A Slice of Love
Sam Harris shares a sea of stories and his personal outlook towards photography, over several conversations with Raj Lalwani.
Last month, while attending a photography workshop under Sam Harris, I was facing a bout of uncertainty. We were in Manali and Sam was guiding the group towards producing a body of work in a short span of time. I was trying to photograph an emotion that was very personal, but I had no idea how I could portray it visually. I wondered whether to just choose another subject, something that would have guaranteed me a strong set of visuals. He heard me out and then said, “In photography and life, we are always faced with choices. While one road may seem easier and more attractive, you should never take the ‘safe’ option if you really want to be true to yourself.”
Going Off the Beaten Path
I realised that those words best describe Sam’s approach to his own life. After all, he left an extremely successful career as a music portraitist in London and decided to set out on a nomadic trail and changed his photographic approach completely. “India does that to you, I guess,” he says, as he talks about his long stay in this country. Curiously, it was an association that started with an impromptu decision, only because he was attracted to a poster at the travel agent’s office—one that had Steve McCurry’s famous shot of a turbaned worker standing beside a steam engine in front of the Taj. He had first felt the need to move from London when was pushing the swing as his daughter, Uma, played in the local park. All around, there were other fathers, all on their cell phones. “It did not feel right. I wondered whether I really wanted to bring her up in London.
Humming the Song of Life
He calls himself an idealist and a romantic. “That is a dangerous combination,” he laughs, while narrating his first visit to Bombay. “We arrived in the middle of the night. It was love at first sight.” Over the next few years, they lived a slow life, in Chennai, Uttaranchal and the quietude of Gokarna.
This was where he rediscovered himself, but the journey was meandering and full of surprises. It was, he says, similar to the time he started photography. He elaborates, “The reason why I fell in love with photography was the darkroom. I would be locked up for several days, experimenting. My days in India coincided with the first time I used a digital point-and-shoot camera. The image quality those days was poor, but there were surprises, excitement and a lot of unplanned, happy accidents.”
A Collector of Memories
He also started looking inwards. “India, as a place, inspired me. But as a photographic subject, it had been photographed so many times. Instead of joining the herd, I decided to look inwards. I first started photographing fellow travellers and then later turned the eye to my family.” This spontaneous archiving of personal memories resulted in Postcards from Home, a body of work that is simple in execution, and yet so remarkably intimate. While Sam calls the work his diary, he uses strong visual devices and a play of hands and feet to keep the pictures playful and ambigious. “I don’t want to give all the answers. I would rather that my pictures ask some questions. It is like music. You may associate a Sinatra song with a romantic drive, but someone else may hear it and remember a sad family event.” Japanese photographer Noboshuri Araki once said that he photographs all the time in order to remember. Sam’s reasons are similar in their sentimentality. “Children grow up so quickly. I just want to slow things down. I want to see if photography is a way of freezing time, of making the world go by, in slow motion.”
Tips by Sam
•If you are starting out and already have a way of seeing, believe in it and do not give it up… you are lucky.
•Photography is a tactile medium. Make small prints and put them up on a bulletin board. It helps you understand where your work is headed.
He introduced British band Portishead to the Sunday Times and photographed them before they received any other press. While he calls music his greatest influence, his inspirations include Marc Chagall’s paintings, Brassai’s photographs, Bill Sienkiewicz’s comics and David Alan Harvey’s outlook towards photography. After residing in England and India, he currently stays in rural Australia. When he misses India, he switches on a Lata Mangeshkar track and feels like he is back.