Sharma’s pursuit of light flows into her nocturnal imagery which is imbued with a certain delicacy.
Image: Himadri Sharma Sharma’s portraits made amidst the chaos of street life are islands of quiet.
“Ate soup, barely stepped out for anything at all, looked outside the window at dusk, kept reading in complete silence. It was meditation of its kind.”
Himadri Sharma embraced solitude long before the pandemic officially drove the world into forced quarantine. She writes of her self-directed periods of isolation, of “creative incubation”, in great detail with Camus-like clarity in Witnessing the Light: Of Seeing, Of Seeking, Of Being (shortened as Of Seeing for this article), her first photo-book, published earlier this year.
While Jack Kerouac’s cult classics, particularly On the Road
and The Dharma Bums
, profoundly impacted her young mind, she gravitated equally towards gentler texts, often spiritual in nature. Mary Oliver’s Upstream
stares back at you from a pile of books on her desk in one of the many photographs she made. Of Seeing
offers, in both image and writing, a wide spectrum between fiction and non-fiction, imagination and reality, and between the visible and the invisible. Depictions of what she saw, sought and felt are shared in her fervent journal-like entries. Engaging with Of Seeing feels like reading Sharma’s personal diaries. Most significant is perhaps the fact that the book is published posthumously, making this access especially poignant. Of Seeing invites the viewer to experience both spaces, the public and the personal, the exterior and the interior.
Sharma, who interned with Forbes India
, was 23 when she lost her life in a road accident in 2022. The first copy of Of Seeing
had arrived just days before. It was later reworked as per Sharma’s feedback and finally published in its present version. “That year was not about shooting and yet somehow, everything was about photography.”
in its current form contains many worlds. It is a living, throbbing record of Sharma’s journey of transition from a budding photojournalist grappling with the rough and tumble of news photography, to an independent photographer at peace with the path that emerged in her quest for self-discovery. Of this “metamorphosis”, she writes —“To walk independently as an artist now thrilled me more than any agency or form of slavery could.”
She truly cherished her explorations. Swimming in the open seas at night, riding solo to the country’s farthest frontiers through hostile terrains, setting up temporary abode in quaint mountain villages, Sharma’s first-hand accounts thrum with learnings and insights gleaned from her adventures and experiences—gifts she gave herself. Abstract and well-structured, monochromatic and a menagerie of colour, Sharma’s expansive landscapes are diverse in nature. Of Seeing
, structured as three acts, is an amalgam of work shot on assignment and that which she created in her spells of abandon. Being a recipient of the Indica cultural photography grant gave Sharma’s travel photography an added lease. But even within images belonging to the news or public arena, Sharma manages to eke out moments of quietude. Her notes reflect a constant internal dialogue that lent an interiority to her work, one which holds together seemingly disparate images from separate ends of the book. How else does the immenseness of a golden sea, photographed at sunset, resonate within the eyes of a flower-seller at a cab window? It is the same feeling, one of inwardness, of pause. Tina Campt’s seminal work Listening to Images speaks of one’s ability to tune into each photograph’s own distinct, unique frequency. Sharma knew how to listen like that. Perhaps more so while making the images than sequencing them together.
The 200-odd images hard-bound in a rather large book make Of Seeing
heavy to hold. Laying it down in one’s lap or out on a table brings in a certain distance that works well for Sharma’s landscapes. Valleys, vast expanses, quite Ansel Adams-like in scale and composition, contrast with shots of slow mountain life, of women kneading dough, of rain-soaked apples seen through slivers of window glass, of the gloomy indoors and the crisp, sunny outdoors. Sharma travelled extensively, making soulful photographs of life in different topographies across India. “The judgement of light is first felt, then seen.”
Her reverence for light is meditative. She writes, “Seeing light shift, slowly, unnoticeable, from the corner of these eyes and then shooting, is to me the quietest form of prayer.”
There is a gentleness, but also a resoluteness of mind. “I do not function best around artificial light, both for myself and when it comes to photography,” she states decisively. Sharing the unpleasantness she experienced when a senior male photographer she looked up to made sexual advances towards her, she is vulnerable. Where there is humility, harmony and calm, there is also strife, hurt and rage. There is also self-awareness. “Months and days lived vividly could shape your years and shift your worldview / To pause is to continue the momentum / A pilgrim in my own home, nobody disrupted my dhun.”
She speaks of intent, courage and rigour with a conviction far beyond her years. But then one thinks of John Keats and the wisdom of the young. Of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the brilliance of the young.
What would Sharma have made of the book in hindsight, one wonders. Would she have unscrambled the personal from the professional, the colour from the monochrome or the abstract from the tangible? One can’t really know, but perhaps there are ways of perceiving Of Seeing
. As a first draft, raw and unafraid of explicit expression or as a final draft, a patchwork, a pastiche of a life, deeply lived.
On Seeing is a visual journey of Sharma’s metamorphosis and of her tryst with freedom.