Sam Harris: How India Changed my Life and my Photography

Photograph/Sam Harris

Photograph/Sam Harris

This article was originally published in March 2012.

"I knew I had to allow myself to drift away from what I had known, if it wanted to make fresh discoveries."—Sam Harris

“I knew I had to allow myself to drift away from what I had known, if it wanted to make fresh discoveries.”—Sam Harris

Let me attempt to share with you my choice to walk away from a successful career as a music portraitist in London, to purchase one-way tickets to India and to invest our life savings in a journey of the heart and spirit. Some thought it was a brave move, others, no doubt, thought it was foolish. But then, my willingness to step into the unknown was a necessity, driven by a hunger and passion for something more fulfilling…

Back then, I felt my work had become formulaic and all too predictable. I wanted to change many aspects of my hectic lifestyle as well as my photographic direction. I’d come a long way since the early days spent experimenting in my home darkroom and studio. I was missing that looseness, that process where ideas are often sparked by errors and the open endedness of creativity.

This was also a time when my interest was moving more and more into documentary. With a young family, I felt we should be spending more quality time together, away from the hustle and bustle of London. I wanted to change everything, find new ways to express myself with a camera, undo many of my photographic habits, let go, forget almost everything I’d ever learnt and start afresh…

This was 2002 and digital cameras were very much in their infancy… I liked that! It was new, fresh and unpredictable… exciting! Yes, image quality was poor and mechanisms were temperamental, but that didn’t bother me. I was attracted to the instant, diaryesque quality of digital, it was like a neverending Polaroid… I could experiment freely with lots of room for mistakes that lead to discoveries. Surely that’s how I would create a new language for myself, I thought. With a small digital compact and laptop, I could play around, get loose… and I’d have my ‘darkroom’ and office in a bag. It was an exciting notion.

And so we abandoned our life in London. We were free and we were in India. We travelled slowly and eventually, rented a cottage in the south. Drawing water from the garden well, buying groceries from the local market, collecting fresh milk from our neighbour’s cow—in India, whether in a village or city, the rhythm of daily life feels different, as if time is elastic.

But how did India impact my photography? Firstly by my choices… choosing to follow my heart and learning to be in the present. I decided to refrain from looking outwards at the colourful and charismatic faces of India, but instead, started photographing fellow travellers like me. Then, to look at my personal experience of ‘being there’, I literally turned the camera inwards and started photographing my own family, my daily life.

I knew I had to allow myself to drift away from what I had known, if it wanted to make fresh discoveries. In India, I felt the confidence to do this. Becoming detached from the results was one step, as I also stopped preconceiving shots and situations. This loose attitude was mental as well as physical… it introduced a lot of uncertainty that was both exciting and disappointing. Then again, I slowed down. I wanted to tune into this different pulse of daily life, often inspired by just a subtle shift in the light—there is no telling when the magic can happen and transform the mundane into something more lyrical… albeit that it is usually when I am busy doing something else, like writing a letter or chopping vegetables for the evening meal.

The highlight of our time in India, no doubt, was the birth of our second daughter Yali. It was at the onset of the monsoon, there was a power cut and I was fanning my wife Yael with a piece of card in one hand and my camera clumsily in the other, the lens steaming up due to humidity… the birth was simple and amazingly effortless. I only managed to make about 3–4 frames before it was all over, but one was a keeper!

I was experimenting with my approach and attitude, spontaneity and a newfound looseness, playing and making plenty of mistakes, often disappointing but sometimes surprising or inspiring… a hunger was driving me and there was no turning back. So many people seem to fear the unknown, failure and mistakes, but really, we should embrace them! This is something that I am always telling my students—we can learn a lot from the happy accidents, if we’re open to them. That was a big gift that I received from mama India, you have to be open! Accept, go with the flow and everything is possible… mistakes lead to discovery… And that, after all, I think, is at the heart of all creative practice.

About Sam Harris: Harris abandoned his erstwhile life of a photographer in the British music industry to pursue his love for travel. After his adventures in India, he moved torural Australia, where he has been documenting the formative years of his two daughters in a personal, intimate story called ‘Postcards from Home’.


Tags: doing photography in india, india, march 2012, photographing your own family, Sam Harris, travelling in india, Visual Musings