Before heading to India, my travel companion (who is a seasoned visitor to India) asked me what I wanted from the trip.
“To satisfy the stereotypical images I have in my head of India”, I replied. “You know the classic Steve McCurry type shots.”
“Who is he?” Not being a photographer, he hadn’t heard of him.
“You know that photograph of the Afghan girl; it was on the cover of National Geographic? That one, you know that? Steve McCurry… shots of India like he gets. Really dramatic, colourful scenes with equally colourful and dramatic characters.
“Oh, ya”, he replied and his left eyebrow raised a little as he responded.
“I want to shoot, shoot and shoot and get all the stereotypical images and then discover India for real.”
You cannot beat exuberance and naivety.
Off I headed to India with a head full of imagined scenes I was going to shoot. Now of course I didn’t get those Steve McCurry-type shots, but I did try. Who doesn’t? It reminds me of the maxim I apply to life and to art:
Imitate – assimilate – innovate
I have written about this before. It goes like this: We absorb so much of what we experience it is inevitable that we imitate. It puts us on the path of learning and discovery. Then our own interpretation and style gets into the mix as we assimilate, and as we progress we use this as a springboard for our expression as we begin to innovate. But the thing is that it is not linear. At any stage in the process we are imitating, assimilating and (hopefully) innovating.
In this spirit, I tried to satisfy those stereotypical images of India I had created in my head from seeing Steve McCurry’s shots. Now, of course I am no McCurry, but I did enjoy shooting these portraits.
Funny though, when I look at these portraits now, it is not the person in the frame that I remember, but rather the immediate environment surrounding them and the sensation that I was missing out on something real, something more exciting than this paused-posed-and-paid-for moment. (Ya, in Varanasi you have to pay ten rupees (about €0.13) for a portrait. These guys are professionals.) In India, it is impossible not to feel you are missing out on something. It is intense, overwhelming and relentless. It is like stepping back in time, but stepping on to a treadmill that is propelling you forward at speed. Your senses are bombarded and overloaded. It is hard to put into words, but unavoidable to try to capture in images. For me, the portraits were nice, but ultimately boring. What was happening around these people while I tried to get their portrait was much more interesting, and much more challenging.