My body is a photographer
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“Who are the technophobes in this class?” asked Shohini Ghosh on the first day when Sabeena Gadihoke and she were to begin the practical demonstration of video-production equipment to our class of postgraduate mass communications students.
My hand shot up like a Diwali rocket. Finally a question I could answer like an expert. I wanted to be the first to be noticed. My eagerness was unnecessary because my hand remained the only one raised in class.
“Good,” said Ghosh. “That’s the next Steven Spielberg amongst us.”
I was stunned. I was expecting to be lectured, perhaps even mocked. I had been flaunting my I-am-scared-of-machines identity as if it were a badge of honour. It kept me safe from being judged for my performance if I leapt to the first position in the queue for losers voluntarily.
Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was still fresh in our minds. He was the greatest science-fiction director we knew in the mid-1990s.
Just like that, without much forethought or planning, I received a kind of psychic permission from my teachers. I usually tried to stay invisible in class. I hardly engaged in discussions and media theory or politics left me numb at that age. Ghosh would have said what she said to whoever raised his or her hand.
Her repartee was so unexpected that it knocked the smugness out of me. When the film and video cameras were introduced to us, I hovered around them tentatively. The first time we went out to film sequences, I realized that there is a machine that is made for me. Cameras listened to me. Together we created meaning. A new language had come to me, just like that.
I loved the physicality of the process of shooting. Using my hands and my body to create. Not having to be pretty or graceful. Getting dirty and dusty, getting real.
For someone with poor social skills and a voice that often failed me, the camera became my primary tool of expression. With a 13kg camera balanced on my shoulder, I became a complete person. I could tell stories now.
When it was time to choose professional roles in the media industry, seven of my classmates chose to be camerapersons. Three of us were women.
It took me more than a year to get fully familiar with the video camera, its parts and functions, and its technology. I carried a checklist in my pocket for a long time to reassure myself. I borrowed tapes from the video-tape library and watched raw footage shot by seniors whose work I admired. I volunteered for double shifts and made myself available at work at all hours. I was hungry for opportunity and experience.
Being on location, taking flights, sleeping on trains and driving through mountain roads with the video camera in my lap became home for me. Every day I challenged myself to compose at least one new shot I had never taken before.
Becoming a cameraperson unlocked my inner teacher. I could teach anyone who wanted to learn how to be a visual storyteller. And I did. My best students learnt nothing from me. All I did for them was what my teachers had done for me. I took their fears and inhibition from them so they were liberated enough to see the light. I gave them permission to express themselves in their own unique way and pace.
My cameras and I witnessed death and despair together. We saw poverty and injustice. We met people with iron wills. We reassured and inspired others. We soaked in beauty. We became friends. We made judgements and took decisions. We sweated and smiled together. We transported stories from one to many every day.
When I was tired and depleted, I took time off. When I became a mother, I put down my cameras. I didn’t have enough hands. I needed to hold and be with the babies. I thought it was over between cameras and me.
I remember crying real tears. My daughters will never know who I used to be, I thought. I was silly. Whoever made me feel that I would never recover my former self was silly and limited.
When I quit my job at a broadcast station, I didn’t even have a camera any longer. I thought I would never be strong enough again.
I went into the garden with my phone’s VGA camera. I found myself creating images that even I could not see with my naked eye. My body had become a camera. It responded to how the light was falling. My knees, spine and hands knew how to bend and contort to find compositions.
Images saved me again. Images speak to me. I speak via images. For many years I spoke, not in words, but pictures. I needed the silence to recover my tongue. I needed the fog to wipe clean the dissonance.
Who am I to tell the story of others, I had felt, when it came to using words. I didn’t trust my words. I told stories in pictures. Frames, compositions, light playing favourites and leading me to the details of people’s lives.
That time when I felt painfully fragmented in my life, I began to put together the pieces of my own self with photos. No one was looking at me. I began to see me. Under the layers of isolation and silence, there was my inner child. Light from the bathroom window reflecting off the white wall and showing like a twinkle in my eye. I brought myself back into existence with photos.
I am a photographer. I can say this with certainty. I do not feel like an imposter when I use this word for myself. My body is a photographer.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.