Screw The Photo
March 23rd, 2010

Swarn Mandir (Golden Temple) - Amritsar, India

Swarn Mandir (Golden Temple) - Amritsar, India

This is predominantly a blog about creating photographs (or at least traveling and living as a photographer); however, this post is more about how to not take a photo, and sometimes that’s the best choice.

Recently I was in Amritsar, India and had all sorts of preconceived ideas of the types of photos I would take at the Golden Temple. I set my alarm clock for 6am as I wanted to be there in time to get a good shot of the sun rising over the temple. When I looked out my hotel window to see that there were already a lot of people in the Temple I began to stress my wife to get a move on. It was early, and I was in a hurry. It was time to realize those (ridiculous) expectations – and quickly. However, things don’t always go according to plan, and sometimes that’s a very good thing.

I was at the Temple in plenty of time, and I was dressed for photographic warfare. I had a D700, three lenses (14-24/2.8, 24-70/2.8 and my brand new 70-200/2.8 that had just begun shipping), a tripod (yes, a tripod!), a strobe with synch cable, an extra battery, additional flash cards, etc. If there existed a cartoon of an over-equipped photographer, then that was certainly me that morning. I was living the “can’t use it if you don’t take it” maxim. I actually need all that equipment, and more, when working on an assignment, but when just shooting for myself I usually go much, much lighter, particularly when I can see my hotel room from where I’m shooting (a rare treat).

As I walked around barefoot on the gelid marble of the encircling Parikarma walkway I took a few photos as I tried to figure out where I wanted to be when the sun rose. Of course, I always pack my trusty compass for determining where the sun will rise (so do you, right?). However, I’m not exactly at my peak of alertness at 6am (serious understatement), and on this particular morning my compass remained fast asleep back in the hotel room. No biggie. The Temple is a confined area, and I can move quickly enough. As I was processing all of this, deciding whether I should move left, right or back on to the rug to ease the pain of the frigid cold from my feet, I felt a tap on my shoulder. An adolescent boy very timidly asked me whether he could take my photo. What? Um, that’s the wrong way around. Don’t you see the 200 kilograms of photo equipment strapped around my neck? I’m supposed to sheepishly ask you if I can take your photo. My first thought was that he wanted me to take his photo so that he could then ask for a modeling fee. (This happens far too often, and after a while you develop a second sense for recognizing the signs and cut it off before it gets there. At least I do.) But, no, he just wanted a photo of the very white, bald westerner as a souvenir of his pilgrimage to the Golden Temple (and probably to show his friends and family back home what a funny westerner dressed for photographic warfare looks like!). Fun. I played along. I had a small bit of time to spare; so why not, right?

I thought that one photo would be it. I thought wrongly (certainly not the first time). No matter where I went that morning or no matter where I stayed, people came up and timidly asked if they could take a photo of themselves with me – a “snap” they called it. And when I wasn’t playing the role (in my head) of being a famous movie star, having his photo taken on the red carpet (and the carpet was red!), other people were approaching me to discuss our respective countries, various aspects of Sikhism, the role of nature in the world, laying bricks in Italy, etc. That last one isn’t a flippant joke either. One guy approached my wife and began speaking to her in Italian. He had worked as a mason in Italy and spoke decent Italian. We talked with him for a long time. Well, not without interruptions for more impromptu photo shoots. Those simply never stopped. And if you think that they liked taking photos with me, you can probably imagine how much they loved taking their photos with my blonde wife. Funny as when I first told her about my first photo shoot (with me as the “model”) that morning she thought that I was BSing her, but it wasn’t long before she too was in the focus of every SLR, point and shoot and camera phone in northwestern India. At least one frame of actual film (yes, film!) was wasted taking a photo of me. I kind of wanted to suggest that they focus on the big Golden Temple thingy, which, by the way, is simply amazing.

After about three hours of interesting discussions and many photoshoots of me with him and me with her and me with them, all multiplied exponentially (and well after the sun had risen and my preconceived photo ops disappeared with it), Silvia and I decided that we’d get some breakfast and return later. (Later never arrived, but that will be a different post.)

I didn’t take any of the photos that I wanted to take. And I don’t at all care. I had a blast. I had a lot of wonderful moments with delightful people. I don’t have all those photos that I imagined and desperately wanted to create, but I have some splendid memories. I definitely wouldn’t trade. Sometimes the best photo option is no photo.

7 Responses to “Screw The Photo”

  1. Mark says:

    Ha! Fun post, Jeff. I particularly love this line “… dressed for photographic warfare.”

    Well said!

  2. Loved this post…enjoyed seeing the photographer become the subject and the humanity that happened, due to that serendipitous event! I suspect the memories you kept were every bit as powerful, as the photo you might have captured!

  3. Delightfully funny and entertaining post. I laughed hard a couple of times with my imagined scenes of you having your photo taken. You can think of it as a gift you offered to them. Probably posted all over the internet by now. LOL There have been those times when I carried my camera and never took a photo but enjoyed the scenes and the people.

  4. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Thanks guys (and gal!).

  5. Silvia says:

    Was amazing the contrast between the peacefulness of the temple and the total noise, chaos and pollutions of the outside city.
    I love India (almost all the time)!

  6. [...] my last post, Screw The Photo, I mentioned that when I left the Golden Temple, without creating any of the photos that I had [...]

  7. Rosa says:

    woow, I think that’s exactly how I would describe what has happened to me in th least couple of days. Weird to be the one to pose but at the same time it felt so great.. I’ve learnt a lot from it.

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