A Curious Photographic Incident

Sanjeev Saith

Sanjeev Saith

This story was originally published in May 2014.

When you have a title like Visual Musings, I tend to rewind and recall not necessarily the images that I have made through the years, but memories, instances and stories that happened around the photographs. One particularly amusing incident is what I have chosen to speak about, because it is these tiny vignettes that make the photographic journey worth the ride.

Back in 1994, I was doing a freewheeling project in Punjab, and had gone to this rather quaint village with cobbled streets and thin brick tiles. I don’t remember the name… but the reason I went there was to listen to, and photograph the Dhadis. Dhadis are these minstrels who sing ballads using dhadd and sarangi, the folk instruments of Punjab. My guide took me to their house, but when I reached there, I was told that they had gone out on one of their singing missions. Since I had travelled this far, I decided to hang around and wait.

I decided to go up to the roof and see what the village looks like. It was very beautiful, the light was lovely, the gallis were bathed in golden light and the clusters of roofs looked idyllic. I shot a couple of pictures with a 24mm that was mounted on one of my cameras. It was that sort of lazy photography that one does when there is no real subject in sight. Then I came down and thought that I’ll snooze for a bit, only to be woken up by some noise on the streets. The noise grew louder and slowly, came closer. It seemed as if a huge crowd had gathered. They were not happy sounds, and I soon realised that half the village was outside.

My guide came into the room, petrified, and locked the door. “What have you been doing?” he asked me in Punjabi. I was confused, what had I been doing, but then he asked me if I had been making pictures from the roof. Apparently, a girl had complained to her brother that I was shooting her photo and that had completely riled him up. “They won’t leave you,” he said, “the brother is angry enough to slaughter you.” I was stupefied. There was a loud shout from the courtyard entrance and the brother demanded that I come out. “Tu baahar the aa, main tenu khatam kar dena,” he warned.

My guide pleaded with me to not step out of the room. He said that the brother was of a different jaati from the Dhadis, and thus, will not enter the house. Waiting was an option, only such that we would wait for the Dhadis to return and hopefully mediate on my behalf, but I thought that this was an absolutely ridiculous situation. It is not in my nature to hide and wait for things to sort themselves out. And so I decided to walk out and speak to him.

When I opened the door, I realised that he was a large, burly guy with a lathi in his hand. He didn’t even need a weapon to kill me. It was only my luck that he wouldn’t enter the house. I asked him what the problem was. “You have shot a picture of my sister, I will kill you,” was what he raged in Punjabi. I tried to explain who I was and the assignment I was doing, but after a point, the “tu baahar te aa” became repetitive.

I realised what the problem was. Clearly, the sister had seen me shoot while she was in the zone where I had pointed my camera. So I actually picked up the same camera that had the 24mm lens on it, went up to the guy and asked him to look through it. I asked him what he saw. He wondered how to react, it was my good luck that he decided to humour me and answer the fact that he could see me in the frame, along with door, the buffalo and all else behind. I explained how while using the same lens from a roof, even if his sister was somewhere in the vicinity, I as a photographer, wouldn’t even have known that she’s a tiny speck in the frame. It was a little like a photography lesson.

“I understand why you are angry, but I wasn’t looking at your sister. Your anger is misplaced,” I told him. I continued talking, “Even if you kill me in your rage, you will cool down and regret it. And of course, if you commit a crime, you will be in serious trouble. So now I am going to cross this threshold and get into my car.”

Surprisingly, he didn’t say anything while I walked out. But as I was leaving, something in my head told me that I hadn’t finished the conversation. It was a niggle in my head that from his point of view, I was wrong. And while I’d told him that his doubt was misplaced, the girl, however small a part, was still in my frame. I turned around and said that if his sister was there and if she would have objected, I may have thought differently. Immediately, he pulled out a girl from the crowd and there she was. I asked her if she had heard me talking about how the 24mm lens shows such a wide view, and she nodded. “So you do know that you are only a tiny dot. Do you still have a problem with that?” I asked. And she said yes, that she was still upset.

“That’s fair enough,” I said. I rewound the film and pulled out the roll with its leader sticking out. “Here you go, you’re in it,” I told her and gave her the roll. But then, my self righteousness as a photographer came back and I said, “Wait a minute, this has other photos I have shot, so why I should give them to you?” This was when I exercised my second lesson in photography. I pulled out the film and explained that now that I had exposed the film to light, the pictures did not exist. I got into the car and we drove for a bit, and who was it walking towards us but the Dhadis. I took a picture.

As I narrate this to you today, the irony is apparent. Today, when most people are using digital, there is no scope for this final doubt, this thought that you are actually carrying something that neither they nor I have seen. The kind of conversation we had, without the seen photograph in front of us, was only a conversation of ideas. Of what we believed the picture must have been. And eventually, considering he let me go, it was a conversation of trust. The dramatic way in which I pulled out the roll was something that could have happened only in the pre-digital age. Now, we would show the LCD, pacify the person and maybe even shoot an extra frame. Photography has moved on.

About Sanjeev Saith
Sanjeev stopped shooting ten years ago, but is one of the most astute voices on photography in the country, even today. He calls himself a colour man, and if photography were not in his life, he would just want to go climb a mountain. Here, he narrates an incident that was scary when it happened, but reeks of irony in today’s digital age.

Tags: 24mm, film, Incident, Opinions, Perspectives, Sanjeev Saith, Visual Musings