Delightful Lakshal has asked me a couple of times to do a guest post on the website which I’ve refused. To be honest, most of the things I would like to write about aren’t really that pleasant, they are related to inequality and suffering. They are about challenging all of us (myself included) to be aware of, and take responsibility for, our actions (and, more often, our inaction). Who wants to hear about all that? They aren’t cheery uplifting topics that will make people want to come back and read more. If anything, they might make people hide under their table and cry. Yet here I am, making a guest post. Lucky is clearly losing his beautiful mind.
Recently I went to India and it helped heal my heart. It’s been a rough couple of years and my heart needed to be opened again and warmed by other humans. It was humans after all that had caused my heart to pain in the first place. India and its people helped me in a way I cannot yet explain.* Varanasi in particular had an unexpected impact that I don’t think I will ever be able to articulate.
While I was in India I took photos. Mainly of people. I am conflicted about being white and taking photos of brown people. It seems intrusive and, at times, racist. It has a colonialist ring to it that sits uncomfortably within me. What is with white peoples obsession of documenting brown people? I have no idea. I do know that if a stranger walked past my kitchen and took photos of me in my underwear doing the dishes I would be pretty cranky. I see a lot of photography where white people take and sell images of brown (sometimes black, sometimes Asian) people. It makes me feel a little ill. I wonder who gets the benefits of these sales? The person photographed? The community visited? Or is it the photographer and the other white people given the opportunity to have a glimpse of a life foreign to them? Sometimes I wonder if we white people are aware of the irony of us documenting people living in conditions of poverty that we, as colonialists and invaders, have often historically created. Irony is probably too gentle a word to describe the wrongness, but I am trying to be polite. Needless to say, these thoughts were running through my mind while on my white person tour of India to heal my heart.
I’m not a great photographer. I enjoy taking photos, but more than that I enjoy meeting people and hearing about their experience of the world. My camera provided me an opportunity to meet people in India I would never have met without it. Asking someone if I could take their photo opened up a potential connection and paved the way for story sharing and laughter (even if the person said no to having their photo taken). This wasn’t something I expected. I had assumed my camera would be one big beacon of ‘white tourist’ scaring away any genuine interactions I might have with Indian people. But in all reality I am white – a camera is not going to draw attention to that, my skin colour is. How I, as a white person am aware of my skin colour and the privilege it holds, and therefore how I interact with people, is what seemed more important. I learnt things about others that I would never have learnt without my camera as the gateway. I was also reminded of things about myself that I had pushed to one side. Yes, my experiences in India reminded me of my privilege as a white middle class cisgendered woman, but they also reminded me of the responsibility which sits alongside that privilege. Things I needed to be reminded of.
One of my more transactional but memorable experiences that would not have happened without my camera involved myself and my dear friend, Penny. We had just exited the Taj Mahal trying to get away from the crowds as quickly as possible. Minutes before I had a little panic attack** in the Taj Mahal tomb due to the crowd (and Penny’s unfortunate timing, just as we got inside, of explaining how unsafe it was to have that many people in such a small space). We were walking past the huge queue of people waiting to get in and Penny stopped to ask a beautifully dressed elderly lady if she could take her photo. Within minutes we each had a line of people wanting their photos taken. It was suddenly high pressure with Penny and I frantically trying to take as many photos of everyone who wanted one as quickly as possible. We were given hugs and handshakes and there were squeals of delight when people saw their faces on the back of our camera screens. Obviously not a common experience when you show someone a photo of themselves which you have taken (well, not for me anyway!). It all ended abruptly when a security guard and his large gun told us to move along (no, the gun did not actually speak). The couple with the man in the white hat below is one of the photographs taken that day. If you happen to know them please get in touch so I can send them the photo (if they want it!).
Needless to say I asked for peoples permission (where possible) before (and sometimes after) I took their photo. I was as respectful as I could be, being within a culture that is not my own.
India, thank you for existing. You rocked my world.
* It is possible that my heart healing was solely as a result of the large quantity of gulab jamun I consumed.
** May actually have been a sugar induced heart palpation from excessive consumption of gulab jamun.