The Idea of India
No Words To Describe It Or A Daily Reality That Is Also A Daily Fear, February 6th 2010

St. Anthony's Shrine, Kozikode, near Kodungallur, Kerala

There are words to describe an inability to find words. Speechless, dumbstruck, dumbfounded, silent, bereft of speech, tongue-tied, inarticulate, mute, dumb, voiceless, and probably others.

But what words describe when you can’t find images?

And what words describe when you keep missing them?

There are no words really to describe this state of being, and the feelings that sit heavy in your heart when you are experiencing it. In all the decades that photographer’s have been dealing with this phenomenon, it has never occurred to them to give it a name. Perhaps we are just afraid to name it in the hope that no one will know about it, and we will not have to accept that we have to work through it.

India’s complex street life, and Lucknow in particular, has left me overwhelmed and feeling that these alleys, avenues and streets simply refuse to show their secrets. I have walked, waited, watched and talked all in the search of a handful of frames that can express something of the feel of this town of Lucknow. And yet each evening I return to my room with the undying feeling that not only did I miss images – which are there but I cannot seem to organize or ‘see’ them to place on the film, but that those I grabbed are ruined because of poor timing and sloppy angles. I feel off-balance, and unable to keep up with the pace of the life unfolding in front of me. There are a million obvious images, but none that feel right to a frame. I see and yet I cannot find. I struggle to look, but yet I sense that I am not looking in the right places. Or I just miss.

And in the rare moments when something close to a photograph does appear I keep ruining it with poor timing, inappropriate angles or by being club footed and lumbering towards it so slowly that the moment is gone. Yesterday I had waited nearly 3 hours for a frame, arousing suspicions among the many shopkeepers who had patiently tolerated me and my cameras on the corner of their street, and then missed it when it seemed to come together! If I had a dime for every time I have felt like throwing my cameras against a wall and taking up that job flipping burgers…..!

Is it proper for a professional to admit that he is constantly burdened by a sense that even after nine years as a professional he continues to have moments that don’t even lift him beyond an amateur or hobbyist, or the dilettante? I will have to think about that.

And yet there is something seductive, something addictive, about this struggle. Perhaps it is what making a photograph is all about. An interviewer once asked me why I loved photography and I responded that it wasn’t photography that I loved, but the act of searching for and making an image. After that I was largely indifferent to the rest of it. And so I remind myself that like all great loves, like all obsessions, the struggle is what makes it so compelling and not the goal itself. I have to accept that it is the search more than the object and the process more than the product that this is all about.

And so I continue in this lovely city of Lucknow. I stay close to this feeling of mediocrity, this sense of constant failure, and I continue to walk out each day and I continue to talk myself through the quiet moments, the lost opportunities, the mundane light and the confusing complexity of life. I continue to try to make the photograph.

I have to accept that there are no perfect images, no final answers, and no resolutions to this sense of constant doubt and questioning. It’s the very realization that informs the work on this India project itself. As I explore this incredible country I realize that I can’t offer shrink-wrapped and convenient answers to complex questions of pluralist and syncretic cultural, religious and social spaces but instead show life and history as a series of compromises and even contradictory accommodations. And that that is the best we will ever be able to do and that it is the essential thing we must do.

The perfect image continues to defy me. I accept the compromises that do come my way.

I believe that there isn’t a word to describe this state of affairs either!

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