Wedged with my father between the two sides of the clunky carriage, I spotted spidery veins protruding from our runner’s left calf. Gupta had been running us around the slums of the Howrah region of Calcutta for most of the afternoon, juking cows every couple hundred feet and stiff-arming auto-rickshaws at traffic jams in order to clear room for us to cross. My father and I were nearing the end of our month of traveling in India, one of the most exhilarating stops of our four-month trip in Asia. After working as a photojournalist for two years for my hometown’s local newspaper, The Mountain Mail, and pumping through an accelerated degree program at Socorro High, I had graduated from high school an entire semester early so that I could travel with my father. It hasn’t been until now, when I find myself less than a semester away from graduating from college, that I truly understand why my father has said that traveling is the best education anybody could ever ask for.
Gupta’s knees cracked every time he bent down to lift the carriage off the ground. I couldn’t see his feet when he was running, but when he set us down at an intersection or at a stop sign to wipe the sweat from his brow, I could clearly see the soles on the bottom of his feet had calloused thicker than those on my Nike Jordan’s. Every time he looked back at my father and me sitting comfortably on the cushion in the carriage and asked us if we were enjoying ourselves, I was so intrigued by the passion with which he was running that I wanted to snap a photo of him with my Nikon DSLR camera. My father, who had been a photographer since he began traveling ten years before, sensed my impulse every time and discouraged me from releasing the shutter by placing his hand over the face of my lens. “Not everything is meant to be photographed,” he told me.
As of 2005, the last sizeable fleet of rickshaws in the world was found in Calcutta, where the rickshaw-runner union resisted prohibition. The large majority of rickshaw runners still present rent their rickshaws for a few dollars per shift. Some runners sleep in the streets in their rickshaws, and some live cheaply in hostels, trying to save money to send home. These hostels, each called a dera, are composed of a garage, repair shop, and dormitory, and have a sardar who manages them. Runners often pay around 100 rupees (roughly $2.50) per month to live in a dera. Since the time of British rule, most of the running rickshaws have been replaced by cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws, but with Calcutta being as poverty-stricken as it is in today’s world, politicians have decided that shutting down this man-powered mode of transportation would greatly affect these men living in the lowest of castes.
Looking back on that day, and that trip, I remember that it wasn’t my decision to hire Gupta—it was my father’s. When Gupta approached us on the side of the street, offering his services by flashing a thumb’s up, my father was quick to flag him down. He had wanted to hire a runner since we first arrived in Calcutta, but every time we needed to go somewhere I told him I preferred taking an auto-rickshaw because I couldn’t bear the thought of having a man run us through the streets in his bare feet. My father contended that taking one of these men up on their offers was really a gift to them. Up until the day we met Gupta, I told my father that even if he hired a runner I still wouldn’t ride. But when my father flagged Gupta down and insisted that we accept his offer, something about the man’s smile and his stride told me that if there was a runner I needed to support, it should be this man. But why would my father discourage me from taking Gupta’s photograph if he was so adamant about supporting him? I wondered.
I had come a long way in dealing with culture shock since the first day we arrived in India. My father said I didn’t say one word that first day—when we first hopped off the plane and took a taxi through the slums of Old Delhi to find a hostel in the new quarters of the city, I peered out the window at all the people and all the bustle, grasping my camera as if it were my teddy bear. If there was one thing I had learned since that first day, it was that even though all Americans hear about the poverty that exists in third world countries, very few ever actually see it. And as a young man fully equipped with a sponge of a mind, the fear of the unknown I had when I first hopped off the plane had transformed into a deep fascination with this exotic new world. Little did I know that this fascination would grow into a lifelong love for travel: I had been, and always will be, infected by “the bug.”
After my father had convinced me that accepting Gupta’s services was a good thing, I realized that riding in a carriage actually offered us better opportunities for photographing the surrounding city life than riding in an auto-rickshaw or taxi. Some of my best photographs of the entire trip came out of that afternoon, and something deep inside me was compelling me to take a shot of Gupta. While most of the photographs my father and I had captured on that trip were of us standing in front of monuments, and were probably going to be developed by Wal-Mart to be thrown into cheap photo-albums for friends and family to gloat over for years to come, I wanted some of my shots to reach larger audiences. Although my editor ate up everything I took when I worked high school basketball games—every time I glorified our town’s favorite players—that day, it was my goal to capture Gupta in a way that preserved his passion rather than exalted it.
Looking down at the filth that had been stamped into his soles and the blisters that were forming in his hands from hauling the carriage, I wondered if that was that why my father didn’t want me taking his photograph—because he was afraid I could be exploiting Gupta’s suffering by photographing him in this state. I raised my camera again, only to have my father pull it back down.
Looking back on that ride, I know my father had a lot of respect for Gupta. My father has held a lot of respect for all of his subjects over the years. He realizes that even though photographers might intend to use their cameras as tools, they often (usually unintentionally) end up being perceived as weapons. While members of some cultures believe that photography steals the souls of the individuals it captures, my father believes that the mere presence of a camera among a social setting will alter people’s behavior in a way that makes them act inauthentic, unnatural. How do you react to someone pointing a lens directly in your face?
I never got a photo of Gupta that day, but my father and I haven’t needed a photo to remember our runner after all these years. And more than just taking away something from the experience, I think my father and I gave something back to Gupta that day—not necessarily the money he needed to buy his next meal, but rather the assurance that we appreciated his service and that we admired his passion.
Since that day in Calcutta, I don’t worry about bringing my camera with me every time I go out. I don’t even worry if a moment, or a person, slips away from me. Today, I’m no longer studying or practicing journalism, but I’m still whipping out the camera whenever the time is right. I’ve learned that everywhere I go, bringing myself—in mind, body, and soul—is far more important than bringing my camera.