Stephen Zane is a documentary-portrait photographer and writer currently based in Tampa, FL. When asked what he loves most about travel, his answer mirrored what most other travelers and adventurers can surely relate to. "I'm not sure what exactly draws me to travel. I think it's at least in part due to this deep seeded sense of restlessness within me. I can't sit still, and get depressed being in one place for too long. Perhaps travel for me is a way of running from that. It pushes me outside my comfort zone and clears my mind of distractions so that I can fully take in my surroundings. It forces me to become completely vulnerable around almost complete strangers, if I'm to have any hope of making meaningful portraits of them." Today he shares a short essay followed by a Q&A detailing some of the lasting moments he experienced within Andhra Pradesh, India.
Sipping a cup of Darjeeling as the smoke from a thousand industries wafts through the air; I sit here on my last day in India, reflecting on all I've seen and experienced these last few weeks. This city smells like camp fires, burning tongues, watering eyes, and tickling noses. On rooftops all around, I see huge piles of chili peppers laid on mats, slowly drying in the sun. They wait their turn to be ground up into the fine powder that seems to to fuel this part of the country. In courtyards far below, I see young children running giggling from older siblings carrying a bucket of water, the afternoon bath hardly going as planned. I hear the incessant honks of countless auto-rickshaws, their coming and going pulsing to this city's manic heartbeat.
A city in India is a strange place...chaos and calm somehow managing to coexist while intertwined. Time runs slower here and yet everyone is moving at a breakneck pace in a mass struggle for survival. It's a harsh place with boundless optimism. Women sing as they break rocks for pennies. There's a theater on every other corner advertising charmingly garish films that find every possible opportunity to break into song. India is a place of extremes. Yet, it's not really so different from where I come from.
I think the most poignant part of visiting a place so far removed from the one I'm precocious enough to call "my own" is noticing just how much is the same. There's this common thread of humanity that runs through us all, and seems in the quiet moments to pull us together. I tug on this thread just a little, unraveling it with my new acquaintances to discover over quiet meals the meandering pattern this thread winds through the fabric of our disparate lives. When I sit with these new friends, they teach me the old way of eating with just the hands. The spices burn their way into the cracks in my dry fingers. My fingers tingle, and I remember watching ruemy eyed men stuff and pack and cram, filling cloth sacks to the brim. This country's relish of heat knows no bounds, so sent off with a sneeze and a cough, India's fiery crop is borne off by the whiles of the wind.
The wind blows, and a man in rags hobbles to the front of my mind. He walks with a humble stick, but in my mind it's a scepter. His eyes are milky, his hands, cracked like old leather, carry a leather-bound bible. He stands in my mind’s eye, humility melded to a disconnection my young mind can't comprehend. Perhaps it's because those who live so close to the hereafter wander down paths of thought that those who cling to the earth cannot hope to comprehend. Perhaps when eyes are veiled for the last time new sight may awaken. Perhaps those who whisper to the world have more power than those who roar and wail. So it was that a frail figure shrouded in white drifted along beside me unto a door beyond.
It's funny how each new photo I look at comes as a fresh surprise. I feel at times like an outsider looking in, each scene showing up in emulsion and pixel in a subtly different way, tugging at the seams of reality in a sense, and yet still truer than the warping of memory.
I think we as people don't want to admit that maybe, quite possibly, we aren't seeing things clearly That... if our view present is skewed, how much more variation from fact must grow in the mind? How will I see things, looking back upon these moments in time I've captured? Will I remember....I mean truly remember? ...the smiles and the sighs, the aches in my head and the aches in my heart. I feel as though I leave the part of myself that will best comprehend this adventure in India, perhaps never to return.
What sparked your trip to India? How did this trip differ from your past trips?
My trip to India was sort of self-assigned. The idea had been floating around in my head for a good year before I had the opportunity to act on it. I ended up approaching the organization Orphans First, a small nonprofit based out of southern California that has homes for children-in-crisis around the world, and expressing interest in doing a set of promotional images for their homes in India. A few short months, later, I was off alongside the founders of the organization, Janey and Louis Demeo. I'd say it differed in that I was visiting a part of India much less trafficked by tourists. The India I saw was one relatively unfamiliar to most westerners.
What regions did you visit? What would you say differentiated each city and region you explored from each other?
I stayed exclusively within the state of Andhra Pradesh, (which has since split into two states) flying into the city of Hyderabad and moving from there out into a number of small towns and villages dotting the countryside. Hyderabad is a huge bustling city of 7 million people and is known as the tech capital of India, along with having a storied history as the center of the Mughal Dynasty. The other major city we visited, Guntur, was much less cosmopolitan, and yet also less intimidating. Andhra Pradesh is renowned for their growing of spices, and the food is purported to be the very best in India.
What were some of your experiences? What recommendations can you share for future travelers interested in exploring the region?
The culture of south India is a very relaxed, friendly and warm one. I got invited in for tea in the homes of complete strangers dozens of times while walking the streets photographing. The signature dish of Hyderabad, Biryani, was phenomenal if you have a taste for spectacularly spicy food. I don't recall a single bad meal from the whole trip.
The Seven Tombs of the Mughal rulers of Hyderabad were really interesting and an oasis of serene calm amidst the cacophony of noise that was Hyderabad. Much further off the beaten path, the pepper market of Guntur was just staggering in its sheer scale. Bring a cloth to wrap over your face…the amount of Capsiacin in the air (the chemical that makes peppers spicy) made for red eyes and cleared sinuses. My favorite memories just came from meeting random people and sharing life with them however. I got to watch a sunset with a group of shepherds 50 kilometers from any major road, just sitting in silence and exchanging the occasional smile....I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.
What surprised you the most about your experience?
Probably the familiarity of it all....and how so few of the complaints I'd heard about India from other westerners bothered me. India is complete and utter chaos and I reveled in it. The endless anarchic traffic, the near constant noise, it just energized me. The air pollution, just made for pretty light at all hours of the day. I think when visiting a culture far removed from your own, you have to mostly accept that you are just going to have to adapt to their way of doing things for the extent of your visit.
What’s next for you?
Predicting the future has never been something I've been particularly good at, but I plan on seeking out more assignments both here and internationally that allow me to tell stories of people and organizations that are doing remarkable things. I'm open to almost anything that will allow me to continue my craft.
To see more of Stephen’s outstanding photography and writing, be sure to visit his website at www.stephenzane.com.
Images Courtesy of Stephen Zane
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