Thursday, November 05, 2009

Reposted from jordanbower

i’ve been home in toronto for several months decompressing from another spectacular visit to india.  on this trip, i slept in five star hotels and ramshackle villages, hiked through hundreds of kilometers of hills and mountains, visited a dozen rural ngos, took thousands of photos, and made many times as many new friends.  along the way i was consistently inspired.  in fact, my karma was so powerful, i even got to fall in love.  when i rang in my 29th birthday last week, i had much to be thankful for:  it was a good year.  thanks for sharing in it.

india’s diversity is part of what makes the country so compelling to me.  travel a hundred kilometers in any direction and you’ll encounter different people with different languages, different foods, different dress, and different ways of being.  it was hard to return home and repeatedly encounter iterations of sameness, especially in canada, where citizens seem to pride themselves on their national diversity.  i believe that diversity isn’t just about language or skin colour, although these are important components.  it’s also about a freedom to explore our internal and external spaces, to test the boundaries of the human condition, and to receive some moderate social support along one’s quest.  interestingly, in my discussions with learned people in canada, i am often scoffed at when i raise the idea of freedom when discussing india. 
freedom, they argue, is impossible to achieve when one is encumbered by the disadvantages of poverty, when time is spent worrying about food in the belly or a roof over one’s head.  but what they don’t understand – and what i fail to effectively communicate in words – is the huge diversity of freedoms: of watching the sun set over a mountain pass, of a pilgrimmage of devotion, of sharing what you have with a stranger, of squatting on a roadside corner drinking tea, of singing the latest bollywood track at the top of your lungs as you sit cheek to jowl astride an overloaded motorcycle.  in canada, squished between rush hour traffic in a silent subway car, spread out from one another in empty public spaces, stuck in a perpetual conversation about ‘what do you do?’, and preoccupied with the responsibility for creating change in a world that changes every instant since beginningless time, the question of freedom is profoundly begged.  i believe something fundamental has been lost; this is part of the reason i began sharing my photos.
poverty is another recurrant topic of conversation regarding india.  and don’t let it be underestimated: more than 350 million people live on less than $1 a day, many of them in sprawling slums in the largest cities, many more along the arterial roads that crisscross the subcontinent.  for many, the conditions are harsh, medical care is poor, and opportunities for economic advancement in this lifetime are miniscule.  it is particularly heartbreaking to view the country from the perspective of street children, who will grow up in a place that is even more crowded, even more urban, and even more economically disparate than india already is today.  but it is hard to be a traveller in india without commenting on the state of mind of many of these people: a toothy smile from a barefoot rickshaw puller, an excited cackle from a boy in a laneway-width game of cricket, the childish eyes of a man with thirteen fingers.  just discussing these interactions can lead to the accusation of romanticizing poverty, but i can’t help my experiences and the experiences are real.  sprinkled between these experiences are millions upon millions of people working to make the lives around them better: these stories yearn to be told.  there is more to life than discussing trivia or pursuing materialist aims; this is another reason why i started sharing my photos.
through seventeen months of travelling in south asia and even more time at home in between trips, i’ve been asking ‘what does it mean to be a human being?’.  today, i’d like to introduce another step along that path.  i’ve created a website called, appropriately, www.whatdoesitmeantobeahumanbeing.ca.  it’s a way of sharing with you some of the people who i met along the way and some of the experiences that i had.  i hope that you like it.
stand on the balcony of a condo building in downtown toronto on a cold winter night and gaze above you.  how long does it take before you realize that the dozens of stars you can see are an infinitesimal fraction of all the stars in the normally visible sky?   all of this was lost while we were sleeping. in a world of extremism, progress, and globalization, of environmental degradation, aids, and instantaneous communication, of unprecedented spending on machines of death and climate change, if you didn’t go looking for them, you could forget the stars altogether.
how did we get that way?  we know the answer.  we constantly strive for the next big thing without ever stopping to wonder whether our efforts are taking us where we’d like to go.  from my perspective, despite unprecedented progress, we don’t seem to have made any major advances in the fields of compassion, trust, honesty, or love.  to all of our profound chagrin, it seems as if living longer, wealthier, and more comfortably – even despite the impact those choices have had on the world around us – is still no substitute for a loving hug or an honest smile.  so, what does it mean to be a human being?  for me, i believe that an answer lies less with what we build and more with what we are.   my goal as a photographer is to share this perspective.  and so i do: engage.  define your own answer.  find the stars.

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