After 36 hours of traveling, of which 20 were spent in-flight, I arrived to India for the long-awaited 10-day journey with The Giving Lens for which I spent months preparing in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas: eating Indian food, reading about cultural norms, talking to friends from India, watching Lion (that counts, too). Despite my preparation, nothing prepared me for the sensory and soul overload that would occur in such a short stay.
My first four days were spent in Jodhpur, the second largest city in the western Rajasthan state of India and although known as the Blue City, colors were plentiful, most evident by the local’s vibrant and flowing clothing; hues of pink, yellow, orange dragged the hardened earth they lived, slept and walked, creating a stark contrast between personal beauty and the harshest environmental conditions. While my primary mission in Jodhpur was to teach photography to the young women of the Sambhali Trust, a school for “Empowering Women and Children in Rajasthan,” opportunities were endless to capture amazing portraits as I walked down the narrow streets filled with market goods under the canopy of draped tapestries. The narrow streets were a common route to roaming cattle, wild dogs and thousands of motorbikes and pedestrians. I tightly squeezed by oversized wheelbarrows filled with garlic, citrus and flowers to better position myself to photograph the smiling and aged faces of women, men and the curious eyes of children. All of whom were generous, inviting and shared their offerings of Masala Chai tea and chapatti bread with me.
The mission of The Giving Lens is to empower local communities and their youth by helping to stoke their creative aspirations. Many of the children that The Giving Lens works with are raised beliving their future is already written, and that future usually starts at a young age and involves working hard for low paying wages, long after they had abandoned their education. We aim to break the cycle by encouraging youth to continue their studies and freeing their creative minds, which may help them continue onto university and obtain better jobs when they reach adulthood. Our co-leader in India, Michael Bonocore, wrote a great piece about the mission of The Giving Lens and how our work has actually helped empower local communities and youth.
In Jodhpur, the young women of Sambhali Trust are considered “untouchables” or those who are born in the lowest level of Indian society. To me, these incredible young ladies brought me indescribable warmth and joy and reinforced my passion and fire for photography. For three days, my assigned students and I explored the markets and sacred temples that guarded the city from above. Each of my students was quick to pick up the basics of photography and had a keen eye for detail and natural lighting that others I have taught struggled to conquer. Their innocence and joy of seeing the greatness in things that seemed so simple were refreshing to experience in the middle of the absolute chaos of the city’s streets. Kindness, intelligence, humor and friendship are memories that I have taken with me. Their potential is only limited by their society and forever, I will only know them as ‘unforgettable’ and not ‘untouchable.’
Leaving Jodhpur for a 5-hour bus ride to Jaipur provided me time to reflect on the sights, sounds and compassion felt from the many strangers with whom I had already shared a human connection with in India. The hospitable, kind, loving and inviting Indian people over-shadowed the incessant honking of horns, elbow bumping and tripping over others feet due to overcrowdedness. These added layers of stress forced me to find focus and hone in on my personal photography goals, while passing along my craft to others.
Jaipur provided two particular moments that I have yet to witness anywhere else along my global photography travels and, quite honestly, I had not planned to experience. After our longer-than-anticipated bus ride that took closer to 7-hours, we started a new day in a new city (although equally as chaotic) with knowledable local guides. We traveled about an hour out of the city to an ancient Hindu pilgrimage site now home to a large colony of macaque monkeys. Monkey temple, as it is commonly called, is surrounded by a natural spring that feeds into seven ponds, creating a sustainable source of life for the monkeys. For hours, I felt like a child again. I couldn’t keep from smiling as I watched the monkeys jump, climb, run and maybe even blush a time or two as “adult” behaviors were exhibited, even at the expense of a colleague’s shoulder. Photographing wild monkeys in a sacred temple was not on my preparation list.
Approaching my last day in India, I was feeling conflicted between missing the comforts (and food) back home and preparing for the goodbyes of a country, people and experiences that filled the temporary void of my homesickness. The final afternoon was spent loving on gentle giants at the Elefantastic Sanctuary, the vision of an Indian man in 2012 to provide a safe and loving experience with Asian elephants. Akin to the childhood feeling from Monkey temple, I was even more giddy and excited as we entered the sanctuary where I would eventually meet my new companion for the day. After an orientation to the proper ways to feed, pet and care for the graceful animals, we were escorted to our individual elephant for a brief greeting and then allowed to spend time and connect through touch, talk and walk. Our connection was instant – she responded well to my soft hand on her face by emitting a deep rumble-like sound from her forehead. While hugging and loving on her for 45-minutes, I asked for her name and was not expecting the heart-pounding reaction when told, “Her name is Tara.” How can it be that my assigned Asian elephant in India on my last day of nearly two weeks away from home shares the same name as my wife? My journey then came full circle.
India was everything and more than I imagined. I prepared for what seemed like forever, but all of the preparation in the world could have made me ready for the connections, love, and inspiration that I gained in this complicated and beautiful country. Traveling photography is enthralling – no set agenda, an unbridled ability to meet strangers with the assistance of a camera, open invitations into homes and lives, and exploration of new cultures, people and traditions. While reading, talking and watching motion pictures provide some insight to the visiting community, until you put your feet on the ground, breathe in the local aromas and watch life unfold in front of your camera, there is simply no preparation for the joy and overwhelming appreciation of being welcomed into homes, families and communities. Now that I am home, I am reliving the sensory and soul overload through my photographs and memories. And with each photo that I lay my eyes on, I am reminded that I would happily return to the comfortable madness felt in the deafening and overcrowding Indian cities that I had the privilege of experiencing for 10 days. Namaste.
Brandon Cunningham, founder of Snap Judgement Photography, is a travel photographer who seeks to enrich understanding, tolerance and diversity with an eye towards story-telling through street and portrait work. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas and can be followed on Instagram at @snapjudgementphoto