Skip to content

A Tale of Two Self-Portraits…in India

Self-Portrait #1

It was my first day in India. I went on a walk with my friend Amy Parrish who had also never been to India and was eager to explore. We set out on foot down the neighborhood streets. The sights were many and as overwhelming as it was calming. Things were strange yet familiar, clearly different from anything I had experienced yet somehow I felt a close connection to it all. There were shacks built of out found materials lining the streets, and vendors selling everything from fruits & vegetables to chickens that they would slaughter for you upon purchase. There were rugs and textiles and all sorts of goods, some new and some not. We photographed everything cautiously, not wanting to offend and also not wanting to miss an opportunity. We were clearly the strangers in town, and in a part of town that not many tourists go to.To call myself a tourist is both true and false in this situation. I was new, I was seeing the sights, but I was not there to do these things. I was there to teach survivors of human trafficking the art of photography (with Blossomy and Kolkata Sanved). I felt both at home in my purpose as well as an outsider, not knowing how I would be received but keeping faith all the while that it would go well. My first impressions of India were that it was a loving and hopeful place. The people that I came across that first day smiled at us while looking at us curiously, and no one was unfriendly. All of this love was surrounded by decay, something that the city of Kolkata has seen much of in short periods of time. The buildings are almost all falling apart it would seem, yet they are also welcoming and homey. They reminded me of the American version of an old country house, one that is a hundred years old, perhaps breaking a bit, but filled with nostalgia.

As we walked further into the residential part of the neighborhood I started to get a sense of what living was like there. People wheeled about on bicycles, some walking, each person carting something around. Some women carried laundry in baskets on their heads, while the man rode around with food to be delivered. It was a surprisingly quiet neighborhood compared to the chaos of cars on the road. It was a home, a place where locals could go on walks, socialize, and live life quietly.

I was an outsider who felt welcomed; a traveler who felt settled; a curious photographer looking to capture her first moments in India. I took this self-portrait fueled only by my first impressions of India: a dichotomy of differences and relative sameness that made me feel excited and comfortable all at once. But what got to me the most was the push and pull of strength and weakness.

People who looked physically weak yet pushed on; buildings that housed many yet looked ruined. This was the heart of my image that I created that day. I tried three poses, and it was only in this third pose that it felt “right”. I was an outsider, and so I hid my face. I was channeling the strength of the city in my bones, but felt fragile all the while. I pressed myself into the abandoned house that welcomed me, hoping to feel the presence of its former inhabitants. My muscles shook while I was posing for this picture, and that was how I knew it would hold significance for me. I pushed myself to create when I felt uncomfortable doing so, but that is exactly what pushes an artist to be better: creating when the moment is not necessarily comfortable, but is clearly right.

Self-Portrait #2

It was my last day in India. I had seen all that I was going to see, and had my fill of what can only be described as a life-changing experience. I had taught photography to girls who I now consider to be my life partners in crime, who took amazing pictures in the time I shared with them and who, most importantly, shared parts of themselves with the world. I got to see local Indian life like I never thought I would, visiting and dining with people who were born and raised in India. I exercised the customs, tried the food, and felt completely welcomed by India.

Being my last day, I wanted to end my trip the same way it started by exploring the neighborhood that housed me. I went to a house that I had seen on my first day, filled with sand and beautiful with light streaming in. My intention was to create a self-portrait there, but respect took me in a different direction. We were not sure if someone lived there and did not want to disturb anyone. Instead, I stood in the middle of the road, searching for new inspiration. It came when I saw people bathing and washing clothes in the local pond. I had seen this on day 1 as well, and was fascinated all week by this social ritual. All of the men gathered on one side while the women gathered on another.

I found a bare spot where rickety boards allowed entrance to the water. With all that an outsider is told about water in India, it was a frightening prospect to get in the water. If you know me, you know that I care little about dirt and grime and will do just about anything for a photograph. Still, I debated. I did not want to get sick, and on top of that I still had a big book fair speaking event to attend about one hour later. Turns out, I air-dried myself out of the car window on the way to the event. Needless to say, I jumped in.

When I was planning my picture, I met an amazing boy named Ok. He was having a leisurely swim in the pond. Seeing as he spoke English, we struck up a natural conversation. He was really happy when I asked him to model with me, though not altogether encouraging when I finally changed in my dress and hopped in the water. I have a big fear of water, which is why this picture was especially exciting and special to me, though I must say that Ok made it a little bit worse…

The first thing he said to me was, “You know, lots of people drown in this water.” Okay…I started to panic. Then he told me to watch out for what I’m stepping on, since there are probably dead bodies in the water. Needless to say, I freaked out a little bit. I asked if it was okay for me to hang on him, and so I did, deciding it would be best for me not to find a dead body in the water on my first trip in India.

After we got past the dead body situation, I asked him to float on his back and hold my hand. I had given my camera to Amy, configured my camera settings and focus, and asked her to click for me. When Ok and I leaned back to float, the world went silent. All that I could hear was a faint echo of people around me as my ears dipped into the water. For a moment, I forgot where I was, and only saw the sky passing above me. I felt so connected to India at that point. I felt so humbled by the fact that my new friend posed with me, and it represented exactly how India felt to me: a welcoming, open-armed place where the people were the nicest I could hope for. They let me in and hugged me, and made me feel like I was part of their life.

The first pose I tried.

The audience that formed while shooting... :-D









{ 7 } Comments

  1. sarahallegra | February 11, 2013 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    I love both your self portraits, but I think your solo one is even more powerful to me! What strength you show in your pose! I’m so glad to hear about the wonderful and meaningful trip you had!

  2. Anantpal | February 11, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I am glad you had a great trip and memorable experience.

  3. sarah | February 11, 2013 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    You’re braver than I would be! Swimming with dead bodies? Ugh! But beautiful photos (as always).

  4. Iria bignami | February 13, 2013 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Such a great experience and beautiful captures!

  5. Olga (Eliendale) | February 14, 2013 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I love your self-portraits, they are both amazing, although the first one opens up your soul more. The pose you came up with is just magnificent.

  6. Manas Pattnaik | May 7, 2013 at 5:19 am | Permalink

    The writeup is so detailed and so toouchy. Whle going through I felt as if I am there , there with you, taking your instructions, the entire thing running across my eyes like a video clip. Thanks for comming to India hope you find the people good and loving. Regards

  7. Nandini | May 21, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Hey I missed it!! Am your big FAN staying in a small town in Kolkata. I always wish I could meet you some day to get some tips and pinch of your talent. Please tell me the next time you are planning to come here. I will take you through and help you find places truly worth clicking.
    Love :) .

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *