michael hughes’s blog

The making of… The Gateway of India

Posted in Uncategorized by michaelhughes on September 22, 2010



Gateway of India

Gateway of India

 

When I began writing this piece I just wanted to write about the trip I made and how it had taken place under the shadow of my father’s death. Associations kept popping up and it started to dawn on me that death had woven many different threads through my life. My impression had been that death is something which society keeps hidden, except on TV, of course, where you can get 30 corpses a night. Death is implicit in photography, even when it is not photographing death itself. Every click of the shutter imparts the gift of immortality and kills at the same time. The invention of recording machines has meant that the world has been taken over by ghosts. Nothing dies any more, it moves on.

 

Travelling the world, one is closer to death than usual; a scheduled flight to Zürich crashing in two weeks after I was on it, the collapse of an airport terminal in Paris a month after I passed through on the way to Texas and the Taj hotel.  Four photographers I knew have died. One in a plane crash while being flown by his father, another in a diabetic coma, a third hung himself in a graveyard, the fourth died in a war zone.

When I took this photo of the Gateway of India, at the beginning of an assignment which would take me from Mumbai to Muscat by plane and on to Dubai in a Toyota Landcruiser across the desert, I stayed for two nights in the Taj Mahal Palace in 2002, the scene of the terrorist attacks of 2008.

The trip stood in the shadow of another death. My father had died three months earlier. Just before Christmas he had gone into hospital in Spain where he was spending his retirement for what was to be a routine operation. I had talked to him on the phone in hospital and he told me he expected to be out in time for Christmas. The way we understood it, he would have an operation and be back home for convalescence. Soon afterwards I got a call that he was back at home which meant that all was going to plan. The preparations for Christmas began to roll and so my attention to what was going on in Spain was diverted. Spanish society works differently to the societies I, his wife and my sister are used to. Spanish hospitals send you home to die so that you can be in the bosom of your family. I had completely misinterpreted the signals. His wife, having no intention of caring for an incontinent man who had been deposited in her sitting room, demanded that he be sent him back to hospital. I wonder now if he realised at this point, the nature of the deal which he had entered into. His marriage with my mother had been tailored to fit him. It covered his weaknesses, gave him a role which brought him respect and, above all, neutralised the disadvantages of being an emotional illiterate. My mother helped him through her own death, soothing him and preparing him for the time after her. Even having to explain how the savings were structured, how to get money out of an ATM. It was no wonder, then when his mourning had run its course, that he should seek someone to cover the side of him which had been suddenly laid so bare. He found her in the figure of the woman who he had hired to redecorate his apartment. Typical that he should take the relationship which presented itself, not knowing how to go about it any other way after his life of (presumed) monogamy with my mother. It was a little disturbing to hear him call her by my mother’s endearment, “Darling” or to see her wearing my mother’s jewelry, but who was I to question what he perceived as his chance of happiness?  After all, he had forced me to choose between himself and my mother by demanding that I make no reference to cancer in her presence. The silence he imposed around the approaching event extending to his zapping away of TV channels which showed illness or sexuality (my mother had breast cancer). A silence of collusion in which they returned, I think, to the beginnings of their journey together, his head bowed, she consoling, I see them in a pose they never took. I had decided to forgive him, it would have been illogical to stand in his way.

That the subsequent marriage which he had entered upon, was a hollow shell is not something which would have crossed his mind. The imperative of drowning the voices of uncertainty led him into it, the luxury of not having to do his own house-keeping and occasional, while diabetic, sex, assuaged him. Existential questions would be peppered by the double-barrelled shotgun of exasperation and scorn. He was even prepared to compromise a little. His new spouses dogs were allowed to sit on him while watching TV (them and him, I imagine). He would sometimes help with the shopping. Attempted to punch the doctor as they carried him to the ambulance, a faint smile raises itself on my inner face. Just like him! A week later on the way to his funeral, I was reading his last will and testament. In the preamble he had stated that he had one child, my sister, by my mother. Eight years earlier we had had an argument in a restaurant in London. The occasion had been to introduce myself and my sister to the woman who was later to become his wife. At some point during the meal she had made some casual racist remarks about the Japanese to which I had taken umbrage. It had obviously been enough to enrage him to the extent that he had disowned me, although he had not seen fit to tell me. I was so shocked at this metaphoric assassination that it threw me into a deep depression. I was still working through this when the call came to do the last part of a round-the-world reportage and the reason why I was staying in the Raj.

The two Brigitte teams meet in Mumbai

The two Brigitte teams meet in Mumbai

The stay in India was to be short; we were supposed merely to pose for a photograph which had our reporting team taking over from the previous one, I had little time to find a Souvenir or an alternative to the Gateway of India which stood, handily, in front of the hotel. The assignment was really interesting but difficult. We were celebrating the 50th birthday of the leading German woman’s magazine “Brigitte”. The idea was for teams of reporters to circle the globe, like a relay, passing the baton at the end of each stage. The team before us had driven by taxi across India, meeting us in Mumbai. We were then to fly to Muscat and from there, explore Oman, eventually crossing the desert and finishing off in Dubai, from where we would fly home. The meeting in Mumbai was an indulgence for the sake of the one picture, so you can see how much money some people have to burn if they want to.

Our plane landed at night in Mumbai, we then took a taxi through the darkened streets to the Taj. The first sights of a new country, particularly one such as India, whose relationship to my homeland, Britain is so intense and complicated, are really exhilarating. Seeing families sleeping together on traffic islands, the cows wandering the streets of this metropolis, the yellow sodium lights, the mad traffic and bustle, was something special. Waking the next morning at the Taj, I looked out of the window through the green mosquito netting and watched the sun come up over the Gateway of India. I bought a postcard at the reception desk and went out into the sunlight.

Crows flew from their perches as a horse and carriage passed, I remember seeing a crippled girl, about eight years old, begging, her tenacity and cheerfulness, extraordinary.

In front of the Taj in Mumbai
In front of the Taj in Mumbai

I must have been about seven or eight years old when the contents of a book of photography first informed me that the outside world was not as safe as I thought. Playing with a friend in the sitting room of their house one day when his parents were out, we found behind the sofa on a book shelf right at the bottom, a book which had been covered with brown paper. I must have been at least slightly aware of the unsalubrious nature of its subject matter, because I seem to remember anticipating something to do with sex. We opened it to find those ghastly pictures of the German concentration camps, probably photographed by George Rodger, although I can find no record of him having produced such a book. The awareness, seeping into my brain that this had been done by human beings, the casualness of doing death, the sheer incongruousness of this actual subject matter which made clear to me one of the fundamentals of photography as defined ny Roland Barthes that;

“For the photograph’s immobility is somehow the result of a perverse confusion between two concepts: the Real and the Live: by attesting that the object has been real, the photograph surreptitiously induces belief that it is alive, because of that delusion which makes us attribute to Reality an absolute superior, somehow eternal value; but by shifting this reality to the past (‘this-has-been’), the photograph suggests that it is already dead.” 
Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography)

From that day I knew that there were forces out in the world who would destroy me if they could, that death was the living who had turned away from us, that one day I would die and would be as defenceless as those in the pictures pitched willy-nilly into those human heaps. That there had been a photographer there to record this reality, that there is no „inhuman“ just „human“.

On the front page of the Daily Express was a picture whose significance took longer for me to assess. My father had begun subscribing to the Express as our daily newspaper after he had become disappointed with the Labour party after the second world war. Soldiers of the Britsh army had become so dislillusioned with their (Conservative) officers that Churchill had been displaced in 1945. Now he had begun to enjoy the benefits of a new class mobility and changed his alliance accordingly. A spell as conservative councillor in Three Bridges in Sussex had been an expression of his political alignment. The choice of a middle-of-the-road conservative paper was its logical outcome. The daily arrival of the paper, thrust through the letter slit of our semi-detached, with an exuberance which often damaged the outer skin, by a bent over man with the characteristic half-moon profile caused by missing teeth, was a reminder of our new-found status. The dark tones of the picture that day suggested early morning and rain, the subject of the photograph a two-storey, semi-detached house, much like our own, standing in a road with other houses of a similar style, repeating themselves outside the frame invisibly, infinitely, inevitably. Essential suburbia, a scene to be found all over the British Isles, a gimcrack, British version of the American way of life. In a headlong embrace of splendid isolation, the middle classes retreat to the suburbs. But this particular house had no roof or upper storey, its fate was that it was situated precisely under the approach path to Heathrow Airport. An aircraft, approaching too low, had shaved off the top. In a way the image symbolised many things; not having a roof over ones head, exposure to the elements, the ruin of something which had been completed, even the collapse of the family, the epitome of middle class aspiration, undone. The owner’s child, having a bedroom downstairs, survived.

The victims turned out to be friends of my parents. I seem to recall having met them once. I sometimes wondered what had happened to the child afterwards, was it adopted? We never spoke of it again. Searching for information for this crash to see whether I had remembered correctly, I received this information from Ronan Hubert, an historian at ACRO in Geneva. On 2 September 1958 – A Vickers 621 Viking flying for Independent Air Travel crashed shortly before landing at Heathrow. While performing the cargo schedule London – Nice – Brindisi – Athens – Tel Aviv, the registered G-AIJE aircraft was carrying a crew of three and cargo. The aircraft left Heathrow airport at 0554LT and fifteen minutes later, the captain informed ATC that he encountered engine problems and elected to return. The aircraft eventually stalled and crashed at Southall, five kilometers from runway at 0632LT. The aircraft destroyed several houses and all three crew were killed as were eleven people on the ground. Fifteen other people were injured. The real cause of the engine problem was undetermined but the aircraft stalled due to low speed.

Snow flurries are discernible on the black and white photograph my sister took of me in the garden of our house in Crowthorne, Berkshire. Taken from slightly too far away because she was unaccustomed to the wide angle lens which I was using, I am standing in the garden my mother loved, wearing a borrowed suit and shirt a few sizes too big for me. The occasion, my mother’s funeral. The earring I used to wear in my left ear is missing, out of a weird understanding of respect.

The night before, at my father’s behest, I had visited my mother at the mortician’s to take my leave. In those days, my photography was very strongly documentary. At significant moments I would make images, so I toyed with the idea of taking my camera on this last visit. It was as well that I did not and not just because of the possible interpretation of impropriety. Alone with my mother, I circled her body, taking in the details, her lips, slightly parted and falling away from the teeth, gave her an expression which I had never seen while she was alive. Her stillness revealed to me that life is, essentially, movement. Like a photograph the scene is still present in my memory, my distanced viewpoint out of the corner of the room, her lying parallel to the walls on the bier in a pool of subdued, yellow light, a few flower arrangements, a door. Silence. Taking my fathers arm during the cremation, I had felt his body contract with the single sob which he struggled to contain the shame of his grief, but which welled out of him in a single desperate growl as my mother’s coffin was engulfed by the flames. Why is that when we weep we always end up weeping for ourselves?

In Oman, the coughing which were the remnants of a head cold had become chronic, turning to pneumonia. I fought my way through the reportage as best I could. Chinese medicine identifies mourning as the cause of lung illnesses. One night, in the desert after sand-duning with the Landcruiser we were invited to a meal of dates in the family tent of a Beduin. We had our own tents but I chose to sleep out that night on the dunes. I wrapped myself in a heavy blanket and looked up at the stars until I fell asleep, turning over the events with my father. The morning light revealed the footprints of a fox which had walked past me in the night.

Carrying 15 kilos of camera gear in 50 C heat, gasping my way up a dune in a miasma of the finest wind-borne sand, the photos I had made became the double page spread. Walking along the ridge of a dune, her arms outstretched, her feet leaving blurry footprints in the talcum powder-fine sand, I had taken pictures of the woman journalist who was with me. The photo suggested to her the motif of the story which she was finding hard to formulate: that we journey through the world without understanding or goals leaving signs which are momentarily engulfed by infinity.

Sea of sand

Footprints blown away

 

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