall in love again. I have to pretend to ‘neglect’ it.

Seated on a bench, I watched the pigeon. It won’t leave my feet, hopeful for some crumbs. It then flies. I wait again. I will photograph it in flight, between those buildings, almost silhouette-y, but not entirely, as I want the lamp to have some light from underneath the white globe, and also slightly exposed buildings to give some context to the bird’s position.

Wishful thinking with an all-manual camera and an unpredictable bird.

It comes in the view, and I wait again until it is there where I want it. Will it? Maybe not! It just might!

And, it did.

One shot only. I didn’t want to do a second ‘for luck’s sake’. I wanted a ruined image. I wanted to return home frustrated, angry.

Can anyone ever get a image exactly how they imagined against such odds?

Divine intervention, perhaps.

On a separate note — I feel like the bird. Free. On my Jack Jones amidst urban chaos.

Like Rick Blaine, I never make plans that far ahead.

The year was 2011, a year or two into my street photography work. I photographed much of this part of London. This was the area I started with. This was the area I continued with for a couple of years. This was the area I returned to after unsuccessfully dabbling into the kind of street photography that never appealed to me. A consummate lover of all things classic and historical, I photographed in a manner that would retain the feel, which meant waiting at length for streets to be somewhat void of crowds.

That day was the very first time I stumbled upon this shop. Bogart did it. So did the red. Without him selling the store, there was no way I would be half as interested in stopping to photograph. For a long time after that, I called it the Humphrey Bogart store, for I thought it only sold Bogart memorabilia. I fired some half-hearted shots, with the intention of returning for some more when I would return specifically for it. In the meantime, I neglected the earlier (above) shots. My ‘I can do better’ mantra forever buzzing in my psyche. Don’t save copies, delete the files, take more tomorrow. Knowing full well the area was undergoing changes, I ignored walking past the place, even when only a few hundred yards away on many occasions, busy taking photographs of other streets, as I believed that there will be a next time, plus I might still have some low-res files somewhere in a corner of my folders. I went past it only once after that, took some shots of standing Bogart at the entrance of the shop, but was too lazy for the shot that I was after – from the street opposite.

Some other time! And I went away.

In 2018, when I was packing my gear to return, finally, to Brewer St., I was asked by someone, “Tomorrow, will you….?”

In reply, I swung my head in isolation, from side to side, like a hip-hop dancer, and spoke the famous words, “I never make plans that far ahead.”

Come tomorrow, I looked for my hero everywhere. Couldn’t believe I was seeing what I was seeing. I never experienced the kind of pain I did that day at a scene that was lost forever. Brightly lit clothes shop in place of the cool, dark, old, soiled, worn, seedy, hip, noir-ish, sexy, burlesque-y red shop that sported the cutout of Bogart, the stylish seasoned smoker.

What do I do now? My files gone forever, taking my arrogance along. I could NOT do better, every time. In my dumped folders, I scavenge for the photograph from before. Now, my only hope, the low-res file, was corrupted too. When I clicked on it, it would for a split second reveal what we see above, but then go blank. So, I take tens of screenshots. One screenshot worked, and I got this scene, still corrupted, but it held a mysterious charm due to those two bands running across the image, forming a deeper-red panoramic window, creating an illusion of a private eye seated in the café opposite, making a note of the scene. Like I were the private eye with my secret camera. I love the drama that the “window” creates. Oh, so The Third Man!

I am keeping this image. This is a big part of my photography work. It has everything that I love in my work for this documentary – mystery, drama, sleaze, thrill and Rick Blaine.

Like him, for better or for worse, I still don’t make plans that far ahead. And like him, I too once smoked sutta very professionally, as a good friend, a keen observer and writer, flatteringly, wrote about me in his book. More on that another time.


Cocktail in New York. Pheras in Paris.

My family and myself were in a car driving through the lesser known streets of Jaipur. There were shops alongside residential areas — greengrocers, motorcycle repairers, barbers, stationers, street vendors, metalsmiths and stonemasons. Building smaller replicas of famous statues and other landmarks seemed to be the side business of the metalsmiths and stonemasons combined, as I saw quite a few statues scattered, part finished, part unsculpted.

Libertas, that attracted millions of visitors daily in the West, had almost zero admirers on that street. She stood on a shoddy unpaved muddy sidewalk in 48°C (118.4°F).

We were instantly amused, but also bemused. What was that statue doing there? There was clearly a demand for these. In the habit of always carrying my camera, I got off the car to take a couple of photographs. The men on the site found my actions as hilarious as I found theirs.

I asked where the statue was going. “It’s for a wedding.” It saddened me to learn that these men on meagre wages were building these enormous figures for an evening party. “What pleasure exactly could be derived from these cheap replicas that cost many times more than those workers’ combined monthly wages?” I wondered. “Were they trying to fake the location through these?” “Were the business families uploading the party videos on YouTube, captioned, ‘Cocktail in New York’?”

What next? A demolition party? Where do these statues go? Submerged into the waters like Kali and Ganesha? But this is the desert state – so, no sea. Recycled? Maybe! There might just be a second-hand market for these for smaller budget weddings. Who knows!

I never found out.

Later that evening, just when my camera packed up (probably due to the heat), I saw an Eiffel Tower in the middle of a garden in an affluent residential area. The bungalow was getting ready for a wedding (one can tell of the nature of the event from the extent of the embellishments). That was definitely a wedding.

I bet there is a YouTube video of the pheras in Paris.

In my next trip, I would like to know of the fate of these non-permanent structures.

An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.