Filling the Void with Stillness


“All changed, changed utterly

A terrible beauty is born.”

This is a snippet from William Butler Yeats’ Easter, 1916 that describes the poet’s torn emotions over the Irish’s bloody struggle for independence, from the British.

I had first come across the term (terrible beauty), many years ago, and since then, it has remained clasped to my being. I didn’t know what it meant then, but I was struck by the scathing sound that the words produced in my mouth. This feeling was revived, once again, when I heard Sanjeev Saith mention it, last month, while in conversation about his new photobook, A Negative Year. He alluded to the words with regards to a specific period in his life (between June 1992-June 1993), where he ‘witnessed a confluence of lives coming together’ akin to ‘seeing terrible beauty all around him.’

A photograph that I was particularly moved by is an image (untitled) that occurs in the latter half of the book. I am going to refrain from describing it, as it would diminish the fortitude surrounding the picture. But, I’ll leave you with this much… You’ll recognise the image by its melancholic red sky, its bright blue door, and its vibrant yellow wall. I am not sure what the moment meant to Sanjeev, but for me, it summed up the highs and extreme lows from the last 10 years of my life.

So what is this terrible beauty? There’s no one way of interpreting the term. But the way I see it, it’s having the foresight to recognise and appreciate the epiphany that might come out of a tragic situation. This is exactly what I experienced when Sanjeev’s image appeared on the screen. It felt strangely reassuring to see the triumph and vibrancy of light and colour, over the crimson sky. I wonder if he saw it too. It was, is, symbolic of a terrible beauty.

I am confounded by our ability to recognise beauty amidst the clutter of our collective fallacies. Some of us manage to find it in the scattered human interactions around us, while some of us have discovered it in the stillness surrounding us. I belong to the latter.

Although I didn’t know it then, but I have been photographing things that embody this terrible beauty. I’d always wonder why I was so incredibly drawn to insentient and discarded objects, or spaces that lacked human presence. However, with time, I discovered a far greater acceptance in the inanimate, than I have ever been able to, in the company of people. I have a special fondness for objects and motifs that have endured the trials and tribulations of being loved, used, and discarded. I suppose, it’s the reassurance of being in the presence of something familiar, that is comforting.

As I grow older, my affinity to these objects has only increased manifold. The way I see them has also evolved. I’ve become more selective and perceptive about what to photograph and how to photograph it. I suppose, this just comes from simply growing up and discovering new ways of seeing. I also feel that, today, my impulse to shoot is dictated more by intuition than instinct. My only hope is that I continue to unravel newer aspects of the process, thereby learning more about myself and why I do what I do.

This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue of Better Photography.

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