Remnants of Travel and the Point Where I Failed

Photography/The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California (left) Photograph/Sephi Bergson (right) At first, my photograph (right) reminded me of one of Llange’s famous pictures, and then made me ponder over the effect of the traveller’s gaze.

Photography/The Dorothea Lange Collection, Oakland Museum of California (left) Photograph/Sephi Bergson (right)
At first, my photograph (right) reminded me of one of Llange’s famous pictures, and then made me ponder over the effect of the traveller’s gaze.

SephiLast year, I travelled to Ladakh in the upper Himalayas, where I took a quick portrait of a nomad woman near the high altitude lake of Tsomoriri using my iPhone camera. While the photograph itself was very simple and straightforward, it made me think about the essence of being a traveller and about how much we impact the places we visit, even by simply passing through and seemingly not making a  difference.

A little while later, I had a look at it to do some in-camera editing. Somehow, very humbly, it reminded me of the kind of images I used to see from the photographers of the American Depression… a Dorothea Lange kind of feeling.

I am not comparing my iPhone picture to a Dorothea Lange image in any way, but maybe it is the shabby clothes and the dirty face, the hands that used to be such a visible subject in her work. More than anything else it is the gaze, the eyes looking away and out of the frame to an unknown direction that made me think.

There is, of course, a world of difference between the two photographs. The farmer in Lange’s picture has no hope at all. His gaze is one of a person waiting for good news, knowing that it is not coming. Squatting in the dirt wearing his battered hat, his hands are as still as the rock in front of him. His face is as wrinkled as his shirt and as creased as the dry land behind him. He is, in a way, the face of the Depression.

The nomad woman shows something else altogether. Her  hands are busy with something that looks like the wool of one of the yaks in her herd. The ring on her finger emphasises the strength of her useful hands. Her hat is nothing like the one of the farmer above, but on top of all of that, her eyes are not sad. It seems that she looks away with a certain amount of contentment and optimism. She is even smiling. But what makes her smile? What  is she really doing with her hands?

The picture was a quick one and I was back in the car, thinking of what residue this encounter had left in the woman’s mind. I  was there. I know there was nothing in the horizon or beyond my shoulder that was grabbing her attention, but she looked  away.

The distant lake was indeed beautiful but I would have to assume that the little smile is more likely a smile of embarrassment, of being camera shy, or of not really being sure what to think of the whole situation. The hands probably reflect her nervousness.

One of the pleasures of travel has always been to dive into new places where others are compelled to live, of being able to come out unharmed, to tell the stories of how great the trip was. Knowing that we have abandoned the subject of our gaze to their fate, we like to think that their lives are full of a local happiness and a quiet contentment that we no longer experience in our modern way of life.

But what is the residue that we leave behind after our short visit? The fact that someone is passing through suddenly forces the comparison between the nomad life (as seen in the above photograph) and the life of the passing traveller. It makes the one who stays behind, suddenly conscious of her fate. In a sense, her quiet resignation is now possibly disturbed by the thought of the possibility—that might never be acted upon—of moving  on.

Her mind might go beyond the horizon and the lake and wander to far-away places that she has never seen. A seed of unhappiness might be planted that will slowly change her world and disturb her resignation. We are making a difference, simply by passing through. It is an accumulative process that will eventually erase the nomad’s culture. She is already wearing a modern vest and her cap is surely not a traditional Ladakhi head  cover.

We move about with our slick cameras and expensive gear and if we are not careful, we might crush the fabric of cultures that we come in touch with. Sometime more and sometime less, but we do make a difference and leave a residue as we pass by.

I like my image of the nomad woman. It is pretty in its own way, but I must admit I failed this time. I failed because in that moment of carelessness, I took something that did not belong to me and left a footprint in the sand when I left.

About Sephi Bergson
Sephi Bergerson is a multi-genre photographer who has been based in India since 2002. His work revolves mainly around the experience of travel and culture, while balancing his commercial shooting with personal work and photojournalism. This, according to him, helps him create and develop a distinctive photographic language.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Sephi Bergson, Perspectives, Opinions