CAN BEAUTY FORGIVE DISRESPECT ?
Can beauty forgive disrespect ?
It is still night outside, just as most of the times I decide to spend the day out documenting something. But this time, it’s not quiet.
India is noisy all night long, but Pushkar is an exceptional place: during the holy month, which happens at the same time as the camel fair, the small town of just over 20,000 souls multiplies and welcomes around 400,000 visitors along the fourteen days of the event.
So that morning around 4am, as I step out of my hotel, the holy water reservoir, which is the size of a lake and in which people come pray and wash their sins away, is crowded with worshipers. It is not allowed to photograph them on the banks of the pond as they’re mostly naked, and I believe there is sense in that, nowadays. Since the generalization of mobile cameras and the broad use of social media, anyone can be a photographer, and if we allowed this, it could look like a red light district in no time.
So, I’m just there watching. And what a way to wake up! There is grace in every move. This kind of grace only India masters. I’ve traveled to a lot of places by now, but India is special for its grace. It will never stop impressing me.
Women sing, men sing, children play. Everyone is in peace. No one watches each other, which in India, to be honest, is quite rare.
In front of this incredible holy murmur paired with the all so many colors of the sarees in the dark, and as much as I feel like I could have used a few more hours in bed, I know I am right where I want to be: up and contemplating.
But the truth is I got up for other reasons. I want to go to the camel fair early, I want to be there before sunrise, and I want to document that event that looks stunning. The truth is, I’ve seen a few very nice pictures of it, but not so many of them, so I expect it to be crowded, but potentially not that invaded by photographers yet.
As I get to the fairground, surprisingly, there are dozens of photographers on site already, and much more equipped than I am. Nevermind though, I’m not here to compete, and I’d rather contemplate the sunrise and live the experience than take sensational photos.
The sun is not up yet, but photographers are already running everywhere, shooting in all directions like ducks without head. They dress like lion hunters. Seriously. They have the hats, the masks, the gloves, the beige outfits, and they have two, sometimes three cameras strapped around their shoulders. They even seem to hide behind trees. What the hell is going on here? Am I missing something? Or is this my first human safari?
Out of the blue, I notice an all-covered-and-masked Asian female photographer, running towards a local child walking barefoot. She grabs him by the shoulders, places him between a tree and a camel, she orders him to pose in a particular and unnatural way, holding his bandana knot at the back of his head like a pirate. She shoots a few burst pictures, throw a handful of candies on the ground in front of him, and runs away without a word or a human-to-human look.
A little further, she repeats the scenario with a young gypsy girl. I can only see the young woman for what she is and honestly, she is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever seen in my life. With her tanned skin, her green eyes, her messy dark hair, and all her bracelets and piercings, she is a true Esmeralda. But the photographer doesn’t look at her. She only looks at the image of her on the camera screen. There is nothing that looks like an encounter between two women in this world. There’s no humanity in the scene. She has her sit in the way she wants, asks her to smile, then not, then gives her ten rupees and goes further to search for something even more sensational.
My pulse is running fast now. I’m getting mad, I know myself. I’m growing angry with this stupid photographer. So I go away looking for less crowded areas of the fairground. But only then do I realize. This is not just one photographer acting like a superior human in a zoo, it is ten, fifteen, thirty, too many of them. They are running around, throwing candies, rupees, and shooting burst images in all directions, in a safari mood. They are in a quest for the perfect portrait. They want to be the one photographer that’ll make the cover of the next National Geographic issue. And the place is so photogenic that they may well be!
I am in shock. I am angry to be there and to look just like one of them to the eyes of the locals. I am disgusted. I can’t accept to be part of that. I am seeing, in front of my very eyes, worldwide photographers competing for the most sensational pictures, godless and lawless, utilizing the poverty of people to shoot amazing faces and situations that don’t even look like the reality. They are not seeing the way locals look at them. The way they laugh at them. They are not seeing the wrinkles on the face of this woman who just woke up on her blanket on the ground. They’re not seeing this man smoking his first morning cigarette murmuring a song to his sleeping child. They’re not seeing these older women serving their morning chai to a bunch of traders. They’re not seeing anything else but the photogenic faces that are published in all the travel magazines nowadays.
A bunch of Indian kids come around me and ask me to take pictures of them. I have a feeling that might not be the best of all ideas. They insist. I take a picture of one of the kids. He asks me for ten rupees. Obviously. I refuse. The other kids order me to take pictures of them as well. I say no. They ask me for rupees anyway. I say no. So they ask me for chocolate. I say no. So they ask me for soap. I say no... So they ask me for another portrait. Tired, I tell them to go ask someone else.
I can’t take it anymore, and I need to vanish from this landscape. I walk away, and at some point, far enough from the agitation, I sit down with a local family in a little corner. They are surprised by my presence. Photographers photograph them, they evaluate their beauty, but they don’t just sit down with them. After all, they wouldn’t sit down with animals, would they?
Slowly, kindly, we approach each other. They seem to wonder what I’m doing here. And well, I am asking myself the same exact question…
I try to make them understand I find all this beautiful, the colors, the camels, the people... But for them, it is just business as usual. They will sleep under their camel cart for the next fifteen nights. They will probably not be able to shower. They will wear the same clothes. They will cook rice and dal in a small pot on the wood fire every day, and they will wake up early to try to sell their camels. How could I expect them to see the beauty that I see? How could they realize what we photographers see in them, in all this?
I stay with them for a while, I play with the kids, and I approach the mother who covered her head with her scarf when I sat down, to try to communicate. The man of the family is smoking his cigarette, watching us discreetly.
At one point, the sun is about to rise, and the light turns golden. I’m not sure how, but I find the courage to I ask him if I can take his portrait. He does this weird Indian nod that seems like a no-but-perhaps-yes. I decide it’s a yes. I lift my camera towards him and ask again. He doesn’t make a move. He looks right at me, and his eyes meet mine. There’s something deep in them. A life. I am siting in front of an equal human being, I can sense his own emotions. They are invading my body.
The sun is now rising behind him. He is backlit by a poem of light, but he has no idea. He looks right at me the entire time I do five portraits of him, seated just a few steps away from me.
Right here and right now, I am loving what I do. I am not only photographing a handsome man, I’m giving him my respect and we’re sharing this instant of grace.
A moment later, I propose him to take a picture of him with his family. He smiles. I feel like I’m winning his respect too. My heart is going to explode. The mother lifts up her scarf. But just a little. I take a few pictures, but then I put down my camera, and I keep watching the decorum by their side. After a while, out of things to say in a language we could all understand, I greet them goodbye.
As I get up, the kids ask me for money. My heart breaks. The parents, annoyed, ask them to stop. It’s always hard to face these moments, and I am obviously feeling guilty, but I stay strong and try not to blame them for asking. They’re just repeating the pattern they see around them. But deep inside, I don’t believe it is normal to pay people for documentary portraits.
After I stand up and leave them though, I wander around the fair and I’m left with that very dilemma. They made my day, they offered me the shelter, the warmth of a family and their kindness in a moment I was feeling really down. But what did I bring to them? Did they learn something from this moment or from me? Did they appreciate it? I’m not sure I’ve had any sort of positive impact at all. And all of sudden, everything I’m doing, all the traveling, all the photography, all the portraits, are being questioned. I am not sure there is a meaning to all this any longer.
I recently read an interview of Charlie Hamilton James who documented some of the “uncontacted tribes” of the Amazon for National Geographic, and he said something that does resonate within me, and might be a reason why I found my experience in Pushkar so puzzling and disappointing. He said: “If you go into these places with the idea that people are more similar to us than different, it makes them more accessible to the reading viewer. Then we can empathize with them. We realize that their problems are similar to our problems.”
Empathizing is core for their problems to find echo in us. And we’re not only looking at them like animals in a zoo anymore, looking for something extraordinary to show to the world, but as our neighbor. We’re witnessing and capturing beauty for what it is, not for what we can get out of it.
I feel sometimes like I’ve always known that inside of me, without knowing to put the right words on it.
As a kid, I have been fantasying in front of portraits taken by Steve McCurry. And I knew that it was something I wanted to do, because I am deeply in love with humans. But now that everyone travels and does this already, am I not just another voyeur little bugger to the eyes of the locals?
That day after my moment of grace, the more I looked at the other photographers still acting crazy on the sandy hills, the more I knew I had to leave. For the first time of my life, I felt ashamed of being a photographer. Leaving the fairground early in the morning still, my heart was all saddened and broken.
Back in town and after pulling myself together, I had to make a plan. I couldn’t stay like this.
I started a search for a printing shop to print my morning portraits. There are more souvenir shops in Pushkar than one can visit in a month, but sadly very few photography shops. The only one I found had a lousy printer and he definitely ripped me off, but at this point I didn’t really care anymore.
At sunset the same day, I went to find my way back to where I met “my” family in the morning. The mother was there alone, siting at the same exact place. I offered her four of the pictures I took of them, and printed for them, and then I held my breath.
I didn’t know how she would react. I was not sure if this was conventional or polite there. Or if this could be considered weird. If she could be happy about it, in an era when everyone takes selfies of themselves all day long…
She looked at the pictures, and neighboring traders came and stood around her. They looked at the pictures too. Some laughed, some approved, some made comments that I didn’t understand. But most of them nodded at me the Indian way.
From the way she held the pictures, the way her eyes started shining, the way she ordered me to find an envelope to protect the images, and the way she later took and held my hand in hers, standing my gaze all along, I finally knew it meant a lot to her. And my heart started beating again.
There’s not many words to describe how I felt, living this moment, or even writing it now. My hand in hers, her gaze in mine, and I had almost forgotten the rest of the world, and the disgusting attitude of all the morning’s heartless photographers. Almost.
The morning after, I decided to leave Pushkar ahead of my plans. I just wanted to go back to the fair in the morning without a camera but with two more printed pictures of two kids I had portrayed and that I wanted to find.
The first one was a gypsy girl who asked me for to portray her on the first night of my arrival in Pushkar, before I had any idea of the trade behind all this.
I gladly portrayed her. Her gaze was charismatic. She was a strong-headed woman in the body of a little girl. After I did so, she asked me for money, and I was surprised. I was just discovering. I didn’t give her anything, but we talked a little, I showed her the picture on my screen, she blushed, and then she left to ask other strangers the same thing.
I didn’t find her that morning though. I showed her picture to people on the fair, and they directed me to a part of the field where gypsies camped. There, I found her mother, the beautiful gypsy with green eyes I had seen the morning before, captured by the Asian photographer, and I gave her the picture of her daughter. Everyone came in circle and wanted to touch the picture, murmuring the name of the young girl: Radjulah. A name that sounded straight from a fairy tale to me.
The second kid that I looked for, in vain though, was a young boy I met at the same time as Radjulah, on my first evening, after sunset. He was called Andjuh and sang a French song with me, holding my hand like my own kid, coming with me everywhere. Before I left him that night, going to my hotel, with tears in my eyes, he hugged me very very long.
For days after that, I kept thinking about him, wondering if he had a family, if he was fine, and if he had felt what I had felt. No one on the fair seemed to know him, or his name, and I couldn’t find any other trace of him. But his gaze and his voice are still alive within my memories.
When I look back at my only entire day in Pushkar, I can’t help but feeling disgusted by the way photographers come and use the poverty of locals to get sensational pictures, mostly out of context, and the way they throw ten rupees at the most beautiful people to get a portrait and a pose without even having a look, a handshake, or a word at them. Let alone the less beautiful ones…
They dehumanize kids, mothers, fathers, gypsies, Indians, workers, all of them mostly poor people. There’s a sort of “You’re poor, so I’m actually doing you a favor” in their behavior.
But the truth is they only treat them like animals, and they’re doing them anything but a favor. While twenty, thirty years back, a portrait was maybe the beginning or the result of an encounter between two human beings, nowadays, in India’s most touristic places, photogenic people – mostly kids, holy men, or gypsies – come beg for a portrait that they trade against money and nothing else happens.
Deep inside, I think we photographers and travelers of the world have a responsibility here. We, by giving coins that we are not worth anything to us, in exchange of a smiling pose, taint our relationship with our subjects, praising ourselves for doing them “a favor” in exchange of a picture and ourselves. We put ourselves back in the position of the favor-doer towards the poor savages.
But what favor are we talking about?
This is not going to make them rich in any way.
This is not going to make their life any easier either.
On the contrary, this is just making them depend on our presence and our pictures instead of depending on themselves, their skills, their work, or their perseverance. This is making kids believe they can make money anywhere tourists go so they don’t need to go to school. Photographers acting like this are just tainting the entire relationship between travelers and locals.
The French-Chinese poet and philosopher, François Cheng, explains the bond that exists between aesthetics and ethics in a very interesting manner.
In an interview, he said: “A beauty that is not ethical, a beauty serving the wrong purpose, is not beautiful indeed. The ultimate state of beauty is harmony. It is the very ethical quality of beauty. This ethical beauty is the one that allows a man to keep its entire dignity, its generosity, and the nobility of its soul. These qualities are the ones that allow us to transcend our human condition, to go over pain, to achieve harmony. Beauty transfigures us, because it takes us away from habit and routine, it allows us to see things differently, as on the dawn of the world, as if for the very first time.”
In one of his books, he also proclaimed that “faced with the almost universal reign of cynicism, aesthetics can only achieve its true depth by letting itself be subverted by ethics.” [The Way of Beauty: Five Meditations for Spiritual Transformation]
I do have the feeling that the race for sensationalism has partly corrupted this. Beauty has become very commercial, and art, ethics, and harmony are not always prerequisite qualities to what is now considered beauty. It is like we’ve lost something on the way. It is indeed very difficult to know from a travel photograph what purpose it is serving and if it has been taken ethically or not. And with the ease of traveling today, a lot of people simply want to go and do the same type of portrait in the same places they’ve seen in the magazines or on social media without being conscious of the negative sides of it. The negative impact of mass tourism and social media is not reserved to the environment.
All this being said, I do not wish to steal people’s image either. I will not pay for a portrait that I do when I document an event or a situation. But I will never take portraits of people who do not accept to be photographed. And if someone lets me do a portrait, I want it to do justice to the moment and the person.
I do not post portraits that take away dignity, and I never use people in the way I photograph them. I do not make up situations.
All portraits I publish are unpaid, and are the fruit of a relationship created before or after the shot.
Last but not least, I believe that the most important is not to capture the beautiful people, but to capture them beautifully.
It is about shooting the essence of them, with their dignity, with their humanity, and with their singularity.
Pushkar is an Indian holy town. For ages, people have come to bath in its holy waters, and wash their sins away, practice Pujha. It also hosts one of the most important events of India: the International Camel Fair.
It is a world-famous event, where traders come gather for a few weeks and sell or buy camels. They come from Rajasthan and all over of India, and host a sort of desert tribal festival.
Indian and foreign tourists come from everywhere to witness this picturesque and festive event. I had read that a few days before the event starts, there shouldn’t be so many tourists yet, and it might be the best time to photograph the traders’ arrival from the surrounding deserts. So did I go, expecting it to be a great opportunity to capture photogenic camel trading in the sands of this holy town.
I only stayed a day and a half at the Camel Fair of Pushkar, and I took a few pictures only. While I can shoot sometimes up to a thousand pictures a day in India, I have only taken handful of them in Pushkar, but I want to thank each person who let me take a portrait of them, not so much for the photo they allowed, but because they let me into their world for a moment, and we shared a moment together.
Respect is a positive feeling or action shown towards someone or something considered important, or held in high esteem or regard; it conveys a sense of admiration for good or valuable qualities; and it is also the process of honoring someone by exhibiting care, concern, or consideration for their needs or feelings.