Friday, November 29, 2013

The Photograph

“I bet I can take a better picture than you can” she said, defiantly, a challenging smile playing on her face.
I looked down at her and smiled. I had gotten used to her throwing the gauntlet from time to time.
It was like this. I was a photographer on a freelance assignment. Not much money in this one, but seemed like a great opportunity to visit Imphal. The capital of the eastern state of Manipur, one of the seven sisters – the forgotten easternmost part of India.
The publication also informed me that the writer would also be there for the three- day shoot. I shrugged my shoulders. “Whatever.”
I thought in a way it would work out well. She’d create a story and I’d substantiate it with the photographs. Win-win.  Right?

I met her on the flight.
Having asked for an aisle seat I was unceremoniously dumped into one of the middle seats. With the overhead cabin space full my 6 foot frame was cramped in the centre with my heavy camera bag on my lap.
When she came across to the row where I was sitting, she gave me a somewhat amused look. I was not amused. That was probably the beginning of three days of irritation. But how was I to know.
My anger melted when she offered me her aisle seat. At some point, she suggested that I keep the camera bag under the seat back in front of her so as to allow me some leg space. I readily agreed.   
She started the conversation. “So you’re a landscape photographer, I heard”. She looked at me curiously like I had something growing on my face. “The sunrise-sunset types.” She threw her head back and laughed.
"That’s a very supercilious comment, young lady!” I said drawing myself to my full height. Not too difficult, considering. But a tad uncomfortable, in that tiny aircraft seat!
She laughed. Apologized. “I didn’t mean it that way! I’m sure you’re great at what you do. It’s just that landscapes don’t move me too much.” She added hastily, “I mean, they seem so inanimate… as if… there’s just no one around, you know? Kind of lonely?”
Inanimate? Lonely? I had never thought of my landscapes that way. To me, the beauty came out in the spectacular silence of nature. A glowing sunrise. A red hot sunset. A sky that was tinged with myriad colours. A snowcovered mountainscape.  Undulating sand dunes in a desert. Craggy hillsides that brought out the brutal harshness of nature.
And the human touch?  I was there, was I not? Behind the lens? How did the picture get taken in the first place! Humppph!
We debated lightly on that. But she steadfastly maintained her ground. Landscapes were lonely. Landscapes were not alive. Landscapes didn’t move.  And didn’t move her.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality” she said, almost to herself. Over the next two days a lot of quote wisdom was going to come my way. I wasn’t quite prepared.
“T. S. Eliot said that.” She pondered a bit. “I think I don’t like landscapes because it’s all so stark, so real. Maybe I can’t take it” She looked wistful for a moment, then she challenged me again.
“But what kind of ‘lighting’ do use for that?”. She made air quotes with her fingers for the word lighting. “Nature does it for you, doesn’t it?”
I smiled a wry smile. Okay, I thought. The usual not-knowing-much about photography types. These smart phones with their whatever x megapixel cameras. And of course the extra smart people with their smart phones. Like this one here.
I sighed, took a deep breath and told her all about the exposure levels and adjustments you made to make the most of the lighting that Mother Nature provided. Yes.  Nature did provide the lighting but only the good photographers knew when to take the pictures. How to make the most of the light. What to do in certain light conditions.

As she listened with interest, I warmed up further to the subject. “For instance, sunsets allow you a very, very small window of time. Miniscule. Lose it and you’ve lost your picture forever.” “And sunrises?”

“Aha!” I was beginning to enjoy my expert status now. I spoke of aperture settings, where to place the camera, image stabilizations, ISO settings, and the works. I thought her eyes glazed over a bit in between as I explained depth of field and other important aspects including timing. The all-important moment.
She seemed far away.

“You know what Ansel Adams said?” “No”, I replied.

“You don't make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”
True, I thought.

The next day we were going for a recce.

We met for breakfast then started out. The city, if it could be called that was abuzz with life. Everything seemed normal. Till we were on our way back early afternoon. Till an army truck passed by.
“Quick!” She said. “Take a picture of that tank”.
“No!” I protested. “We’ll shoot at the lake when we get there. Besides I am here to shoot landscapes. Not moving trucks. And that’s what I’ll do.”
“Do you know what Golda Meir said?”
“No” I said, edgily.
“Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.”
How could 40 kgs. of nothing rile me so much, I thought.
We went back to the hotel in silence.
“Tomorrow I am going to the lake early to shoot the sunrise.” I said at dinner, shortly. “Very early”. I emphasized.
“I’d like to come”.
“4 am then. I’ve organized a car. Dress warm”.
She nodded. Said good night and walked away to her room.
At 4 am she was waiting down. Sufficiently bundled in warm clothes. We got into the car in silence. She carried some papers. Obviously she had done some research on the lake in question.
As she got out of the car when we reached, she took out a small digital camera from her bag. I almost choked.
She looked defiantly at me.
“Even I can take good pictures”.
I smiled.
“I bet I can take a better picture than you can” she said, defiantly, with a challenging smile on her face.
“Yes of course” I said, smiling. My irritation of the earlier day was replaced by amusement. I was going to enjoy the day.
It was still dark as we made our way up to a vantage point from where we could see the lake. The sun would rise from the other side.
As we reached the top we saw a wizened old man brewing tea on a kerosene stove. He was still pumping up the stove when we reached him. His deeply furrowed face glowed in the light but it was impossible to guess his age. His eyes had a young twinkle in them and he smiled broadly as he handed us the aluminum cups of the steaming brew. We sat on the rickety wooden bench and sipped the hot tea silently.  
Then we waited for the sun to come up.
I had set up the camera and I was clicking away even as the first ray seemed to appear from behind the horizon. From deep within a light was appearing and the darkness was slowly melting away at the horizon replaced by the pinks and pale yellows of the early morning light. Mesmerized, I photographed almost every single ray. I wasn’t going to miss anything.
In those moments, I was one with the sun, one with its tiniest movement as it rose slowly majestically up the horizon, one with nature, one with myself.  It was only a few minutes after dawn that I realized she was nowhere to be seen.
As I scanned around I saw her. She had curled up on the bench near the tea stall and was fast asleep. The old man looked at me then looked at her and smiled indulgently. So much for sunrise and sunsets and all that talk and questions about lighting.
I gently shook her awake. Now I was in my element. Proudly I displayed some of the gorgeous takes of the early morning.
She smiled. Didn’t say a word of appreciation. Hummph I thought. Hardly someone who’d understand great photography.
“Do you know what Thoreau said?” she asked, a little later on our way back.

"No”, I said, back to my irritable self, “And I don’t want to know”. We went back to the hotel in stony silence.

It was only after a few days that I got a large envelope in the mail.
Inside protected with two thick cards was one of the most beautiful photographs of sunrise I had ever seen.
On the far horizon a burnt pink sky was heralding the first rays of dawn. The waters of the lake glistened pink. In the foreground on the left was an old man, the old man at the tea stall! A part silhouette, his face was bowed in devotion his hands joined in prayer, with reverence at the first rays of the sun. From one side the soft morning light played with his deeply furrowed face, lighting every line, every wrinkle with a kind of mystical beauty. The rest was just darkness.  
As I looked at the photograph it seemed to speak to me. It encapsulated an entire message. That of the smallness of the human being against the vastness of that endless lake. That of the darkness of the night dispelled  with the gloriousness of the rising sun. And that of hope – with the dead stillness of the lake compensated with the life the old man brought to the picture.
Behind the photograph was a post-it note.
It said,
“It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see
– Henry David Thoreau”.






  1. Lost in this commentary. Brilliant!

  2. Fabulous ! The writing is brilliant as usual (some of it I had to read twice, not that I am "English Challenged" but it is very well written.)

  3. Brilliant...your narrative style is just so smooth.
    Thank you for the beautiful sight of the sunrise and this 'little' insight of life

    1. Thanks Nishant... that 'smooth' narrative took a bumpy ride coming! So it's nice to get this comment. And, yes... there are ways and way to look at the sun rise...

  4. Anne Geddes said "The hardest thing in photography is to create a simple image"
    You my dear, have cleverly created this simple masterpiece without a camera.
    - Oh! Brother (Jal)

  5. Thanks so much Jal! One more quote for the story! Strangely (or maybe not) I've got most avid photographers to comment on this story...