MUMBAI–The smell hits you first. From the first moment India surrounds you, absorbs you into its atmosphere, its rush and flow. You have spent hour upon hour in the grey, nowhere interzone of the jet-plane. The air hisses white noise, your prayers and the engines keep you aloft as, unnoticed, you cross borders and lines of latitude. The flight finally ends, the seals are breached, and the air of London or New Jersey or wherever you took off from escapes into the sub-continental night.
This was my first time in India, my first in Asia. I fumbled for my camera bag and stumbled out of the aluminum tube, dragging my family onto a jetway that was India. Immediately, I began to sweat.
There was the familiar wetness of the tropics and the smell of burning but everything else was new and unfamiliar. There was wood and trash smoke, jet fuel and incense. There was the smell of jasmine and perfume, spiced food, open sewer, damp concrete, more perfume, and what I came to identify as the presence of millions of humans, animals, and machines.
We passed through the bureaucracies of modern travel, collected our bags and were collected in turn by a stranger we had little choice but to trust. The car took us into a new city, a new country, a new continent. I wondered what the light was like but it was the dead of night. We rushed past shadows and pools of electric glow, saw the lights of the city reflected on the black waters of the Arabian Sea. The ride ended and we stepped into the cool emptiness of our new home.
I found the lights, we washed off the last 30 hours of travel, changed clothes and went to bed. I tried to sleep, failed, and stood on the balcony feeling the air, heavy on my skin and thick in my nostrils. The big modern buildings were silhouettes against the bigger dark of the sky, rising from the impenetrable black of the streets below.
Sleep still eluded me and I gave up, began to unpack, hung my shirts in the strange closets, figured out where to set my laptop and charge my camera batteries. Night finally ended and I saw Mumbai revealed in the pinks and greys of dawn. The nighttime canyons were revealed as streets lined with banyan trees, where taxi men washed cabs before the day’s hustle and boys played an early match of street cricket.
The dawn quickly burned away and was replaced by long, hard shadows and yellow light moving in tiger-stripe patterns as the sun rose higher.
Then the heat began.
It was the hottest part of the year and the morning news was full of strong men dropping dead in the streets and elderly couples found baked to death in airless apartments. The heat of my Arizona home always seemed impersonal, deadly but indifferent. Here the heat felt malevolent, as if it was personally trying to hurt you.
Little by little I began to venture out but I left my cameras at home. I wrote but took no pictures. I watched, watched the people and how they moved, watched the light and how it changed, observed the rhythms of the city. I composed images in my head, discarded them, thought about lenses, apertures, techniques I wanted to try. I wanted to take pictures but I didn’t want to get it wrong.
I was tired. It had been a long year, a long decade. I had the time. I was not currently on assignment and would be in India for two years. I didn’t want to photograph India as if it were Central America, where I spent so much of the last 15 years.
When I did begin it was slowly. I started with a pocket camera and thought of the images as sketches. It was over a month before I took out my Leica or the Nikon. People at home were begging for photos but I wrote instead, concentrated on learning how to see this new place, how to navigate it, how to un-see my preconceptions and previous experiences.
Almost a year on and I think I am starting to figure it out.
For the previous 15 years I had doing documentary work for medical and humanitarian aid groups. The majority of that work was in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. From my first night in Honduras, sitting at the rooftop bar of the Hotel Elvir in Santa Rosa de Copan, all I could think about was how I would get back. When I was home I wanted to be there and when I was there all I could think about was making photos.
That 15 years saw the evolution from film to digital and it saw me single and living la vida loca with a Leica M6 TTL, a Nikon F3, and a bunch of film. It saw me underwhelmed by my first digital cameras, the Leica Digilux 1 and Nikon D1x. It saw me move to Sweden for a girl I met in Honduras, saw me return from there at loose ends, saw me marry the woman I should have asked out a long time ago, become a father, move to Washington D.C., become a father again, and go abroad to India with a Leica M-P 240 and a Nikon D800 as my primary working cameras.
And it saw 15 years of Central America come to a definitive end. I had some big exhibits and was on the news, I filed all my negatives, backed up my digital files, laid out the books, and even had an unexpected assignment to the border at El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. It was all wrapped up and done with a big bow, even for an obsessive like me. Any feelings of relief or accomplishment didn’t last long, replaced by a black and empty place where I used to have a mission.
So I put my cameras away for a while. It was the right thing to do. I needed to figure out what I was going to do next and how I would approach it. I am still figuring that out. Sometimes you realize that everything you were once doing right isn’t enough for where you want to go.
There are times when you need to stop seeing the world through a viewfinder, need to stop sectioning life into rectangles. Sometimes you need to watch the light, watch how people move, watch their smiles and gestures without trying to freeze them, without seeing them through glass.
There are times to let pictures go, content that they stay in memory or are simply lost to the flow of time.
~ Andrew Tonn
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