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Permanent Change of Station

MEXICO — The monsoon rains had been slow in coming.  The heat built and there were clouds in the white-hot sky but the rains did not come.  People died in their houses and in the streets.  Everyone looked to the sky.  Now, during our last hours in India, storms lashed the windows.

Impending change sends enough adrenaline into your system that you can maneuver through the coming obstacles no matter the time of day, no matter how heavy the baggage.  You feel yourself begin to fade into a transitory state.  You physically exist in one place but your soul is moving ahead to another.

Finally that moment comes when you inhabit only the present.  You check your pockets, extend the handles on your suitcases, round up your people and your things.  You look around a space you called home, knowing you will never return.  You lock the door behind you a final time and take the first step of the voyage.

We ferried our bags to the lobby of our home for two years:  eight rolling duffels, two strollers, two car seats, a child carrier backpack, a collection of carry-ons.  The rain fell in a solid sheet.  The van pulled under the overhang but we were half-soaked by the time everything was loaded.  I banged shut the sliding door and had never been more ready to leave a place.  We pulled out and I tried to feel sad.  All I felt was fatigue and dull relief.

For the two preceding monsoons I had worked on a series of abstract photos shot through rain-smeared windows.  I didn’t feel like it but this was it, these were my last moments in Mumbai, and I didn’t feel like looking upon it with nostalgia.  So I put my camera to my eye and shot frame after frame, dark, blurred images running with obscure colors and electric stained shadows.

We turned off NM Joshi Marg and drove past the notorious Arthur Road jail, through Jakob’s Circle, and onto Worli Seaface.  Then we were on the Sealink Bridge with the black void of the Arabian Sea to our left.  I remembered arriving two years before when the midnight city was on our left and how I had imagined this moment of departure that would surely come.

I took my last photo somewhere in Bandra and it is just a dark messy blur.  Then we were in front of the airport.  Then we were checking our bags.  Then we were going through security.  Then we waited for our flight.  One of my favorite states is being through security with time to drink a cup of coffee, when you cannot go backwards and it is not time to go forward.  I was just beginning to enjoy the process of the journey.  My four-year-old son told me he was hungry.  There was nothing to eat but tired pastries at the coffee stand but I got in line holding him.  An expensively dressed woman pushed in front of me.  She looked me in the eye, daring me to say anything.  In a calm voice I told her what she was.  The shock on her face was of someone who had never been spoken to in such a way.  I bade her a goodnight and walked away with a still hungry child.  I didn’t feel good and I didn’t feel bad and the rain rolled down the airport windows.

We boarded the full plane.  I normally look at the crowd and wonder if these are the faces of people I am going to die with.  This time I looked at all those faces and wondered the same thing and found that I didn’t care.  I was filled with the awful, singular thought that none of us are very special.  If we were blown out of the sky it would not change much at all.  A few hundred out of all the multitudes, soon to be forgotten.

A few days ago I was dying.  In the morning I coughed blood and in the evening I was lying on the marble floor of the bathroom barely able to move, covered in the thin black vomit I had thrown up over my feet and legs.  India had been trying to kill me for two years, but in a desultory fashion. Realizing I was about to escape, it redoubled its efforts, sending waves of plagues in a last ditch effort to do me in.  The doctors diagnosed walking pneumonia and figured the antibiotics would also kill whatever was making me vomit black water.  They were right but it would be a year before I felt fully healthy again.

India’s cities are now the most polluted in the world.  New Delhi is worse than the famously contaminated Beijing.  The air quality of Mumbai is not as bad as the capitol, but unlike New Delhi, Mumbai is in the tropics.  Its seasons vary only in their degree of heat and humidity.  It is built on landfill, connecting what were originally seven islands and mangrove swamps.  It has always been a hazardous place and the walls of the old British churches are covered in melancholy plaques to colonials who never went home.   We joked that the foundations of the Maximum City had been laid on the corpses of English cholera victims and this dark notion was not entirely inaccurate.  With an ever-expanding population of over 20,000,000 people and no adequate sanitation, it is a perfect urban petri dish.

Rain flowed down the Plexiglas of the jetliner’s windows.  The engines howled and the rain streaked backwards.  We were pushed into our seats and broke free those surly bonds of India, of earth, and were airborne, wheels up, heading home.  I allowed myself to smile just a little bit.  In the hissing twilight no-place of air travel I told myself that we were done.

I remembered reading in Edward Rice’s excellent biography, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, “Shipped down from Bombay, he seemed like a man at the end of his rope… At the end of the year he returned to England.  Here, still on sick leave, he continued to be plagued by the problems that had developed in India.  He had a wan look on his face, indicative of more serious ailments.  Liver trouble, bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases and ‘internal inflammation’s sapped his energies and kept him a walking invalid.”

We were now on our way to London ourselves.  We had decided to take a 24-hour layover on our way back to the United States.  My wife and I were unsure if we’d made a mistake, if we shouldn’t have taken the direct flight all the way home.  It’s a brutal, grey, 19-hour haze of airline food and unhappy children but at the end you are done.  Stopping in London would break the trip in to less inhumane periods, but it would mean going through customs, baggage claim, and all the attendant hassle an extra time.

Still, we were getting better at this type of logistics, moving our lives, our family, and our things over and over from place to place.  We reminded ourselves that the contemporary ideal of sleek, stretchy clothes and black, minimalist luggage is a modern contrivance, that our bags and cases and reliance upon porters was, in fact, more historically accurate for a family moving from South Asia to North America via Great Britain.  Of course that family would have traveled by ship and had weeks, if not months, to make the transitions from continent to continent, culture to culture.  Leaving India to stepping through the door of our new apartment in Virginia — including 24 hours in London — would take less than 48 hours.

There is a Sofitel in Heathrow Airport.  It is not near the airport it is in the airport.  It is fine to travel on the cheap when you have nothing but a camera bag and a backpack but it is far better to pay extra and save your strength and sanity when you have a family and a mountain of bags.  To make the 24-hour layover worthwhile it had to involve a minimum of extra effort: thus the very expensive but very nice hotel, very close at hand.  We collected our bags, went through customs, hired some waiting porters, and made a trip of several hundred feet.  Shortly thereafter we were checked in and reveling in decadent acts like drinking tap water and showering with one’s mouth open.  It was only 8 a.m.  We ordered a glorious spread of room service: silver pots of strong, black coffee, omelets and smoked salmon, French cheese, flaky pastries, nothing curried.   My wife and I toasted each other with fresh squeezed orange juice.

It was one of those fine English summer mornings, blue skied and perfectly mild.  We had promised ourselves that we didn’t have to do anything but we weren’t tired.  We had a few ideas but the first on our list was to visit the tomb of Richard Burton.  The explorer is buried with his wife in a life-sized expedition tent carved from marble in the London suburb of Mortlake.  We arranged for a car to take us there.  The small, Catholic churchyard was slightly overgrown and shaded with old trees.  Our boys ran and played between the mossy stones and time-weathered crosses.  The playing field of a school adjoined the graveyard and my sons talked through the fence to English boys while I talked to Sir Richard.  I didn’t feel any real presence of him but it was quiet and the air was clean and there were things I wanted to say.  We stayed there in that corner of England’s green and pleasant land for a long while and when we left we found a narrow path with a sign pointing the way to the Thames.

Along that path we passed the open door of Saint Mary the Virgin church built in 1546.  I walked inside and said hello.  Echoes answered in return.  I knelt and said a prayer of thanks in that still and holy place.  I could barely speak the words before crying spontaneously from sheer relief and sudden joy.  My son watched me with quiet concern and I picked him up and sat on one of the benches.  I let it pass over me and when it had I dried my eyes.  I felt happy and fit.  We walked a bit farther and soon arrived at the muddy old Thames.  Men were at crew practice, sculling to the cries of the coxswains.  Seagulls answered them.       We continued down the path until we found the first pub, an old building called, “The Ship.”  The windows and doors were open to the day’s breeze and a pretty bartender welcomed us inside.  There was that familiar smell of hundreds of years of ale and smoke, wood polish, whiskey, and laughter.  A young mother was having lunch with her father while a new baby slept in a stroller.  A man in a business suit read The Times at a sunlit window.  On the patio two men drank pints and smoked with spaniels at their feet.  We ordered fish and chips and pints of hand-pulled IPA.  We ate our food and drank our beer and when the meal was finished so were we.  It was time to sleep.  In the morning we would board another plane and that would take us somewhere new.  Somewhere else would follow that and somewhere else would follow that, and nothing would be permanent except for change.

 

Of Cameras and Karma

MUMBAI—India cannot be forced.  India will not adapt to you.  I am still learning the pattern and subtexts of interactions and could continue to learn them for several lifetimes to come.  I know enough to realize all the things I cannot see, to know there is an alternate universe of clues that I am missing.  There are layers under layers and when I look beneath one, there are layers I have no idea how to access.

What can be written of the place?  On one hand you have a complex political history of kings and princes, foreign invaders, and diverse waves of immigrants, all of whom have left their stamp upon India.  You have hundreds of languages, myriad castes, and thousands of gods in a landmass that encompasses every type of climate and environment at their most extreme.  And this country, Mother India, Bharat, has only been a modern nation state since 1947.  On the other hand, the basic land of India, of Hindustan, the land beyond the Hindu Kush and the Indus River Basin, south of the Himalayas, has been recognized by historians, cartographers, and travelers as a particular and distinct entity since before Alexander the Great made his ill-conceived attempt to keep moving, conquer more, push farther into the unknown.  Hindustan may have been a disunited political sphere of competing kingdoms and cultures but those disparate entities belonged to a set of overarching cultural traditions that belong nowhere else.  The physical geography of India is a sacred geography as well and that sacred geography has remained more or less constant and consistent across millennia.  The oldest gods of the Hindus have been worshipped without cease, without interruption, since human culture was young.  When you step into India you are piercing the veil of a culture that has operated since the dawn of civilization and it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, whether the follies and foibles and grandeurs of that civilization drive you mad or leave you in awe.  India will not adapt to please you. It may, however, let you adapt to it.  It may change ever so slightly to allow you a place.

At time it feels as if India is composed of some reactive substance and the harder you push against it the harder it pushes back.  Push too hard and it will slap you down.  Keep moving forward and it might let you in, but do keep moving.  If you give up, if you show weakness, it will maim you.  Doing anything in India takes not only perseverance but a willingness to endure pain and suffering.  Use force and the way will close against you.  Keep moving, keep smiling, keep asking, and finally, without explanation, the way usually opens.

Indians are proud.  They are proud of Mother India and of the ancient, complex culture married to an ancient land that binds them.  They have seen foreigners come to their land full of fantasies, seeking spiritual enlightenment, seeking erotic mysteries, seeking jasmine scented nights on palm-fringed shores, and wise old gurus high in mountain silence.  They have seen them arrive, tossed into the overwhelmingly hot, humid, incomprehensible chaos that is Bombay, a place with no interest in a traveler’s Orientalist fantasies of its citizen’s daily lives.  It is so overwhelming at first that you can barely isolate details from the general rush.  You are stupefied by the heat and noise and when you are told no, or told the rule is different from the rule you were told before, or informed that where once there was no rule, now there are five rules and several forms to be filled out as well, you want to scream, “How can there possibly be any rules at all?  Look at it out there!!!”

What I have found, in dealing with Indians, is to take their pride seriously.  You might say this is obvious, but I disagree.  I believe most visitors, despite their best intentions (and often because of them) arrive here to colonize India.  They come here with a plan as to what they will accomplish, what lessons they will find, what orphans they will save, what enlightenment they will receive, what yoga moves they will perfect, what, in short, they will take.  The fractious, united, awful, lovely mess of India, let alone the high-speed, non-stop Bollywood gangster hustle of Mumbai do not neatly fit with the western conception of eastern enlightenment and of obtaining, quantifying, and making a commodity of that enlightenment.

On one level you simply need to accept India.  I don’t know if it is even necessary to like India, but you must take it as it comes (liking it certainly helps, though at times this is next to impossible).  Liking individual people, however, isnecessary, as is being unafraid of them, and this is not difficult at all.  It should go without saying that a smile, a sense of humor, and a bit of knowledge of the local languages and customs go a long way to smoothing the way in any foreign land.  Nowhere, in my experience, has this proved to be more true than India.  The good will one receives simply by being able to introduce oneself in Marathi, the language of the native Mumbaiker, is out of all proportion to the effort invested.  Or perhaps not.  If you are the only foreigner a man has ever met who knows a word of Marathi, that it is even a distinct language, maybe his gratitude is not unfounded.  Follow that up by a bit of chit chat, even in Hindi, about where you are from, where you live, how many children you have and you establish a basis for both of you being equal and human instead of avatars of the “exotic east” and “developed west”.

What does this all have to do with photography, you might ask?  I would argue everything.  Photography, above all else, is an art of observation.  It is technical skills and specialized optical/mechanical/chemical/computer equipment used to capture fleeting moments of lighted time.  Part of the reason that technical skills are so important, sort of a secondary skill of primary importance, is that in their mastery the photographer comprehends what the camera and film are doing in order to stop a moment of history and transmute it into art.  The knowledge of how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together in concert with the particular ergonomics, mechanics, and optics of one’s chosen camera and lens, and the particular characteristics of one’s chosen film or sensor, give you a greater ability to translate the moments around you into a finished print that attempts to transcend the reality it came from.  When I look at the world I see a finished print through a series of overlays in my mind.  I see scene X unfolding in front of me in Tegucigalpa and see that it will look like Y if taken with a Leica M6ttl through a 50mm Summicron on Ilford HP5 and printed as a full frame image with a black border on Kodak 8 by 10 glossy grade 4 paper from the filed out negative carrier in my Simon Omega D2 enlarger.  Which is different than scene Z, shot on the streets of Mumbai with a 24 megapixel Leica M-P through a 50mm Zeiss Planar, commercially printed at 20 by 30 inches after being run through Photoshop and DXo FilmPack’s Tri-X or Kodachrome 64 filters.

I strongly believe that the print is the ultimate goal and test of photography.  The camera is the tool used to capture an image that will ultimately be printed, and knowledge of the camera, its components, and all the steps towards the final print are of great importance.  Mastery of them is part and parcel of mastering the art itself.  But all these technical considerations are ultimately subsumed to the ability to identify a moment in the world and freeze it, extract it from time–and even context–and make it both something more and something less than what it was.

If you learn your camera you free your powers of observation.  And ultimately, if your profession, hobby, or avocation is actually taking pictures rather than fetishizing camera gear, then the camera must take second place to the eye and mind.  Whether you are out on the streets or in the studio or deep in the jungle, you are choosing one slice of time over another, choosing to include this and not that.  The camera is a tool unique in its ability to show what it was that you saw, what you experienced, and the way that moment saw you.  This is why an understanding of history, language, religion, and culture, of learning how to navigate a place and to accept it, are so important to photography (as well as to your personal safety).

Photography is an act of observing, of choosing a viewpoint and a moment, removing them from the flow of time, and presenting that moment as a form of explanation.  That explanation can range from highly literal to completely abstract, but every photograph is an artificial construct.  Every photograph, no matter how real is appears, is nothing but stains on paper, a two-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional occurrence, yet it has undeniable importance as a document of the way something was that is no more. Your ability to extract that moment, to give it meanings that live beyond the light that made it, is why you pick up a camera in the first place.

Remember as well, that the act of photography, of making images and of isolating one moment out of another, alters the flow of time.  I keep this in mind when I am on the streets of Mumbai.  My presence and the presence of my camera both preserve history and, in incremental ways, alter its course.  The people I meet and talk to change as I am changed by them.  They often photograph me and I photograph them and we go home with images and echoes of that encounter.  So, though it often seems that India will not adapt to me, the act of photographing a place is an act of changing it.  Knowing as much as possible, both of cameras and of India, allows me to walk with greater grace, to leave less turbulence, to, one can only hope, acquire images that are good and true and leave good karma in my path.

Despite the Photographs it is all being Forgotten

MUMBAI–I have a memory etched into my personal history, one I recall to remind myself of something. I was in Honduras on a nine month assignment with a medical relief NGO. It was nearing the end of my time and all I could think about was where I would go and what I would do, figuring out what comes next.  I was dating a Swedish woman who was there working on a related project. Our days were spent investigating, writing, and photographing, nights and weekends living la vida loca. It was a Sunday and we were together at a rooftop bar that had a small pool. She was in the water, laughing, and as she tossed her long blonde hair the water droplets were spun out into the late afternoon sun like melted sapphires. I sat at a table and fretted about where I would go next until a sudden moment of calm overtook me. I looked at her, looked at what I could see of my own body, hands and legs all tanned and strong. In my black canvas Domke bag was a Leica M6ttl and a bunch of Ilford HP5. And I thought, “You had better enjoy this, son.  This thing will never be as good as it is right now.”  So I smiled and I am glad I did, as that moment, for all those even better, never came again.

I miss shooting film, but what I am really missing is the world in which one shot it. I am not an old man and this world is not far removed. For all the types discontinued, for all the price increases and added complications, film is still widely available and easily processed.  I still shoot multiple types of film and several different formats. But these are nearly all personal projects and they are done both out of a love for the medium and a certain dogged perseverance.

I miss the world in which we shot film. When there was a cost to each frame and where the knowledge of the thing had a certain magic to it, a whiff of sorcery in the arcane terminology, the alchemical smells and actions conducted in dark rooms under red light. I miss the certainty that I had the best cameras in the world—among the finest expressions of the manual 35mm that will ever be made—and the certainty that if you had enough film, enough knowledge, courage, and a little luck, that you could use those cameras to  capture moments and bring them home. I miss the satisfaction of making a last exposure, finishing a roll, winding it back into its protective metal shell, and pulling another from the bag. I would slide it into the sprockets with motions I had been practicing since I was 10 years old and wonder what it might come to hold. I had 36 chances to explain something.

There was a feeling that exposing a frame of film was a little like breaking a pane of glass, a thing once done that could never to undone. Unlike breaking glass, however, the transmutation of film via light and time and chemical reactions is an act of creation and preservation, not destruction. The actual light reflecting from your subject forever changes the film into something else, burning a brief moment of existence into another thing. What was dark and inert became a true record of the light of history. I miss those things but I miss the way the world that surrounded them was. I miss not having a cell phone most of all.

More than anything else, the smart phone has made the world a smaller, duller, and less romantic place. Along with it, photography has become more of a reflex than an act of creation, more bodily function than conscious document. As we grow more and more dependent upon the machines, they become more and more a part of us and we become both more and less than human. We have extended the range of the human voice to infinity. Driving the streets of old Bombay I can video chat with a friend in Sweden, from the deserts of Rajasthan I can send mundane snapshots to family in America. I can find a hotel, a restaurant and let everyone in the world know I have done so and what I am now digesting. It is all very convenient and because of it we are all a bit duller, a bit more robotic and less ingenious, less adaptable, less brave.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, when you exited the airport in a foreign land you were on your own, reliant on your wits, experience, and preplanning. It was more exiting, more dangerous, and absolutely more wonderful. You were forced to make new friends and new contacts and to rely upon them for support and companionship. When Friday night rolled around you followed through on the plans you had made to meet at Lilly’s Cantina in Santa Rosa or Bar Sonora in Obregon or The Front Page in Les Halles because you weren’t at home scrolling through Facebook and waiting for better plans to send you an SMS.

As a photographer things were simpler and more complicated. Working on a long term documentary project was a nearly Zen-like experience. Your film piled up and you worried a bit, but there was nothing you could really do except keep shooting and shepherd the rolls until they reached the lab. Daily news was all about getting the shot and then getting the film into the right hands, be they across town or on a different continent. Before you knew how it would change things, you dreamed about digital cameras and what they might someday do. Here we are living in someday and they are better and more versatile than we ever hoped for, but the world has changed along with them. You can take a nearly infinite number of images at astoundingly high resolution in unbelievably low light, shoot cinema quality video, edit it all on a computer the thickness of a pencil and send it anywhere in the world. Or you could just do it all right from your phone, take a picture, write a story, shoot and edit a movie, record the soundtrack, mail it to the editor. The ubiquity of the thing has put the technology in everyone’s hands and while the democracy is heartening the pride, professionalism and magic seem to be slipping away.

I had a fully developed style of shooting that digital took away and only just gave back (albeit with some dividends) in the last year or two. I would typically work with two cameras, a Nikon F3 with a 20mm f/2.8 MF Nikkor and a Leica M6ttl with a 50mm f/2 Summicron. I would usually have both cameras loaded with the same film, either Ilford HP5, Kodachrome 64, or Focal 400 and I would change between those two, seeing the world through the wide angle SLR view of the 20mm and in the frame-lines of the M6’s viewfinder. Much of the time I would carry only the Leica. That rig has been replaced by a Nikon D800 with a 20mm f/2.8 AF Nikkor and a Leica M-P. Anymore, however, I tend to prefer the 35mm focal length, so I alternate between a 35mm Voigtlander Color-Skopar and a 50mm Zeiss f/2 Planar ZM. This works well. Both cameras are very good, though both are larger, heavier, less responsive, and much, much more expensive than their film counterparts.

They work, but the changeover was a long one. We quickly forget that cameras weren’t always this way, that you had a landline and an answering machine, televisions weren’t flat, and making a good print from a digital file was harder than getting medium format film developed. Video gear was expensive and its picture quality was atrocious, Internet access was slow or nonexistent, there were no Wifi hotspots, and the first 1GB Compact Flash cards cost $1,000. Just a few years ago there was no such thing as an entry level DSLR. There were only the professional models like the Nikon D1. These were slow, had low resolution, poor battery life, a $5,000 plus price tag and a cropped DX sensor. The most basic DSLR of today so far surpasses the first professional ones in almost every regard that I would have strangled you in an alley with your own camera strap for something as fine as a Nikon D3300 and at least considered doing in your entire family for any full frame model.

And so digital limped along. Film became less and less practical but digital didn’t live up to its promise until the introduction of the Nikon D3 and D700, Nikon’s first full frame offerings. Canon had already introduced full frame cameras but it was the D3/700 that offered the first real high ISO performance combined with beautiful images and great auto-focus. For the first time digital hit a “good enough” plateau and the D3, in my opinion, is still a perfectly valid camera to work with. Contrast this with the mechanical perfection attained by a Nikon FM or a Leica M3 that decades after release later are still as fine a thing as when they were new. My D3 followed a D1X and the D3 was joined by a D800. Eventually I was able to afford a Leica M-P and those were recently joined by a Leica Monochrome. There is nothing I lack. There is little I even want.

I sit in my study here in India. The Leica M6ttl is in a glass case next to my desk along with a bunch of other film cameras I use, have used, or simply like to look at. It is quiet save for the hum of the air conditioning, the dehumidifiers, and a murmur of Bollywood techno floating up from the streets below. I am writing in between editing my most recent photos of Mumbai and laying out a book of images I shot in Transcarpathia. I shot that story with the M6ttl and the 50mm Summicron on Kodak 400CN long after I already had professional digital gear. I decided, for various reasons, only to use that one camera and lens and it remains one of my favorite series.

That foray into Eastern Europe was the beginning of the end of many things, the beginning of many others. All of that past is neatly wrapped up, edited, collated, exhibited, critiqued, and published. That life, Central America, Sweden, and endless rolls of film has been developed, fixed, and printed, sleeved, archived, put on a shelf. My new life is being processed.  I am in India now, figuring out what comes next.

The Enigma of No and the Mystery of Yes

MUMBAI – Nothing comes easily in India. At times it feels as if everything from the bureaucracy to nature itself is out to thwart whatever you are trying to do. Then, somehow, if you have patience, the path mysteriously clears and things come together, usually with absolutely no explanation. You never know why you couldn’t do something in the first place and you never find out why you can do it now. It just is and you take what luck you can get.  It comes as no surprise that Buddhism developed here, with its emphasis on rising above the pain of this particular existence, of gaining merit through hardship. And I believe that the absolute epicenter of day to day difficulty is right here in Mumbai, the once and present Bombay, the metropolis described by writer Suketu Mehta as the, “Maximum City,” in his book of the same name, a moniker gleefully appropriated by the Indian press because, well, it’s perfect.

I have just completed a year out of a two-year assignment to the Maximum City and I feel proud to have done so. I am honored to be here. Mumbai, population around 30 million people, is packed onto a peninsula that used to be seven islands. The land reclamation began in the 1800s and much of the city is built on the trash of the past. Mumbai is often compared to New York City. Before I got here I thought that to be another lazy comparison, a slick and easy way to explain a place without going to the trouble of explaining it. I do not feel that way anymore. For all the significant differences between New York (specifically Manhattan) and Mumbai, the two cities have a lot in common. They both have fiercely proud local populations that provide much of the political power, police force, and service industry. They have a geography defined by water, limited space, and outer suburbs of varying desirability. People from all over their respective countries, regions, and the world come to New York and Mumbai to make their fortunes, escape their pasts, and make a name for themselves. Some succeed beyond their wildest dreams and others die in the gutter. There are famous gangsters, tough cops, fast talking taxi drivers, heart-breaking femme fatales, business tycoons, and art stars. Each city has a unique accent and dialect born of the melding of nationalities, idioms, and languages. There is culture and its antithesis, nightlife of the highest and lowest orders. Both cities were built up out of marshland as the shipping, mercantile, and financial centers they still are.

Like New York, the foreign tourists come for a few days and depart. Unlike New York, which is often the destination, whole and complete, Mumbai is a waypoint.  Foreigners fly here on their way to somewhere else. They may spend a day or two, perhaps three, almost all in old south Bombay neighborhoods like Colaba, Kalagoda, and Fort. Then they depart for Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala, the Himalayas, or some other photogenic locale. That means I am getting a view of a city rarely seen by outsiders in any depth (though in two years I will barely have scratched the surface of this place). Mumbai is a tough nut to crack. It is composed of different communities, many of which live in their own, sometimes closed, neighborhoods: there are Marathas, Koli fisher-folk, Bora Muslims, Parsis, and Iranis, just to name a very few. There is an equally bewildering collection of neighborhoods, each with its own character, types of business, and inhabitants. Wandering the city you might find yourself in Lower Parel, Worli, Bandra, Dadar, Kamathipura, Byculla or perhaps Cuffe Parade, Malabar Hill, Breach Candy, Dharavi, or Mahim.

Mumbai is both a difficult and rewarding city to photograph for many of the same reasons that make it a difficult and rewarding city to live in.  I am glad I spent several weeks just watching the place and adjusting to its rhythm before taking out a camera.  I can’t say with any certainty that I am capturing the place comprehensively or with any level of perfection, but I am working at it.  India itself is difficult both because it is a physically challenging environment and because of the preconceptions nearly all of us carry about the Subcontinent.  Then you arrive here and, lo and behold, all your preconceptions seem to be accurate. There, right in your face, are the slums and poverty you have always heard about. There is a naked sadhu sitting in front of a temple, there is a cow wandering the city streets, there and everywhere are women in saris and men in turbans.  One of the great dictums of photography is to photograph interesting things in interesting light and India has both in large measure.  But for all the exoticism of saris and poverty, India is also a large and vibrant economic power. The old Bombay neighborhoods exist in the shadows of mirrored skyscrapers.  There is not just the often repeated disparity between the ultra-rich and ultra-poor but a growing middle class working everyday jobs in the tech sector, service industries, media, non-profits, entertainment, and government.  Just showing exotically clad snake charmers, elephants, trains, and poverty is a cliché even though these things are very real. Just showing people in western business clothes on cell phones is inaccurate, and overdoing the contrast between wealth and poverty, old and new, traditional and modern is a photographical cliché of its own.

What then, is one to do?  The simple answer is to work harder.  To spend more time on the streets, to study how different photographers have seen India ranging from Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, and Steve McCurry to stunningly talented Indian photographers like Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh.  To learn the history of the place and begin to see how it has evolved, changed, stayed the same.  To get out and walk the streets until you know how to get from one point to another on foot, have a few regular restaurants, take people’s pictures, track them down and surprise them with a likeness of themselves.  To work the subject until it almost seems normal.

As photographers we talk about gear because it is a common point of departure. It is a comprehensible, definable thing.  We talk about technique, composition, and assignments.  We talk about other photographers and their work.  We talk about photography itself but we rarely talk about history and philosophy and religion.  We rarely try to get at the heart of the intangibles.  My good friend Jacob, who grew up in Ohio, the son of immigrants from Kerala in South India, told me that one of the joys of India is that people not only discuss philosophy and art, they believe them to be essential subjects and ones worthy of time.  Considering the underlying why of a thing is regarded as normal and even necessary in India.  Art and scholarship and faith are not separated from business and work as they are elsewhere.  It is these things, I believe, that ultimately make our photos what they are. Philosophy gives our images an underpinning of reason and narrative.  The greater mysteries make an image more than the literal moment it once was. Photography has the power to transmogrify the quotidian moments of life into expressions of mystery, faith, and wonder.   It is subjects like this, if we want to be better photographers, which we should be studying and discussing right along with focal lengths, megapixels, and film emulsions.  I believe that Plato, Buddha, the Mahabharata, Captain Sir Richard Burton, and The Bible can make you a better photographer.  I believe knowledge of the history, culture and belief systems of a place will inform your photos and work to make them something more than the casual observations of ephemeral tourism.

This is why I like to stay as long as I can, to spend as much time observing a locale as I do pointing a camera at it, and why I like to return to a place.  I will never blend in on the streets of Mumbai any more than I did in El Salvador.   I will always be marked as an outsider by my exceedingly Western features.  But after time you develop a harmony with the rhythm of the streets and the days.  You begin to recognize people and them to recognize you, even in a city of 30 million.  You and the city adapt to each other.

Adapting to Mumbai wasn’t easy.  The first four or five months I was at least 30% sick 85% of the time.  Every time I ate somewhere new I had intestinal issues.  I caught one virus after another which left me feeling like death and wondering if I had malaria or dengue.  Just about the time I stopped having those relatively minor plagues I developed a rash across my chest and waist and armpits, anywhere my clothes rubbed.  Then there was a cough and then an undefined malaise.  Add to this killing heat, torrential rains, awful traffic, terrible pollution, and an all new set of cultural and linguistic norms.   But one day I woke up and realized I felt like I once did, only better because I was thinner and harder, heat tempered by the sun and food, baptized in the rains of the monsoon.

I was struggling as a photographer to portray India accurately after 15 years of learning the pace of Central America.  I was unsure of what gear worked best, how to approach people, and even what I wanted to show.  Since arriving I have worked with several different NGOs involved in public health and education, anti-human trafficking, and economic development: all similar to the groups I worked with in Central America and Eastern Europe.  I have walked the streets of Mumbai and traveled a bit and hiked in the countryside and villages. I have found that I use my Leica M-P (type 240) by far the most on the street and for documentary work, mounted with a 35mm, then a 50mm, and occasionally a 90mm lens.  I also use my IPhone 6s extensively as well as a Panasonic LX7 point and shoot.  I am working on some experimental projects with 100-year-old old box cameras.  For interior spaces working with the NGOs I often like the 20mm f/2.8 Nikkor on a D800 and for things like press conferences and political events the fancy rangefinders and mirrorless cameras go away and are replaced by the working journalist’s rig of two full frame Nikon DSLRs (D3 and D800) mounted with 28-70mm f/2.8 and 80-200mm f/2.8 Nikkor zooms, two SB800s, extra batteries, cards, and a 50mm f/1.4 Nikkor in Domke belt pouches.  I am always surprised by how much I enjoy strapping all that on when I have a job to do.

I have a year to go, a year to get it right.  For one thing I know my subject now.  It isn’t India.  It isn’t the work of this NGO or that one.  It is right here in front of me, all around me.  The subject I have been given, have been given access to, is this city by the Arabian Sea, The Maximum City.  It is Mumbai, the once and present Bombay, its people, monuments, and neighborhoods, its seasons and celebrations, as much and as many of them as I can get in front of my viewfinder.  If I work hard enough, am good enough, and maybe a little lucky, I can show it like it is.

 

I am Still Figuring it Out

MUMBAI—The smell hits you first. From the first moment India surrounds you, absorbs you into its atmosphere, its rush and flow. You have spent hour upon hour in the grey, nowhere interzone of the jet-plane. The air hisses white noise, your prayers and the engines keep you aloft as, unnoticed, you cross borders and lines of latitude. The flight finally ends, the seals are breached, and the air of London or New Jersey or wherever you took off from escapes into the sub-continental night.

This was my first time in India, my first in Asia. I fumbled for my camera bag and stumbled out of the aluminum tube dragging my family onto a jetway that was India. Immediately I began to sweat. There was the familiar wetness of the tropics and the smell of burning but everything else was new and unfamiliar. There was wood and trash smoke, jet fuel and incense. There was the smell of jasmine and perfume, spiced food, open sewer, damp concrete, more perfume, and what I came to identify as the presence of millions of humans, animals, and machines.

We passed through the bureaucracies of modern travel, collected our bags and were collected in turn by a stranger we had little choice but to trust. The car took us into a new city, a new country, a new continent. I wondered what the light was like but it was the dead of night. We rushed past shadows and pools of electric glow, saw the lights of the city reflected on the black waters of the Arabian Sea. The ride ended and we stepped into the cool emptiness of our new home. I found the lights, we washed off the last 30 hours of travel, changed clothes, went to bed. I tried to sleep, failed, and stood on the balcony feeling the air, heavy on my skin and thick in my nostrils. The big modern buildings were silhouettes against the bigger dark of the sky, rising from the impenetrable black of the streets below.

Sleep still eluded me and I gave up, begin to unpack, hung my shirts in the strange closets, figured out where to set my laptop and charge my camera batteries. Night finally ended and I saw Mumbai revealed in the pinks and greys of dawn. The nighttime canyons were revealed as streets lined with banyan trees where taxi men washed cabs before the day’s hustle and boys played an early match of street cricket. The dawn burned quickly away and was replaced by long, hard shadows and yellow light moving in tiger-stripe patterns as the sun rose higher. Then the heat began. It was the hottest part of the year and the morning news was full of strong men dropping dead in the streets and elderly couples found baked to death in airless apartments. The heat of my Arizona home always seemed impersonal, deadly but indifferent. Here the heat felt malevolent, as if it was personally trying to hurt you.

Little by little I began to venture out but I left my cameras at home. I wrote but took no pictures. I watched, watched the people and how they moved, watched the light and how it changed, observed the rhythms of the city. I composed images in my head, discarded them, thought about lenses, apertures, techniques I wanted to try. I wanted to take pictures but I didn’t want to get it wrong. I was tired. It had been a long year, a long decade. I had the time. I was not currently on assignment and would be in India for two years. I didn’t want to photograph India as if it were Central America where I spent so much of the last 15 years. When I did begin it was slowly. I started with a pocket camera and thought of the images as sketches. It was over a month before I took out the Leica or the Nikon. People at home were begging for photos but I wrote instead, concentrated on learning how to see this new place, how to navigate it, how to un-see my preconceptions and previous experiences.

Almost a year on and I think I am starting to figure it out.

For the previous 15 years I had doing documentary work for medical and humanitarian aid groups. The majority of that work was in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. From my first night in Honduras, sitting at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Elvir in Santa Rosa de Copan, all I could think about was how I would get back. When I was home I wanted to be there and when I was there all I could think about was making photos.

That 15 years saw the evolution from film to digital and it saw me single and living la vida loca with a Leica M6ttl, a Nikon F3, and a bunch of film. It saw me underwhelmed by my first digital cameras, the Leica Digilux 1 and Nikon D1x. It saw me move to Sweden for a girl I met in Honduras, saw me return from there at loose ends, saw me marry the woman I should have asked out a long time ago, become a father, move to Washington D.C., become a father again, and go abroad to India with a Leica M-P 240 and a Nikon D800 as my primary working cameras.

And it saw 15 years of Central America come to a definitive end. I had some big exhibits and was on the news, I filed all my negatives, backed up my digital files, laid out the books, and even had an unexpected assignment to the border at El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It was all wrapped up and done with a big bow, even for an obsessive like me. Any feelings of relief or accomplishment didn’t last long, replaced by a black and empty place where I used to have a mission.

So I put my cameras away for a while. It was the right thing to do. I needed to figure out what I was going to do next and how I would approach it. I am still figuring that out. Sometimes you realize that everything you were once doing right isn’t enough for where you want to go. There are times when you need to stop seeing the world through a viewfinder, need to stop sectioning life into rectangles. Sometimes you need to watch the light, watch how people move, watch their smiles and gestures without trying to freeze them, without seeing them through glass. There are times to let pictures go, content that they stay in memory or are simply lost to the flow of time.

Varanasi & Ganga Ma

 

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VARANASI — It is the black hours before dawn. The boat pushes out into the slow current. The ghats and towers of the ancient city are outlined in the light of dim electric bulbs and small fires. Those lights create a half circle of light over the river that fades into the black of the sky and the uninhabited sand-dunes of the other bank. It is quiet and my mind keeps whispering to me, “You are floating down the Ganges in the dark. You are finally here.”

There is the soft splash of the oars and I can hear the water drip from the wooden blades before they bite again into the flow. From somewhere behind us chanted Hindu prayers carry over the dark water of the holy river.

We glide by people bathing and praying on the darkened steps. The air is cold, cold enough that were I not consciously enjoying it after so long in steaming Bombay, that I would don a jacket. I shudder, imagining the icy waters carrying the Himalayan chill of their glacial beginning but when I plunge my left fist into the water I am shocked to find it very nearly hot.

The moment comes when the black of the madrugada shifts without warning to the first light of dawn, when you realize you can see beyond your cone of blackness. It is grey, then pink, then blue, then day.

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The Camel Fair of Pushkar

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Ganpati Year Two

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Time of Monsoon

 

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Night City

L1004519 2BOMBAY–Rush hour starts late by American standards. At 8 a.m. the traffic is light. At 4 or even 5 in the evening the traffic is insane but light by Bombay standards. 7 p.m. is a madhouse of trucks and horns and motorbikes and rickshaws and trains and buses heading home into the evening.  The city only really comes alive at night.  It comes alive at night then starts late the next day.  For all the day’s bustle of trade and commerce, it is the night that everyone is looking forward to.  It is the night whose cool shadows salve the burns of the day.  It is the night whose shadows provide a sense of solitude, a place where one can be alone or find privacy in a lover’s arm.  It is night where the long sea walk of Marine Drive is lit up like a string of electric pearls and called The Queen’s Necklace.  It is through these streets that the yellow and black cabs ply their trade.  Painted with names like, “Night Queen,” and “Speed,” they race towards assignations, strobe lit by dashboard shrines to Ganesh.  It is night where the lights of temples and liquor bars and sidewalk stores provide islands of neon gaiety in the humid blackness of Bombay.  It is a night of film stars and music and a little glamour for the millions who struggle through the day and it is the darkness of gangsters and women being sold in cages and the quiet noises of people sleeping under tarps because there is nowhere else.

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