Living Buddhism – Graham Harrison

I discovered photography – and specifically photojournalism – in the final year of my politics degree. The catalyst for that process was a wonderful magazine called Photography that showcased the very best work, especially from that genre, with writers from the industry interviewing and commenting on significant and interesting work and, unlike most photography magazines, almost ignoring gadgetry and equipment.

One issue stood out for me and solidified my resolve to pursue photography as a career (despite having no portfolio nor ever having taken a photograph). It featured the work of Graham Harrison, already an established photographer who had been commissioned by the British Museum to take photographs in the Far East for their Buddhism: Art and Faith exhibition in 1985. This work is on show again at the University of Edinburgh from September the 12th and I hope will inspire a reprint of the book of the same title.

Some time ago I reviewed the book (as was) and here is what I said.

“It is honest and classic reportage and I looked at the images often. Harrison’s eye is delicate and respectful and one senses a desire to engage with the people in these images and their faith. The access is extraordinary: it is incredibly rare for example to be able photograph inside Eiheji, the headquarters of Soto Zen deep in the mountains of central Japan. Harrison’s work here captures the haste of a young novice scrubbing the wooden floors of the monastery in the ‘raw cold and semi-darkness of a late winter morning’ and the formal zazen of the rows of monks. His portrait of the Abbot of the monastery is as quiet and deceptively simple as is his landscape of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. His pictures of China in the chapter ‘Decline and Destruction’ are touchingly elegant showing what remained of a great culture. I think it’s true to say that Harrison’s photographs come close to capturing the quiet power of a way of life that is very difficult to describe in words.”


Photography Magazine March 1990


Charlotte Joko Beck

I was saddened to read of the passing of Charlotte Joko Beck recently. While I have my own thoughts about some aspects of American Zen, Beck’s clear-headed actions stood out and could serve well as a light to another community that I am part of. The photographic one.

“I meet all sorts of people who’ve had all sorts of experiences and they’re still confused and not doing very well in their life. Experiences are not enough. My students learn that if they have so-called experiences, I really don’t care much about hearing about them. I just tell them, ‘Yeah, that’s O.K. Don’t hold onto it. And how are you getting along with your mother?’… ‘Learning how to deal with one’s personal, egotistic self. That’s the work. Very, very difficult.’” Joko Beck.

Some people will know of my own recent near misses and so her last words (according to the Twitter feed of one of Beck’s colleagues) have an extraordinary (and unlike my own…) courageous resonance.

”This too is wonder.”

Japan - Kyoto - A detail of a wooden door at the Ginkakuji temple, Kyoto, Japan

A length of rope

A friend of mine, Sion Touhig who has been staying with me, showed me the most fantastic blog the other day called Afrigadget. It’s a website dedicated to showcasing African ingenuity and I thought it was great. It shows home made projects like self-made phone chargers and an alternative use for a video drop box (an oven…). Apart from the fact that it makes one realise just how useless we are in the West in terms of even the most basic recycling, it puts us to shame in actually how much we have and how little we value it. Now, as I’ve said in a previous post about India, I’m not a romantic about the Developing World: far from it. There’s nothing lovely about disease and hopelessness but there does seem to be a ingenuity that I’ve always admired when I work in these places. It isn’t to do with a quaint notion of pre-industrial harmony, it’s more that if you don’t adapt, you will die.

Over the years, I saw a great deal of hopelessness in Africa: failed states, starvation and a fair few people that were intent on killing me (sorry, I don’t have any picture links for that…). Despite this, I always saw that ‘can-do’ spirit that Afrigadget showcases. I started to work on stories along a theme of a French word – débrouillardise – which sort of translates as the ‘art of getting by’ or resoucefulness. As an aside, it’s entirely ironic of course that here we are in the grip of potentially the worst economic crisis to befall capitalism since the Great Depression and we might soon be having to take a leaf out of the book of the very continent that we raped and pillaged for our own advancement.

Anyway, one of the stories that I worked on was about blind farmers in Ghana. I called it ‘To See a Small World’.

For about ten days I lived with Anafo and his wife, Asumpaheme in a hut in their village near Arigu, northern Ghana. I had a rather nice time despite being an object of intense curiosity from all the locals and, having I remember, to borrow a cooking pot from the nearby school teacher’s wife … The brutal reality of River Blindness or Onchocerciasis was of course sobering. To be a farmer in Africa is a struggle that I wouldn’t wish on most people. To be a blind farmer seems almost impossible. In spite of everything, the family managed to just get on with it.

The Blind Farmers of Ghana
Ghana - Arigu - Asumpaheme's daughter teases her mother with her grandaughter and then runs off...

The Blind Farmers of Ghana
Ghana - Arigu - A neighbour uses a stick to guide Anafo's hoe in the field

and my particular favourite:

The Blind Farmers of Ghana
Ghana - Arigu - Asumpaheme gently touches her husband's head as she leaves to fetch water

The full text of my piece is here

Before I forget the point of this whole story, it’s simply this: Anafo gave me some rope. It was his ‘afrigadget’, his way of leveraging a few extra pennies at the market from what he could find around him. Here’s a picture of him making some:

Anafo makes rope to sell in the market for a few pennies
Ghana - Arigu - Anafo makes rope to sell in the market for a few pennies

and here’s a picture of the same rope on my kitchen table. It’s one of my favourite ‘things’ in the house. Certainly one of the most treasured.

Anafo's rope from Ghana
UK - London - Anafo's rope from Ghana

The leaf, the rain and the poet

Yesterday, I managed to put my back out . I just bent over to pick up a file of papers and it gave way. Some of you will remember a more serious occasion in Delhi two years ago and me laying on the floor for weeks on end, moaning… but that’s another story. Anyway, as I lay there in a completely dignified manner with an ice-pack glued to my lower spine, I was distracted by the rain pelting down on my windows; it is almost summer in London after all. Then something odd happened. A leaf landed against the pane. A single, solitary leaf, not extraordinary, a leaf from a neighbour’s tree. It just sat there. Stuck. It’s still there despite the sunshine and the best efforts of the evening winds to dislodge it. It got me thinking. Firstly, how dirty the windows actually are and then, looking at it more closely, I thought I’d photograph the little chap. Over the last few years, I seem to have been looking more and more at plants and less and less at people. For the last couple of years, I’ve been making work in Delhi about space and gardens as a way to view the city and, strangely enough, I think my favourite frame that I made last year was of a tree and its fallen blossom in Hue on assignment in Vietnam. I don’t think my leaf is in that league but it did bring to mind the poetry of Ryokan whose work I always have with me when I travel and when I am down:

The plants and flowers
I raised about my hut
I now surrender
To the will
Of the wind

My particular favourite when it’s raining in London and when I have hurt my back:

You must rise above
The gloomy clouds
Covering the mountaintop
Otherwise, how will you
Ever see the brightness?

Here are the photographs that I mentioned. I hope that you like them. One day, I will go back to Japan and make some work on Ryokan

A leaf on a window pane blown there in a storm
UK - London - A leaf on a window pane blown there in a storm
Vietnam - Hue - Fallen blossoms under a tree
Vietnam - Hue - Fallen blossoms under a tree