I grew up learning about my world and how to capture it with a camera from the National Geographic magazine. Our family had a subscription from as early as I can recall and the Big Yellow’s arrival in the post was one of each month’s highlights.
I rarely read the articles but immediately went to the pictures. For hours I stared at them. It didn’t matter if I had looked at them all a hundred times, I always found them to reveal something fresh and new with each encounter. Even today, if its available, I’ll instinctively grab the out of date Nat Geo in a doctor’s waiting room to pass the time.
Something inside me clicked instantly with the image in the magazine. Especially of people, and especially of Indian or Asian people. Magic is a much used word but it is one I use without hesitation when to describe the feelings inside my heart and head when I gazed at those pictures. I wanted to be able to do that. I knew, intuitively, that I was living in a photogenic environment and as I grew up the need for me to ‘hold on to India’ (and therefore, home) as I moved to America was urgent.
In fact, as I think about it now, the reason I took up the camera was not to be any sort of ‘artist’ but as a way to ‘capture’ India and my memories of the place, so that I wouldn’t be so lonely when I was alone in America in that unfamiliar frozen strange white land.
What I wanted was familiarity, solidity, realism and sharp focus. National Geographic gave that to you. Their photographers were the best at that. They defined travel photography for generations. They were my idols. My heroes. Just how could they do it!? Oh, how I wished I could too.
So for most of my years as an amateur photographer I’ve copied the National Geographic gharana. Intriguing faces, close ups, colour and the exotic. The picture at the top of this blog was an early example of which I was (and still am) pretty proud. He is the guardian of the Nepali temple on the ghats of Varanasi. The Nepali temple is made of wood and intricately sculpted with all sorts of erotic images. He would point out these with great detachment but significant detail to visitors with his long bamboo lathi .
I of course like his shroud and the way the lathe cuts across the edge of the image.
This picture was taken about the same time (1977) and exemplified that other Nat Geo staple, the beautiful scenic. This was on my first trip to Sri Lanka and was taken as the sun set over the fishing village of Hikkaduwa. It was also the first photo of mine that was published, by a company that made church bulletins in the US!
The final image was taken in the bus stand at Dindigul, Tamil Nadu. This was where you started your 3 hours bus ride up the mountains to the hill station called Kodaikanal where my brothers and sister did their early schooling. Again, the face was what I wanted but so was the rubber bappu horn. You see, those horns were the sort that every car and bus and truck used in 1960s India and are an essential memory and artefact of my childhood. So I was pleased when the driver looked toward me and I could get not just a picture of the rubber ball and curly horn but a nice portrait as well. Bus drivers have always represented ‘salt of the earth’ to me and I think I got that with this guy.
Now having said all that about Nat Geo, let me tell you what a chore it has been to break away from that sort of photography. Big Yellow proved in the end to be a real straight jacket. Something that has made so much Indian photography (or rather photography of India) so dull, predictable and boring.
But more on that anon.