Eds note: FOCUSED has blessed me with many things: inspiration. excitement. passion. stress. happiness. All this multiplied as a result of hearing the stories from around the globe of the cameras being put to use. One thing I could have never predicted was that one little idea from a napkin would put me in contact with photographers I’ve looked up to and admired for so long, but never met. Nor did I ever expect them to share all those feelings with me. Ami Vitale is one of those photographers. Her work is absolutely beautiful, and I’m thrilled to have her be a part of FOCUSED.
An almost 9,000 mile and $200 airmail trip to India was the first stop for the first FOCUSED camera (a Pentax K1000), where Ami was on assignment. She wrote me from the field this note and a photo of her receiving a friendship bracelet after spending the day with Subita and teaching her all about photography. This one interaction with a complete stranger says so much about our field and why we do what we do.
You won’t see her single frame (yet), but you will soon. Patience is a virtue.
Subita Devi is 13 years old and during the Pushkar camel fair in India. I was not the only one taking her picture. Around us, there were hundreds of digital cameras, some cheap, many expensive firing away.
I spent a couple of days with Subita and her family. At no time were we alone, and even when before dawn broke, we huddled around a fire, at least a half dozen people were looking at her only through their lens. The only time any of them acknowledged me was to ask me a technical question, like what ISO would work best in the stingy light. They assumed, perhaps because I was there for a while, that I was a professional.
Later, Subita would tell me how de-humanizing the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. Made her feel like an animal is how she put it to me. No one even said “namaste” to her. Those who surrounded her were after only one thing – what they considered a great shot. It was a hunt, she was simply the prize.
The era of film had a lot to teach us photographers; about approaching people slowly, and the importance of building trust, and crafting a story even as you fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited to get deeper into the story before blowing our film. And we were not defined as much by one amazing, accidental image, but rather the tapestry of a great and complex story we could illuminate.
If some of the people who surrounded Subita had taken the time to spend even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story and not just an image. There are of course huge advantages to using a digital camera. It can help you tell a story better and I too switched to my digital camera after I made this single film image. Many of the photos I subsequently took were stronger than the single film shot. But the important thing to remember is that anyone can take a picture, but it takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer.
And that always takes time.