The Digital Journalist
Song of India
November 2006

by Miki Alcalde

India is like a jazz song, a meaningless chaos for the outsider, an enchanting world for the connoisseur. Translating feelings into words has been many writers' obsession. Mine is different.

I'm looking at her, but she doesn't know it. She's looking at me, and she thinks I don't know. I'm just two meters away, facing her. I don't want to say anything, I don't want to smile; I can feel everything, and yet it seems as if my mind is somewhere else. I cannot be invisible, I cannot look into her eyes. But I can wait. The feeling I get in this slum area is something that grabs my heart. She is moving around now, talking to her two children, both crying. Behind me people go by; nothing is happening. I cannot leave. And she comes back, where it all started, this time a banana is in her hand; everything is the same, but not quite… this time I have no option, so I raise my camera and take the picture, put down my camera, look behind her; she looks at me, then looks at what's behind her, then looks at me again, as I'm leaving.

The sun sets, and the day is over. Life still explodes in every inch of the country but there is not enough light to photograph, so my day is over. I return to my dingy hotel room, lay down on the bed and think of the long hours spent photographing in the streets that day. I can remember almost everything I felt, that same day, or even a month ago. And every night the same thoughts haunt me: India is out there somewhere, hidden, waiting for me in some fraction of a second. Before I close my eyes, I must hope I've found it that day.

I cannot stop this obsession with images, and the painful feeling of not knowing what will come out of my film for months. But I keep on going, I keep on thinking there is no other way. Time goes by slowly when you try to seize it.

I often think that photographers have to magically organize reality into something meaningful: it's like giving a few basic ingredients to a cook and telling him: surprise me…. In a boring street where nothing is apparently happening, you have to sort it out to create a picture that makes the viewer feel something. To me, photography is all about feeling, about creating images that tell you something, that make you feel something.

I have heard that India is booming, but I don't seem to find this change. I know it's somewhere, I know it's real, I don't want to question it. I just want to walk and see, to travel the country and look at everything. From the train I see life as it must have been hundreds of years ago. The cities may be changing, but India is rural. So the change must be affecting just a few.

The sun rises. I get up and grab my Leica, and it all begins again. After one or two hours of walking, I manage to escape the city center and find myself looking at the sea. I'm in Mumbai, but it's quiet, I can't hear the traffic. Far away, on the horizon, buildings rise; it seems to be somewhere else, maybe another country, or planet. But it's India, still… as I compose to take a picture, two silhouettes walk by, encompassed in rhythm and shape. As I press the shutter over and over again I feel I am witnessing something I cannot yet comprehend. It is that night when I finally understand what unfolded before my eyes: far away, on the horizon, so far that it's even hard to see, is the India that most Indians will never be able to reach. They are not even persons, just silhouettes on the country's so-called boom.

After one month and a half, I finally reach India's southernmost town, and the aftermath of the Tsunami is still felt, especially on the fishing communities that lie right on the shore. It's sunny and very hot. The majority of the houses have been rebuilt but there are still ruins and destroyed wooden boats. I head to the cemetery where I'm confronted by three palm trees surrounded by dozens of crosses. Putting my feelings into words is what I would do if I were a writer. But I prefer to look at the picture again; I want to remember the sound of the sea at that particular moment, the heat, the strange look of that cemetery, my confusion….

As I head back to the fishing village I can see the effects of the Tsunami again in many of the houses. I notice more ruins than before. Suddenly I see a young girl on her way to school, or so it seems. I manage to turn back and frame very quickly, just in time, when a crow flys by. I take a picture, the girl standing proudly on top of her destroyed house, with a subtle smile, as if nothing had happened.

It is hard to leave India, although for many, it is hard to make the decision to arrive. Or you may even leave it after months in the country and find yourself missing it a few days later. It is a love/hate relationship. You are in Mumbai surrounded by cars, pollution, heat, noise. It is very hard. But you are there and it's all that matters. Being in India is important; there is no other place like it on earth, so yes, you hate it, but 10 minutes later you love it again, and so on. And when I cannot take it any more, I remind myself: "This is India, and I'm here." If I had to choose a word to describe the country, it would have to be 'intense.' It is hard to imagine that a place can hold so much intensity; it doesn't matter where you look, it's full of life everywhere.

In Calcutta I am told about the local spirit, and the bars that are filled with men getting drunk with it from 4 p.m. onwards. I decide to visit one of them, but as soon as I enter I am shocked. It is not what I expected; I am not welcome here, but I feel unable to leave. I quickly head upstairs like I know my way and start taking pictures as if it was just a regular bar, not completely knowing what I'm doing. As soon as I start, about 40 people stare at me and start shouting. I think I'm lost, but luckily I see a hand waving at me, inviting me to sit down. They're all drunk and seem very violent. They don't talk, but shout at one another and at me. I managed to stay calm and take a few pictures, hoping I never have to go back to that place again. After a while someone says, "it's better if you leave now." And so I leave.

On the park, on a different day, I am lucky enough to capture a moment that is one of my favorite pictures that I took in India. A homeless boy, in a dog-like posture, sees how a man plays with a white dog, and I feel the boy wishes to be the dog. The feeling I get when I see that is just what I find at the bottom of the frame: an abandoned human being, lonely and helpless, forced to continue living, no more.

So to me India is like a jazz song. Not any jazz song, but my favorite jazz song. I save it like a precious treasure. I don't want to have enough of it. I want to always love it, I need to always be able to count on it... because I will be in need of it again, sooner or later...

© Miki Alcalde

Born in 1979 in Spain, photographer Miki Alcalde studied marketing in Madrid and Florida, graduating with an MBA in International Marketing by Eastern Michigan University in 2002. He joined Magnum Photos in New York for a one-year internship in June 2002, and has been travelling and photographing ever since. He has recently returned from three months in Africa and the African Peninsula (Egypt, Sudan, Etiopí­a and Yemen). Miki's Web site is