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When framing life through a lens…

By Dilshan Boange
Have you seen the Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by the late Kevin Carter? It shows a Sudanese child crawling in the direction of a UN food distributing centre as a vulture looked on at the frail bony figure possibly on the verge of death. Carter had apparently not really done anything to help the child after snapping the picture. He had been severely criticised for simply getting on his way about his business not even knowing whether the child made it to the aid or not. Life through a lens can be fascinating for many reasons. I suppose it is because in a way it stills the world into being exactly the opposite of life. Life through a lens can become beauty for the simple reason that the world with all its woes and moans are stilled into silence. For the record let me say I am no photographer. I don’t know if I qualify even as an amateurish one. But every now and then there is a photographer in all of us especially when armed with a camera I suppose.

En route to Hotel Galadari
I remembered a moment from my life in a yesterday that goes back many years. The exact date - 10th December 2005. It involves an attempt to capture an image where life appeared as art before my eyes as I was looking out at the street sitting in the car of my friend Deshaka Perera. There was a bunch of us, batchmates from Wesley College (our alma mater). And we were turning onto the main road after making some purchases from the Cargills outlet on Staple Street, Colombo. It was evening and we were ‘Hotel Galadari bound’ en route to our 3rd annual ‘batch reunion’. All of a sudden I saw it. A slice of life that stuck out like some arty assemblage beckoning me to capture it in a photo form. I said aloud to whoever was behind the wheel to stop for a moment and urgently pointed in the direction of the Staple Street entrance to the Jaic Hilton Towers. What was the commotional urgency in my voice the guys were a bit surprised and asked me ‘What?! What?!’

Hand me the camera!
I remember saying simply ‘There! There! Look! Look!’ with a hand pointing in the direction of the entrance to the Hilton Towers. I remember my friend Sanka Jayanada asked me whether it was the fountain inside the Hilton Towers premises. (To be honest I just remember him asking me that and to this day I am not sure if there is a fountain there or not, but presumably there is, because I doubt my friend imagined it.) The car stopped after I urged with unreserved seriousness and asked quickly for the camera. There was Deshaka’s digital camera on board. I remember as I hastily got ready to jump out someone from inside told me to be careful and watch for any vehicles that might speed past as I open the door and sprang out. I crossed the street carefully and went over to the entrance of the Jaic Hilton Towers. It was just a matter of metres. But she was gone. I looked around desperately and saw she was now on her feet and moving away. I called out and asked her politely if she could kindly be where she was before. I told her very eagerly I wanted to take a photograph of her. She smiled nervously and said no.

The Rs. 10/- offer
I dug into my pocket, almost caught in a stream of flexes and instincts and held out a ten rupee note. (Not very generous of me I guess, but I don’t think it was my wallet I got out but what my fingers found in my trouser pocket.) She refused politely and said she was scared to be photographed. She took the money in my out stretched hand as I made a gesture to accept it and concede to my pleading request. She smiled with her poorly maintained teeth in full sight and pointed to a mendicant nearby and said to take a picture of him. I said I wanted a picture of her exactly where she was a moment ago. But she refused politely in a tone that sought my considerateness. She said people come and take photographs of them sometimes, and they have even been warned not to pose for photographs.

A truth and a half
I explained to her I am not a journalist (which of course was true) and that I was a photographer (which was of course wasn’t ‘entirely true’) and that I wanted to photograph her exactly where she was sitting a few minutes ago. She refused again very humbly and I realised it was pointless and by that time a couple of my friends were also by my side. We went back to the car and the guys asked me why I wanted a photograph of that beggar woman. I asked them if they saw where she was sitting with her child on her lap. They hadn’t really paid any attention. I told them she was sitting right under the shiny brass plaque that said –Jaic Hilton Residencies.

Imaging and empathising
Imagine the irony of that image I said. She was a vagrant with a child, the very bottom most rung in society, presumably without a permanent shelter of her own. She sat with a child under a symbol that bespoke of the apex of luxurious living. To me it was potent with symbolic value and would have been a great photo. But the thing is now when I think about it and think about that story of the photo that won the Pulitzer something dawns upon me.

Life through a lens tends to give life a certain static status to actually make them lifeless. We tend to think of the artistry and the beauty of it while we would fail to really empathise with the person/object that becomes art when put into a frame that shows a ‘slice of life’. The pursuit of art, can, sometimes, (ironically), take away from the artist what art hopes to generate in its appreciator – empathy.