Kolkata, India was the first place that showed me that the world doesn’t have to be exactly what I want it to be.
It knocked the naivety out of me, every day feeling like I couldn’t stop cracking the eggshells I had so carefully been walking on; feeling like each jostle in the car as we drove through the Kolkata slums was jostling me awake. Before arriving, I had a very rose-tinted version of the world fixed in my mind. India showed me differently. It showed me something else, and it took me a long time to accept what that something else was.
I don’t know if I have ever explained the story of how I got there, which ultimately lead to me being where I am now, but the nutshell version of it goes like this: when I was young I spent a month in East Africa on a photography expedition. It was my first time doing anything significant outside of the United States (I’d been to Cancun with my dad and on a Disney cruise in the Caribbean, but the buffet line on a cruise ship deck is a world of difference away from standing outside the Kilimanjaro airport at 10:00 at night with a camera bag on one shoulder, backpack on the other, waiting for Land Rover full of strangers to arrive and pick you up).
That experience in East Africa changed the trajectory of my life (bare with me; I know that’s a big statement for a kid, which I practically was at the time, but whatever trajectory I was on before then would not have lead me to where I am now). I came back to my house in the New York suburbs and fought against everything that the U.S. was. It was like a typical teenager’s rebellion, except I was rebelling in favor of green places with plump tropical fruit, the singsong of foreign languages, the smell of woodsmoke and wild jasmine, the colors and the wildness of a place that felt like a fairytale come to life, and the unmatched kindness and homeliness of the Tanzanian people I’d met. I had never been a social kid and vehemently hated high school. I felt isolated and depressed and longed constantly to leave and go back out there: back to East Africa, sure, but I was convinced that anywhere beyond this “materialistic, shallow American life” would surely match my experience in Tanzania.
September came, and through pitching an idea to the advisors and guidance counselors at my high school, saving money by selling my photography at horse shows and babysitting and working shifts at the roadside diner down the street, and making slideshows for my parents and getting documents from my principal signed, I found a way to continue high school here-and-there from the road. I would take my classes either remotely through online university programs, or through study abroad programs when the chance arose. I would work closely with a guidance counselor in New York to be sure that the classes I was taking would match the New York requirements to graduate. I would earn money selling photos where I could, coming back America for a month or two at a time to waitress and work the horse shows again, then set my sights on setting out again.
And by January, I was on an airplane descending into India.
I had chosen India as the first place to go after Tanzania because my stepdad’s ex-wife had contacts and was leading a humanitarian trip there - I could be with family and also learn more documentary photography by shooting with an NGO she had close ties with.
But I had also chosen India because I was enamored with the dream of going back to a tropical place with color and music and foreign languages – a number of elements that after Tanzania made me decide to carry on with a life of travel.
But what I found in Kolkata was far from what I had dreamed it would be. It was not Tanzania. It was not tiny villages shrouded in ancient trees, with quaint little houses dotting the hillsides. It was not women wearing colorful shukas, carrying armfuls of sunflowers back from the fields, waving at me and inviting me inside for a cup of chai. It was not the sleepy pace of the city of Arusha, with its mellow markets and cheerful passerby’s.
Kolkata was everything but. It was exactly what it was. And it demanded for me to accept that.
Kolkata was pollution and homelessness. It was children knocking on the car’s window, holding out their dusty little hands. It was the smell of curry leaves and coriander and sewage. It was overcast. It was loud. It was dogs barking throughout night and trash cans burning. It was children who would never walk again. It was leering; I had never felt more uncomfortable, and more seen, in my entire life. I longed for the unbridled friendliness I had experienced in East Africa. Instead, I felt so cripplingly self-conscious that the first half of my time in Kolkata is clouded with memories of shrugging away from experiences that took place beyond the guesthouse’s protective, high, concrete walls. I remember crying one night because I so desperately wished I had the courage to go photograph this night market, famous for its rows of books lit up by low-hanging lanterns, but I was afraid of the staring and the catcalling. I was mad at myself for thinking this place would be exactly like a whole other country on a whole other continent. I naively wanted a universal experience, and within hours of landing, I realized I would not be getting it. It was so obvious once I recognized it, and it was baffling that the thought had not crossed my mind before getting on that plane.
But I had work to do, and a point to prove. So I carried on. I got tougher. I felt myself start to romanticize the world less, and instead really started to see it for what it was. I didn’t want to photograph Kolkata based on how I wanted it to be, but instead for exactly for how it was, as if I were not there. Once that shift happened, I started to see the importance and possibilities in documentary photography. I saw how important it was to not turn away, even from the very, very uncomfortable.
In India, I think my real passion for photojournalism was born.
When my time there was up, I came back to America for awhile before carrying on, on a years’ long succession of working and traveling and finishing school abroad. But I can trace a lot of the way I see the world back to the wake up call that was Kolkata, India. I’m grateful I had that when I did; and I’m grateful for the sweet tea and morning bowls of papaya, for the eccentric wild-haired American lady who became representative to me of someone who took another path, for that night we had too much wine in the garden and danced under the palm fronds, for the yellow mustard fields that lined the railroad track, for the times I laughed and the people I shared it with, for the smell of incense that still brings me back, for the swollen red sun as it would sink behind the silhouettes of temples that stood, damaged but tall, along the Hooghly River.
They were few. They were important to me.