26 June 2017

An Indian summer

In November 2016 I flew to India with clear intentions and low expectations. Among the intentions I could list talking to more people and photographing them more, pushing myself harder to do the things that didn’t come easily to me, and — particularly important — doing my utmost not to get crook. The expectations were related and mostly negative: I expected to get crook, and I expected much of the travelling, particularly the inescapable haggling, which I hate, to be hard. I expected to be scammed, hoped it would be minor and infrequent, and intended to accept it with at least a little grace and some compassion for myself for feeling like a fool — which I also expected.

I knew, though, that accomplishing easy things is rarely as satisfying as accomplishing difficult things, although I was pretty sure that the delights of adversity aren’t as awesome as Nietzsche cracked them up to be. If I’d truly believed him, I’d have skipped the bottled water, drunk the parasite soup masquerading as the jug of water on every dhaba table, and spent most of my almost-four months in India clenching my quivering sphincter and desperately searching for the closest toilet.

No thanks. I could think of more enjoyable ways to spend my time in India, and the pursuit of self-improvement through the wilful cultivation of intestinal parasites wasn’t one of them. Besides, self-improvement seemed to me to be, well, selfish or self-obsessed. One way of looking at life is to see it as a choice between two ways of looking at life: the inward-looking, solipsistic search for the self, or the outward-looking, compassionate delight in encountering The Other.
Other people, other things — anything, that is, other than one’s self. Seeking the Other seemed more interesting, less selfish, and potentially more rewarding than searching for my Self.

In any case, I wasn’t going to India to find myself, partly because I wasn’t lost, but mostly because, … well, to tell the truth, I didn’t know clearly why I was going to India: I just had to. I had unfinished business there, although it wasn’t business and had hardly started. I had people I wanted to see; places I wanted to visit. Some of those places I’d failed to get to on my previous trip in 2014, when illness had stymied my plans; others had arrived on the list as I’d thought about what I wanted to do in India this time.

Mostly, though, what I wanted to do was just bum around and live in India for a few months.

I got to many of the new places, and of course they bore little relation to how I’d imagined they’d be. I’d expected that. Imagination’s fine if you’re writing fiction, but it bears little relation to the way a place feels when you get there, even if you’ve had help from the best non-fiction. 

That includes photographs and films, too — they’re seldom any better than imagination, because they’re necessarily so selective in what they show. Life is often humdrum, and the photographer’s temptation is to show instead what’s not humdrum, which therefore turns out to be not a true reflection of life in the place being photographed. Some photographers deliberately resist this temptation, but even those who practise this so-called democratic photography — pioneered by William Eggleston [1]— can’t truly show you what a place feels like simply by documenting what’s in front of the lens. What matters is behind the lens, and I don’t mean the camera.

What photographs do best is not that they show you what to expect, but that they remind you of what a place feels like. They can only do that after you’ve been there, and only the best photographs can do that, and there are far too few of those. 

Writing suffers the same shortcoming — like photos and films, it fails miserably to prepare you for your first meeting with a place. It does better at reminding you. Writing can remind you of a place in two ways: when it’s read, and when it’s written. The first point is obvious enough if the writing’s good enough, but people who don’t write probably never realise the second point, even though it’s at least as true. As I write, I often find myself remembering things I didn’t know I’d forgotten. Try it for yourself: try writing about something that happened when you were a kid. Stick with it until the flow comes, and you’ll see what I mean.

It's harder for photos, though, because they're hopelessly trapped by their requirement to show something — literally, visually — and, most of the time, that turns out to be the wrong thing. Only excellent photographs transcend that constraint. Their power lies in their ability to evoke in us something non-trivial, something more than a simple ‘Wow!’ and, if they do it well, they might just manage to put the viewer on the right wavelength.

And the greatest photographs go even further; their power lies in our inability to pinpoint the feeling they evoke; we know only that what we feel is profound to the point of being overwhelming. Even if you can eventually find a few words for the feeling, that’s partly the point — you struggle to find those right words. Often they’ll be wrong, and all you can do is shrug and say, ‘That’s not what I meant at all.’

If you don’t believe me, go and look at the photographs of the late Stanley Greene, who photographed in places that have become bywords for horror and atrocity: Rwanda, Chechnya, Iraq, and others. Look at this photograph. Words can add nothing to that photograph, but if they could, the best would be from Greene himself. ‘Since the death of her child,’ he wrote, ‘Zelina often stares at something far away, elusive. She says she is already dead herself, if only time would hurry up.’

Sometimes I wonder whether I could have photographed in the sort of situations in which Greene worked, but it doesn’t take me long to accept how lucky I’ve been to have not been given the opportunity. The price he paid is one I doubt I could have borne.

Fortunately, my trip to India was nothing even remotely like Greene’s tours of duty, and my photographs were mostly reminders of the wonders and joys of life rather than its horrors and grief.

Still, as I’d expected, much happened that I didn’t expect. I went to Nepal, forced out of India by the cash crisis that paralysed much of India less than a week after I’d arrived. I survived a good two months without getting crook. I found excellent food — and even beer — in Bundi, where, ten years earlier, the best food I’d eaten had been a slop resembling cabbage stewed in hair oil. I once caught a flight that turned out to be almost on time. The Western Ghats, infamous for their regular and copious rain, turned out to be so dry that no one was seeing any animals in the famous places. And I found Kochi a delight and wished I’d spent more time there.

I returned to New Zealand with a lot of photographs (but not enough), three hundred handwritten pages in three A5 notebooks, and an upper respiratory tract infection. I hadn’t achieved everything I’d intended, but that was always going to be a long shot, and I’d managed what I’d most intended: I’d bummed around India for a few months and lived there.

1. For contemporary examples, look at the excellent work of Peter Black, Maurice Lye, Bill Knight, and gstuartnielsen. Apologies to any of the aforementioned photographers who might dislike the label ‘democratic photography’ or consider it doesn’t fit their work. Like all labels, it’s nebulous and probably inaccurate, but, for all you others, you should look at these photographers’ work anyway.

1. Father and son, Kochi.
2. Tomato wallah, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
3. A corner of the corner of the world I call home.

Photos and original text © 2017 Pete McGregor