Back in February, Adrienne Pitts, Riley Hooper and Sionnie LaFollette joined Passion Passport on #PassportToAsia, an eight day adventure hosted in partnership with Cathay Pacific Airways. They were three of nine community members who had come together in Hong Kong for six days of mentorship, creative inspiration and fun. When the group divided into smaller cohorts to explore other cities as part of the project, they jetted off together to Delhi.
Not surprisingly, and as is often the case, Adrienne, Riley and Sionnie emerged from the experience with different takeaways despite having shared the same moments. Their diverse perspectives confirm the idea that no place is ever felt or understood in the same way by multiple people. Our experiences of the world, historical perspectives and personal biases shape the way we see and interact with what’s around us. At Passion Passport, we believe that’s what makes travel so personal and so powerful, and it’s what motivates us to keep exploring, always asking questions and pushing our own boundaries along the way.
Here, Adrienne, Riley and Sionnie share their unique reflections from their time in Delhi. If you’ve been to the bright, bustling city, we’d love to hear more about your own personal experiences, too. Leave us a note in the comment section below.
As the photographer on the Passport to Asia, my responsibilities were twofold — not only was I there to participate and explore and soak in the culture of our destination, but I was also there to document our group and all that we came across in our new city. With these responsibilities, the images of Steve McCurry instantly came to mind: bright saturated colours, smiling eyes, an intimacy and warmth that I couldn’t wait to witness for myself and document in my own way. His stunning photographs were the cornerstones on which I built my ideas of what India would look like.
The streets are crowded and chaotic and bright here – just like all the photographs and movies have led us to believe.
Upon arrival in Delhi, however, it became apparent to me that my gaze was not necessarily needed in this heavingly busy city — and that 3 days was not nearly enough to get to the heart of this place.
On our first day, we set out to explore Old Delhi. The streets were crowded and chaotic and bright – just like all the photographs and movies had led us to believe. Our small group walked single file so as to take up as little room as possible on the streets which were spilling over with people. Our senses were assailed by the deep colours, pockets of light and story-filled faces around us. Our minds instantly framed into images; each scene was a perfect tableau.
We took photos mostly with our iPhones but as the day wore on, spent more time with our other cameras. For the first time in my career, though, I struggled to understand why I needed to. What was right for me to do? Was it okay for me to pull out my camera and photograph the struggle many people seemed to be facing? Was it necessary? What would my gaze add? I wasn’t sure I had anything different or poignant to say; any new point of view. It felt a little disrespectful and too soon to try to add my gaze to the thousands of others that had gone before. It felt like India and I needed to buy each other a drink first, before I could ask to put a camera to its face.
Though I’ve yet to figure it out what I feel about photographing there, I know that I’m incredibly grateful to have been there at all. And I know that I want to return to India in order to explore and understand it more. Perhaps, to begin with, that’s enough.
As I walked the streets of Delhi, my studies of Edward Said’s Orientalism from college echoed in my head: warnings against the dangers of simplifying, exoticizing, and romanticizing a culture, and, in general, defining it against my own Western worldview. As a filmmaker and amateur photographer, I’m particularly cautious regarding the potential for orientalism to happen through the lens of a camera. This is why, when I was approached by dozens of Indian people asking to take photographs with me, I obliged.
I’ve had this experience while traveling before, but never to this extent. For some reason, especially in the more touristy parts of Delhi, myself and my other Caucasian travelers might as well have been pop stars. I’d say yes to one person and at once a swarm would surround me. At first I found it amusing and funny. At times I felt uncomfortable and objectified. But mostly I found it thought provoking and fascinating. I called it an exercise in mutual exotification. While I walked around wide-eyed, snapping photos or shooting video of beautiful crumbling buildings, women in gorgeous colorful saris, or elephants walking down the street, they were doing the same — documenting that which is different. For me that was everything around me; for them, that was me. Of course mutual understanding is preferable to mutual exotification, but I still found the experience illuminating. I welcomed the opportunity to define myself, from an Eastern perspective, as “different” and “other,” even if it means there are now dozens of photos of me stored on the cellphones or perhaps uploaded to the Facebook and Instagram accounts of strangers.
Delhi is chaos embodied. It’s New York traffic without the infrastructure, a Bowie labyrinth of market gullies, a cacophony of taxis, motos, rickshaws, and the chatter of 18.5 million people. Its intensity will confront you and it’s a city that will assault your senses in every way. It’s vibrant. It’s beautiful. And it will leave you to wrestle with questions you didn’t know you had.
The Chandni Chowk market is a network of veins and arteries that runs through Old Delhi. We wandered without agenda, letting whim guide us, knowing that if we found ourselves lost, we need only say the magic words, “LaLit hotel” and we’d eventually find our way back to our “home” away from home. We ducked into an alley we happened upon to find momentary respite from the chaos and find rest from the overstimulating bumper car walking through the narrow gullies. It was quiet, and in comparison, peaceful. Two women ironed and folded laundry. Two boys took turns as cricket batsmen, swinging for sixes. A train of children occasionally ran back forth, and through, up and down stoop stairs, appearing and disappearing and reappearing until the notice of our presence was enough to cease their game of tag. I grew up playing ball and running around in the street acting out various versions of “chase” with the neighborhood kids too. “You can wander as far as you can see home,” my mom would say; it was a scene plucked from my own childhood. Loosely supervised and respectfully wild. As best as I knew how, I mimed permission to play; it’s amazing how a cricket bat and ball can encourage the shedding of hesitation and bridge age and cultural gaps. Our curiosity was equally matched. As for our cricket skills, that was to be determined, and they had the home field advantage.
My first visit in 2005 distinctly divided my life into two halves: pre-India and post-India. It’s one of those places that shakes you up at your core and leaves you lost for a moment until the dust settles. Eventually you find your bearings and introduce yourself to the new person you’ve become. Travel does this, but India does this unapologetically. I’ve realized over the years, that you can explore, see the sites, dress the part, and even jump on the backpackers circuit with other foreign travelers, but it isn’t until you pick up the cricket bat, that you really open yourself up to the heart of a city, a country, and its culture. You can feel its pulse, but you have yet to touch the heart itself; you have yet to discover its own sense of “home.” And home, for me, has made all the difference.