Portraits of Innocence

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Riding on the Royal Enfield through beautiful winding roads of Leh, with Indus river on the right and mesmerizing landscape as far as eye could see, my destination this time around was Hemis Monastery.

Built in 17th century, Hemis is one of the biggest and most important monasteries in Leh, located on the outstretch of Karu. I was to spend all my three days in Leh visiting the place. Here's a timeline of how those three days passed by...

Day 1 - As always, my first stop was at a little restaurant located at the foothills of the monastery. As I savored the hot noodle soup (the best I ever had), and initiated a chat with the cook, I shared my motive of being there, to photograph monks. Cook revealed a secret - "If you wish to photograph the lamas, it is better to visit their school down the road. If you are lucky enough, you may get the permission to shoot". With that lead, I was off looking for the school. Within minutes, I could hear the sounds of children playing. But as I entered the premises and instinctively took my first shot, I was stopped by the principal and was politely told it was a busy day and was asked to return another time..

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Day 2 - I managed to reach Hemis by noon. But once again, my efforts were in vain and was asked to come back the next day. It apparently was still 'a busy day'. Distressed, I took the refuge of the hot noodle soup at the restaurant. A few teas later, I decided to head back to Leh.

Day 3 - The school must not have ever seen anyone more punctual. With a loud 'Julay' (local greeting), I surprised the principal for the third time in three days. Before he could say a word, I told him it was my last day in Ladakh and that I would have to wait for long before making a visit again to Hemis. He was considerate and gave his consent. Finally, I could shoot.

He asked one of the teachers to assemble all the kids in the playground. Within minutes, the children were arranged in neat line - by height. It took me back in time - to my own school days.

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He introduced them to me and asked them to cooperate with my shoot. The short speech was then followed by Buddhist morning prayer.

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I pride my good taste in music and can vouch that it was the most beautiful song I have ever heard. It was followed by the national anthem, which gave me goosebumps.

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"We do discipline check on Mondays," he said as teachers got busy inspecting nails, hair, clothes and then, the usual suspect - shoe laces. All the kids wore a nervous smile when it came to the laces. But as expected with the lamas, there was no slip-up. Each one was self-disciplined and passed the test.

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The assembly was then over and the little monks were asked to return to their classroom and start their studies. As I was about to follow the kids, the principal stopped me. For a moment I thought I would be told once again that it was a busy day and would be denied permission to shoot. But I was mistaken. He invited me for a hot cup of tea before I got down to business. Much needed, I thought, as I sipped the steaming tea made of yak milk..

Finally, I was back to shooting. I did not wish to go on a spree and promised not to take too much of their time. I visited just one classroom and spent an hour chatting, observing and silently shooting the little ones.

Some were shy to face the camera and preferred to gaze out of the window. Fine by me as I got good perspective.

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Others were confident enough to instruct me where and how to shoot, like this kid below ;)

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And then there was this little guy, who literally melted my heart, so much so, I had to get him out of hiding, one picture at a time.

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After couple of warm up shots, I was now in their classroom. They pretended to read but the distraction by my presence was very obvious.

I was curious to know how they spent their winters at the monastery, knowing the fact that Ladakh region gets buried in snow during peak winters. Their answers stretched for about 15 minutes; each eager to add their two bits to what they call "The White Season". 

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Some snippets below from different kids :

Boy 1: "During winter, this whole place gets covered in thick layers of snow. Classes are short during the cold days. We spend most of our time skiing".

Me: "Do you get training to ski? "

Boy 2: "No, that is the fun part. We make sleds from whatever we find. Most of us crash, some topple. By the end of the season, we learn the skills and wait for the next winter to master the art."

Me: "So what you do in summer?"

Boy 3: "Cricket. We use sticks as the bat and trees as fielders. Usually, our team is made of four to six children. Many like to watch but not play."

The conversation went on and on and drifted from one topic to the next. Then they were curious about my tattoo, what it meant and how I would wash it off :P. Followed by talks on Dubai, where it was located and more. Good times...

It was now time to let them get back to their studies.

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Meanwhile, let me now drift towards the gear. Fujifilm X-Pro2 with a Fujinon 90mm for portraits and Fujifilm X-T1 with a 23mm for environmental portraits. This was the first time I have used telephoto prime lens for portraits and I was thoroughly convinced by the performance of 90mm. 

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There are two factors, which made me fall in love with the 90mm - focus precision and the sharpness. Enough said.

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As far as colors go, I always have been very vocal about the "true" colors that Fujifilm produces. It has always baffled me since the X100s era and it continues to do so. It is the magic touch that has always been rightly boasted about since their film era.

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Fujifilm output makes my post-processing easier. I do not believe in spending hours on editing my photographs. It has to be less than five minutes. It is a mantra that I follow. So, when the colors are right, there is little left for me to do. As convenient as the drive-through at McDonalds; ready before you know ;)

Most kids got their images printed via Fujfilm Instax. I have recorded videos too and the final cut is being rendered as I write this blog. Soon I will feature it here...

I will be heading back to Hemis in July and hope to meet these innocent souls again. And continue the chat right from where we stopped last ;)

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