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Becoming A Photographer


By: Ganesh Saili

Where did you learn photography?’ The question has been flung at me more times than I can remember.

How I wish I could thump my chest to say: ‘At New York’s Long Island School of Photography!’ But it was not meant to be because I came from a family of modest means that became even more modest once my father retired from his job of a head clerk at the Landour Cantonment Board.

My first camera, a Kodak Brownie was a birthday gift given by my grandfather Govind Ram Saili. A simple box camera, in my hands at the age twelve, did the trick by setting me off on the magic of writing with light.

Come to think of it, hindsight does make such wise men of us all. In the 1970s, I bumped into the maestro Raghubir Singh. How I wish I had known that such fleeting connections shaped our destinies! Though the beauty lies in the remembering when it’s all done and over with, a part and parcel of the past, that is immune and safe. Raghu had dropped by on his way home after a trip to Gangotri’s Gauri Kund. To get that one frame he had travelled with the exact equipment – a wide-lux – to do justice to that bend in the Ganga where it pours into a gorge.

Around that time, I’d almost made up my mind to quit as I simply could not afford to indulge in this expensive hobby. Knowing that I wasn’t cut in the matrix of Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic, I had sworn never to touch Kodachrome film again. Granted that it had vibrant colours (especially the red) but at day’s end it was simply too much trouble. For starters we bought our film from stuff seized by the customs and put on resale. You were never sure of the quality of what you were buying. And then there was the processing which could only be done in the Kodak photo lab in Mumbai’s Veer Savarkar Marg. Too much trouble! Nay worse! For a college teacher like me, it burnt a rather large hole in my pocket.

‘Don’t quit, Ganesh!’ he kidded me in parting. ‘Here I am, coming all the way from Paris to your backyard to take a single picture and I hear you want to throw it all up!’

Those words helped me stay the course. I stayed afloat oftener than not, by borrowing equipment that I could not afford to buy.

Years later, I went on to teach photography, where I told my charges the tale behind Galen Avery Rowell’s iconic Rainbow Over the Potala Palace, Lhasa (Tibet). In 1981 he had jumped off a bus outside Lhasa on seeing dark clouds massing over the mountains, dashing a considerable distance through fields of mustard, with his bags thumping on his back, at an altitude of over 10,000 feet on the Roof of the World. He was in the perfect spot when the rainbow unfolded.

This illustrates that quantity never triumphs over quality. Like the finesse with which my friend Karam Puri, the young owner of Talisker Expeditions, takes enthusiasts to Everest Base Camp, who told me: ‘More pictures were taken in 2004 than in the entire history of photography!’

Today every kid is armed with a smart phone, a selfie stick, selfie brush or selfie apps. These pictures they instantly post on social media.

‘Why do folk pucker their lips pouting in selfies?’ I quiz Karam. He takes it in his stride, never at a loss for words: ‘Arrey! Celebrities do it all the time! When in doubt – pout!’

Around me, it’s Click! Upload! Celebrate! You are one in sync with a million others doing it on the Net every single day. Conversely, smart phones have granted the Kiss of Life to the old endangered world of film photography.

‘Is it all over, then, for the big brand names of our film camera days?’ I asked Manu Bahuguna, a fellow shutterbug and founder of photoindia.com.

‘Precisely!’ he says. ‘They are mere fashion statements now.’

So, at least, for photography Happy Days are here again!

Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.