I have always been aware of the fact that I am in America, but I try to keep it in the back of my mind. I just go about my way, imagining that this place is back home, but full of white people. However, once in a while, arbitrarily, I get a strange sensation in my chest. I am in America. The feeling does not compute. Being here leads to a strange melange of feelings.
On one hand, I am happy that I am here, because back home, I sure as hell would not be allowed to do the things I do here. I get to take pictures, and work on my art, and read novels, and call it school. I like to think I have it good.
On the other hand, America feels alien. And I know that America stands for most of the wrongs that have happened in the last fifty years. How can I be happy and content here, when the country I am living in is causing death and destruction; and pollution, and economic collapse, and terrorism and all those multi-syllable words back home?
I heard somewhere that everybody has their place. It needn't be their birthplace, or where they live, or work. It is just a place where a person feels most at home.
This last term here, I spent a lot of time in a dark, overstuffed room, with two dolls and a really old camera for company. I got so familiar with my two dolls that I even had names for them. I ended up learning a lot from just looking at those two dolls for hours at an end. It was really surprising that two dolls, less then a foot tall each, could teach me anything, but they did. Before I digress too much, and run amock talking about agendas and biases, I do need to tell you about the dolls themselves. It is really strange, but what gives, right?
So there was this woman from Boise, who joined USAID. She was transferred to back home. This was in the 60's, early 60's. Back home would have been mofussil as hell compared to the raging night-life of Les Bois. But she came back in one piece. In her bags were 32 dolls. She had picked them up as souvenirs before she left or something. She had obviously sown her wild oats, because she settled down, and lived an uneventful life. And then she died. (Doesn't that remind you about a certain man form Nantucket?) Her Daughter, deciding that they could do better some place else, dumped them on the education department here at the college. They sat there, behind glass, gathering dust for the next two decades. And then, they were moved, to the college archives, where they gathered some more dust. All this was until I showed up in the archives with a chip in my shoulder about not being a serious photographer.
Because I had such a serious chip in my shoulder, I decided that I would use the most obscure camera I could find. So I got my hands on an 8x10 camera. Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston, and Paul Strand used that. I didn't want to be bogged down with a small camera. I leave that to people like Diane Arbus. What did she do anyway, except take pictures of freaks. No. I had a camera I needed a dolly to carry. Who could stop the creation of art now?
So I would go in every night and spend at least five to six hours in the archives. Out of which I would get roughly two pictures. On a good day maybe three. Most of the time was spent with me having a thick black sheet on my head, looking at an upside image of the dolls.
Most people would call it boring, but it was a really strange feeling. I was trying to make art there man. You need to cover all your bases with that stuff. I was trying to map out the history of the dolls. If I was taking their pictures (They were pretty much Portraits), then I might as well think of them as humans. Since when have we take portraits of trees? You take still-lifes of them. So I tries to think of them as these two little dinky women, manufactured in a doll factory back home. (It is really strange to think of people being manufactured, right? At the rate those Asian countries' population is increasing, they might as well be.) So those dinky little doll women were manufactured in a factory back home. This white woman from USAID comes to help the homeland out. She leaves with thirty two of these little dinky doll men and women. She just keeps them around the house, and when she dies, her daughter, finding do use for all them dinky little doll people decides to give them away. Sounds awful like some of the stuff I have read in those history books my room mate like to keep around.
Now sitting in that dark room, with a black cloth over my head for long hours with no human contact, I started getting all cabin fevery. You know, when I was younger, I used to read all kinds of books. My favourite ones involved all these intrepid type space explorers, two or three of them in space. These buggers would end up in a lonely outpost in space, surrounded by hostile elements, and all they had was each other. They would start going crazy, and do stupid stuff all the time. They would get all paranoid and start imagining stuff. Eventually they would all kill themselves by going out of the vacuum lock. And then the writer would write two three pages about the human condition and existentialism. Fun stuff. Did you ever notice, in those science fiction books that the guys would be all decked out in baggy space suits and what not, while the girls would wear next to nothing, and just have a glass bowl on their head? I used to get a kick out of that.
But yeah, I got all kinds of cabin fevery about how the transportation of the dolls was a manifestation of colonialist tendencies and how the dolls were symbols of my presence in this college, and how I was leading to the brain drain, and how the dolls condition behind the glass and my presence here was a symbol for the greater condition of people from third world countries. It was kind of cute.
No doubt, this was added to by all the books I was reading about at the time. I was basically reading on and on about how the white man had destroyed the coloured man by his control over him, and I was theorising about existential angst, psychological trauma, and alienation that was dumped on the coloured man just by the fact that the white man took over his country, killed most of his people, destroyed his religion, annihilated his social structures, transported him across the seven seas, and then subjugated him in the new lands. Heavy stuff, right?
I wanted to create this searing series of serious art photographs that would take two or three hours of looking at to understand, and would impart on the viewer a realisation of what harm and inequities and been done. So I spent more time in the dark room under the black cloth, looking at upside down images of dolls.
I decided that because I had the best tools possible, I would use them to the full degree. I had an 8x10 camera for god's sake. Ansel Adams used that. If he could make such great works about the American landscape, I could attempt to take a picture that was half as good as his. Because that guy pretty much made photography what it was, didn't he? I used tilts and shifts, drops and pulls, filters and small apertures. I went down to f64, because hell, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham did so, and if they were good enough for f64, I sure as hell was too. I did everything that all those great photographers did.
And so I went up to my darkroom, killed the lights and poured out the tepid chemicals in the trays. In complete darkness, I opened up the negative holders and pulled the delicate negatives out. I set up the timer in the darkroom, and started putting the negatives in the developer. Pull out the negative, reverse, put back into the developer. This routine continued until the timer's buzzer rang out, and it was time to put it in the stop bath. Repeat, and dunk the negatives in the fixer. Repeat, and dunk the negatives in hypo clear. Finally after a while, the negatives were ready for inspection.
I had in my hands beautiful prints. The tonalities were perfect, with just the right amount of greys. The shadows were creamy and the highlights detailed and sharp as a well honed knife. I gave myself a congratulatory pat on my back and pulled out some paper, so that I could get a contact sheet ready. Killed the lights again. And started the entire process of mucking with chemicals again. Until, finally, the prints were ready. They were technically beautiful prints. But they were horrible. I destroyed the negatives because I didn't want such work associated with my name. The dolls looked like they were in a scene of a murder. I had managed to use all the camera's advantages to my disadvantage. My fancy pulling and shifting and tilting had given me photos that even that blind photographer in the recent news would laugh at, if he could see them, of course.
So I started again.
I went to the dark room and put on the sheet of black cloth on my head. And I looked at the upside down image. But I kept Hemingway in mind. I have always been a fan of his precise and to the point writing. I remember that he said somewhere that for each good piece of writing is three times as much, omitted. So I decided to take as much time as earlier, but keep my images simple, and politics to the minimum.
I realised that the tendency to invoke multiple facets in my art, even though it might seem enticing, is not really the best thing to do. It is better to concentrate on a single facet and look at it in detail.
Which brings me back to my starting point. No, not the man in Nantucket, but about being brown in America. Yes, I do come from a culture that was exposed to colonial control. Yes my homeland was trifurcated, and yes, we had wars because of it. But I like to think of it as history. In the same manner as what happened yesterday, last week, or three hundred years ago. Yes, it happened, and yes, it affected me, and made me what I am, but I can not fight what happened in my past. What I can do is control my present.
This term, most of the books we studied were based on the colonial and post colonial narrative. What made the books in the second part of the term interesting to me was that they were aware of the colonial past, but their colonial past was not their identity. The books were obviously a reaction to what had happened, but they still retained their merit in other aspects.
So What did I get out of sitting in a dark room, with a black cloth on my head looking at upside down dolls, and reading about white people oppressing people of colour? That if I can not change something, there is not point raising my blood pressure about it. And how to actually use an 8×10 camera, which I had never really used before that first day.