A few weeks ago I bumped into a friend who is an avid dog lover. She began to probe me on the huskies I had photographed on my trip to the Arctic two years ago. “ I have heard their fur is so soft that your hand sinks deep into it’’, she gushed. So I’ve heard I replied. “What ? but I saw your photos of them on your website’’, she exclaimed in disbelief. Oh yes I had the photographs. In fact I had dozens of photographs of these magnificent Arctic dogs, both of the Greenland Huskie and the Alaskan Malamute but I had to break it to her that I had no idea what their fur felt like. I was just so busy taking their photos to give a damn.
Recently a magazine editor saw my Ladakh photos and asked me to write about the rafting experience in the Zanskar . I had to admit to him that while I had the rafting photos I had no experience to write home about. Because while others rafted , I stood alone on a desolate bridge trying to get my shots.
I may never get an opportunity to raft in the Zanskar again, much less pat the huskies in the Arctic but as time goes by I am realizing that contrary to the received wisdom the camera can infact isolate you from the world around you in ways you never imagined.
But wait, this problem is not endemic to only the pros. A few months ago the very beautiful and very famous Indian actress Katrina Kaif visited New Delhi to inaugurate a fancy store at a shopping mall. The next day’s supplements had this astonishing photograph of her being surrounded by her fans with none of them even looking at her. They were all looking into their mobile phones! They may have never imagined they would get so close to the actress in their lives and when they got their chance they blew it. Yes they were all trying to `capture’ her into the megapixels of their mobiles.
This brings me to the question. Does photography makes you see more – as is popularly believed – or does it sometimes make you wear blinkers to the world around you? Photography of course should make you see and absorb more and this is what we all believe but I think it can also do just the opposite. I feel photographers are so busy with the visual assimilation of what is at hand that they don’t (and perhaps can’t) care much about what it is they are photographing. They are not so much interested in understanding the subject as they are in `capturing’ it.
The media at least knows this for a fact. That’s why magazines from National Geographic to the Dainik Bhaskar seldom send photographers into the field without a writer accompanying them. Its is not that the photojournalists cannot write . In some cases the photographers write beautifully but the editors won’t trust them with both the camera and the pen. Unless one is working on long term projects, photographers especially those with deadline bound journalistic assignments, can’t be bothered with the details of what they are photographing as long as they get their shots.
But is there a way of seeing that is different for the writer and the photographer? Having been both I would say there is a substantial difference. The first obvious one is that the writers approach is calm and collected. He has the luxury to take a step back and observe. The photographer is often rushed and almost anxiety ridden. If there is observation its on the aesthetics of the frame- the composition, the colour, the light , the expressions and the moment.
So while a writer observes, the world often passes by the photographer and he doesn’t even have a clue. Because how much can you really see squinting into a one inch peephole ? Metaphorically and otherwise - you have to have both eyes wide open to really see anything. To really observe one need to have what Zen calls `mindfulness’ - where the mind is not a trapezing monkey but a calm state of choiceless awareness.
At any rate we live in a world where we are increasingly depending less and less on ourselves and more and more on technology to make sense of the world around us. The camera is perhaps one of the first in the line of gizmos since its used by almost everyone. Whether we are pros or not its almost as if , if we can’t record that thing on our camera its not worth our while.
Last year on a safari in Wadi Rum Jordan, the desert sand got into the camera of a fellow journalist. He tried his best to get his camera working but to no avail. For the rest of the trip he stayed in the jeep and sulked. He did not step out of it to explore the Bedouin tents, nor walk on the soft ochre sands nor see the ancient rock paintings. He just sat in the jeep and complained how we were taking too much time and that we must head back to our hotel.
If you have been to any of the book launches or classical music concerts you will see the clamor photographers make when the artist arrives on the stage. But after the book ribbon is cut and the ceremonial lamp lit almost all photographers disappear. Most of them head straight to the bar while others just go home. This was also the case whenever I took a photographer along for any interview I was doing. The photographer would take his shots and wait for me in the hotel lobby.
Of course it can be argued why the hell should a photographer care about understanding what he photographs when he has the winning shot. A picture after all tells a hundred words. But that’s a very utilitarian way of looking at it. I’d rather not have that winning shot if its means missing out on the perspective. I’ll end this with an extract from the famous poem by the Welsh poet Wm Henry Davis called `Leisure’ where he extols the virtues of simply “standing and staring’’ – an art almost alien to photographers . He of course wrote it for the folks in the early 20th century but I think its much more relevant to our times than it was to his.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.