A long time ago, before Pete Oxford Expeditions and over a period of many years Pete and I led dozens of trips to India. It remains our favorite country to visit. India, we always say, is a photo a minute. The colors, the people and the sheer exotic nature of the country is overwhelming. It is an assault on the senses at every level. Not knowing exactly when we might return always leaves a sense of emptiness until those tickets are bought once again giving us something to look forward to. Apart from the riot of color, design and humbleness of the people the wildlife too is exotic and abundant. In a land where the vast majority of the people are vegetarian the various cultures show great respect for their wildlife. There are no kids with catapults target practicing on little birds as one might find in Africa or South America, instead temples and shrines are built to worship rats, monkeys and birds. Some human interactions that have ingrained themselves in my memory however include our visits around the Calcutta flower market. Firstly we would always pause at a look out point where an untouchable shoe-shine man had staked out his turf.
Every visit we watched as higher castes would walk up to him, whereupon he would bow his head, not daring to make eye contact, they would pick up his brushes, use his polish and carry on their day with no remuneration to the man. On one occasion we went to the man and engaged him in conversation. He was nervous but accepted our gesture. And shined our shoes. We took his photo, paid him and left to the flower market, a veritable sea of humanity and chrysanthemums. At the flower market too we took many photos. The following year our shoe-shine man was there again. This time we approached and offered him his photo, printed and plastified to withstand the hardships of his life. The reaction was absolutely overwhelming. I swear he had never known such a joyous moment. It was an incredibly touching reaction to such a simple act. Likewise, again in the market, armed with a stack of fifty or more such images we gave each of our guests a pile of photos. The mission was to distribute them to their likeness. It was madness. When people who had never before seen a photo of themselves caught on to what was going on we were all physically grabbed (in the nicest possible way), or led by the hand to find their friends whose images we had captured the previous year. Everyone knew everyone else in the market it seemed and before we knew it all photos had been distributed correctly. I cannot describe the outpouring of emotions from both sides. The photos connected both cultures in a much more powerful way than we had ever imagined and it became one of our defining moments of the power of the image. A premise we still maintain today in our work in conservation.