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March 10th, 2009

Ed Kashi: Travels in India 5

Posted by Ed Kashi

Ed Kashi’s recent trip to Rajasthan, India, got him thinking about humans’ unfair and unsustainable practices. But it also reminded him of the privileges and responsibilities he carries as a photojournalist — and hopes to pass on to his children and students. Don’t miss Ed’s earlier posts (1, 2, 3, 4) about juggling family and work as well as the importance of education to his work.
Eli Kashi, Isabel Kashi and Julie Winokur on vacation, in Jaipur, at the Amber Fort.  A local woman poses for money, such a bummer and reminds me of how the world has become spoiled.

A local woman at the Amber Fort in Jaipur poses for money. "Such a bummer," Ed says. "It reminds me of how the world has become spoiled." ©Ed Kashi


What strikes me about being in India is the growing gap between village and city life. City life is dirtier and more chaotic. People are drowning in their own excrement and sullied air. The calm of silence is hard to find, and the constant blaring of horns and the sounds of a civilization on it’s out-of-control march towards modernization leave me questioning the future of mankind.

Rural life is simpler, often set in magnificent landscapes and rich environments, yet impossibly poor by first-world standards. There are too many children, not enough education and health care, and a toughness to daily life that leaves me feeling as uncertain about the fate of man as the city does. If India represents the future of human civilization, an emerging economic superpower, I fear mankind is doomed on this earth. The common denominator between this imbalance and the one I’ve witnessed so graphically in the Niger Delta is a clear lack of sustainability. The more I travel the world with my peering eye and my questioning mind, accruing a privileged wealth of firsthand knowledge, this lack of sustainability is my overwhelming impression.

A Hindu god immersed in rose petaled water.

A Hindu god immersed in rose petaled water. ©Ed Kashi

From my upper-middle-class-but-progressive New Jersery neighborhood to the oil-spoiled countries of Africa and the Middle East, to the overpopulated India and China, to the dirt poor communities across the globe, particularly in the southern hemispheres, we have created an international human community that is in imbalance and cannot possibly sustain itself from the point of view of resources, pollution, overpopulation, and the associated social, economic, and environmental strains. Unless we change our ways fast, failure seems to be the only outcome. Maybe not in my lifetime, but eventually.

These thoughts leave me less than sanguine about life, yet on a daily basis I also witness the spirit of human ingenuity, the life-sustaining power of people’s survival instincts and the glimpses of solutions, both on a small community level and at a global level as practiced by the most progressive corporations and institutions. Take for instance an initiative we learned about, which preserved and developed medicinal plants and herbs native to this Rajasthani community. They have created a nature preserve dedicated to this cause, thereby providing income for the community. While being a photojournalist can be damaging to one’s sense of hope and drive you into a deep hole of despair, there are also uplifting moments and glimpses into how people survive and help one another. It’s this constant cycle of destruction and renewal, part of the life cycle, which I get to witness on a constant basis through the privilege of my roving observations.

Scenes from the National Geographic Photo Camp held in Rajasthan, India.

Students on assignment at the National Geographic Photo Camp in Rajasthan, India. ©Ed Kashi

Every National Geographic Photo Camp I’ve worked on has impressed these notions upon me, and as I get older, the need to receive and give nourishment and cross pollination becomes essential. Being in this rural community in Rajasthan makes me wonder if the future of sustainability, or at least any hopes of survival, will come from the simple, centuries-old agrarian lives people here live. They are not greedy, they live within their means, eat fresh food and all seem to have one need. Yes they could use surer, cleaner sources of water, more reliable electricity, stronger houses, much better education and health care….all the extraordinarily important elements of a healthy life. But at least they live within their means while the developed world lives far outside of theirs, relying on a structure that is unfair, destructive to the earth’s environment, and self-serving.

I am eager to teach, give information to, even lecture my children because I want them to learn what I’ve learned — sooner rather than later. Maybe they’ll be able to take advantage of the information and avoid some of the mistakes I made growing up. This desire also holds true for the photo students I encounter in my workshops. Photography is so much more than image making, particularly photojournalism and documentary work. There are deeper responsibilities and moral and ethical issues connected to your work when you are given permission to enter people’s lives intimately to witness their pain and joy. We photographers become agents of communication, bridging worlds, charged with healing as well as slapping our viewers in the face with information they must know. Students and young photographers must learn this as early as possible to better serve the purpose of this work. We must learn to make the world a better place by shedding light on dark places but also by providing solutions and hope. It took me years to understand this, having spent so much time just trying to make my mark in this profession and struggle with making a living and gaining influence to get my stories out. I want my students to understand these critical elements sooner rather than later.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: What responsibilities do photojournalists have to their subjects? Is communication the final goal of this work? Education? Influence?

One Comment

  1. December 22nd, 2009 at 4:25 am


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