If there is one word that can capture how I feel as I return to India to continue work on the The Idea Of India project, then it is the word ‘doubt’. I mean it in both the definitions of the word – as a noun that suggests a lack of conviction, and as a verb that suggests a state of mind that questions known truths.
I have arrived back in India after a near nine month hiatus where I suffered the wait to hear about my grant approval, and then another four-month emotionally difficult time waiting to hear about my research visa approval. Through that period I had to confront the reality (yes, I can be quite a pessimist) that either the grant will not come through, or that the research visas will simply be denied. I have to admit that the latter concern proved harder to confront, knowing that despite having the funds to continue the work, I may still be denied the chance to pursue what has become the longest, most intense photography project I have attempted to date.
But the gap of months has left me fragile. I now doubt my ability to produce what I have committed to producing. I am riddled by a fear that I no longer have the eye and the mind that compelled me to this work in the first place. I can’t even recall the methods I assumed to produced the last two years of work on this project. I look at out into the days ahead and feel that all creativity, all ideas, all possibilities lie over the horizon, and I must swim through an ocean filled with man-eating doubt to get to it. The fears and insecurities of the last few months now cloud my convictions, blur my vision, and as I sit in a cafe in Delhi trying to get past these days, these thoughts keep me from thinking about the work itself.
A few weeks ago I travelled to Rome and took my cameras along. I was hoping that I could use the trip as a way to re-acquaint myself with being a photographer and remind myself of the postures, concentration and effort required to produce this simple thing called a photograph. In Rome it became clear just how rusty I was, how out of practice. My framing was wrong, my timing completely off, and perhaps worst, my sense of perspective and object placement as seen by the camera itself. It was some days before a frame presented itself – one with the least division between that which is seen and that which is captured. It was perhaps the only frame that achieved an acceptable proximity.
Photographers rarely reveal their method, and certainly never the fears that underpin their efforts. Our obsessions with the image, with what sits within the frame, masks the sheer human frailty that fills the moments before and after. The frame never reveals the photographer and the walk she took to get to it. Or perhaps it is only I whose walk is so uncertain, so unclear, and so imprecise. So subservient to that reluctant friend called luck. Perhaps others are as confident, as precise, as sure as their images seem to suggest.
But I also realize that doubt – the verb, underpins and motivates the entire enterprise that is The Idea Of India. It was a confrontation with this sort of doubt that compelled me to begin this journey in the first place. It was doubt that made me question official narratives, nationalist histories, post-colonial historical constructions, sectarian dogmas and just-a-bit-too-well-defined ethnic and cultural categories. It was doubt that made me leave the conventions of photojournalism and practice a different eye. It is doubt that keeps me asking, searching, wondering and growing as an individual and as a photographer. It is doubt that defines the seemingly random, apparently inconsistent trajectory of this project – precisely as I want it to be. Since beginning this work in late 2008, it has been doubt that has taken me into new worlds, and new understandings. It is doubt that has taken me to new photographs. And in the end it is doubt that I want this work to infect others with, to give them nothing more than an equal love of this act which realizes that our worlds are far more beautiful, complex, complicated and varied than we were ever told.
Doubt – a noun and a verb and a desperate attempt to reconcile its two natures. Or at least I would like to – to somehow transform the one that cripples into the other that inspires. I am not sure how to do it. Or even whether I can.
Very soon I will simply run out of time and have to begin my work. Very soon I will have to force this tired body, this cowardly soul, to pick up the camera and thrust itself into the scream of life that is India. Perhaps there is no way around this. No way to overcome these doubts, or become one with them. Perhaps you just carry them, and carry on.