Some of the most captivating human stories are those borne out of our need to possess and protect, says Paul Harris, but it’s often necessary to abandon your comfort zone to capture truly engaging encounters
Saraswati has that serene yet slightly knowing expression on her face that you would expect from a deity. Being the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science, one can understand the need to exude calm and confidence while all around her appears frantic and chaotic. She reminds me a little of early Victorian portraiture, where a level of stillness and lack of expression is required from the sitter to aid the long exposures. Meeting her for the first time was a powerful experience.
As I wandered the streets of Kolkata, row upon row of Saraswati figurines sprouted from tin sheds; each one festooned with clay and straw, and lavishly encrusted with sparkly beads and gemstones. The build up to many annual festivals in India often features that heady mix of anticipation and excitement as families, schools and businesses compete to outdo each other in choosing the perfect effigy with which to celebrate. It is a uniquely creative time to photograph a culture when an almost obsessive camaraderie of spirit is overpowering.
More intriguing still is the sense of possessiveness and ownership that manifests itself in participants as a means of expressing identity and their faith. Look no further than the streets of Homs or Tahrir Square this last summer to see how owning place and politics can be uplifting, volatile and tragic at the same time. But it is the quieter detail of everyday life that shows possession to be a positive, benign, and often unexpected, visual treat if you are prepared to go and seek it out. The image-maker needs to adopt a proactive approach rather than sitting on the sidelines waiting for the light or something magical to happen. My one and only visit to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat was a case in point.
On assignment for a telecommunications company, I was asked to record a slice of island life to off set the mildly drab images of cabling, workforce and satellite ironmongery, which was fine by me. In the heat of the day I headed for the marketplace in Carr’s Bay on the north-west coast, only to find a lot of goods in disintegrating cardboard boxes. I was searching for local produce in vain when a Rastafarian man emerged from a rum shop, on his way back to his market stall as it turned out. No question, he stood out from the crowd and, for no apparent reason, he looked up at me with a glare that could have been mistaken as aggressive. I held my ground on the off chance he might be more amenable than the look. Then a small boy came out from behind him. Rather than test the nature of his glare, and making the assumption this was his son, I asked if I could photograph the boy. His eyes softened instantly and, ever so gently, he draped a muscular arm around the boy’s shoulder. In an instant, a strong, simple portrait of kith and kin, possession and protection had revealed itself.
The fear of invading someone else’s space, and the resulting reaction, remains top of the list of reasons why so many aspiring photographers resist abandoning the telephoto lens. It is this trepidation that can prevent us from getting in close and engaging with our subject. And this is not just a one-way street. People do want to tell you about themselves. They want to show you their stall, craft, family or latest batch of homemade, paint-stripping hooch. I can’t think of anything more enjoyable or challenging than being curious about other people’s lives and acting on that impulse. Photography is still a key to access. It also puts the onus on us as photographers to be a little possessive ourselves about what we want from the experience. Yes, of course, we take away a photo but that is not enough for you or your subject to be satisfied with. Why not add this to our already compulsive obsessive nature?
If that makes me a nosey git, I can live with that …
And it is that simplicity in photography that invariably brings out a strong message of belonging, being a part of something, whether it is landscape, people or culture. Nowhere was this better illustrated than in the pages of Life magazine in 1950s and National Geographic in 1960s and 1970s. Earlier still were the heartrending images of migrant workers during the American Depression, by Dorothea Lange. ‘Keep it simple’ was a mantra written all over them, and probably one of the only rules in photography today that should rarely be broken.
As I steered my early days in photojournalism into broader travel and ethnographic themes, I gained inspiration from photographers such as Roland Michaud and Eric Valli, and more recently, Gregory Colbert. I see them as journeymen of a different breed who opened my eyes to the extraordinary interdependence some of the world’s nomadic peoples have with their animals. By the very nature of their lifestyle, there is a bond, a shared experience that seems to transcend the whole idea of ownership or possession, and yet the livestock are undoubtedly their most important possessions. It is a theme I have returned to time and again, and one that was especially relevant and closer to home during the foot and mouth epidemic 12 years ago. At the time, I was working on a project to photograph my local dale. Some of the local students I was working with lived on some of the affected farms. They could see the stress and anxiety it was causing their families and felt very strongly about getting the message out to those who had little understanding about the countryside, or the nature of the relationship they had with their animals. Ownership was not on the agenda, but being in possession and control of their own lives was; and the students’ images went a long way to illustrate that.