How India taught me to see / by Samuel Allison

I traveled to India for the first time as a vagabonding teenager. My camera was the trusty Canon AE-1 with 50mm f/1.8 lens, a gift from my father. I carried a grab bag of Fuji film, much of which was expired and yielded weird color shifts.

Back then I was obsessed with the legendary photographers who shot in South Asia. Mary Ellen Mark, Raghu Rai, Michael Ackerman, Eric Vally, Steve McCurry, and Raghubir Singh all became idols as I learned about their lives and how they witnessed the lives of others. 

The work of these photographic artists powerfully influenced me, but I had no idea yet how to capture images at their level. It was India itself that taught me how to see and connect through the lens. Gradually I learned to observe the human world as a stage where any actor can take on a transcendent glow in the right light, from a certain angle, at the decisive moment. 

I developed a tactic of chatting with people whose portraits I wanted to take, getting some quick snapshots, and returning a few days later with prints to gift them. They were often the first photographs these people had of themselves. This routine led to some delightful friendships, and allowed me to stay with people as the light shifted and the conditions for a portrait coalesced.

I was instilled with a sense of reciprocity, an instinct that the photographer always owes his subjects something material or emotional in return.

Above all India taught me this: Keep getting closer, with your eyes and heart before your camera.