Photo Power

Flower market, Calcutta, West Bengal, India


A long time ago, before Focus Expeditions and over a period of many years Pete and I led dozens of trips to India. It remains our favorite country to visit. India, we always say, is a photo a minute. The colors, the people and the sheer exotic nature of the country is overwhelming. It is an assault on the senses at every level. Not knowing exactly when we might return always leaves a sense of emptiness until those tickets are bought once again giving us something to look forward to. Apart from the riot of color, design and humbleness of the people the wildlife too is exotic and abundant. In a land where the vast majority of the people are vegetarian the various cultures show great respect for their wildlife. There are no kids with catapults target practicing on little birds as one might find in Africa or South America, instead temples and shrines are built to worship rats, monkeys and birds. Some human interactions that have ingrained themselves in my memory however include our visits around the Calcutta flower market. Firstly we would always pause at a look out point where an untouchable shoe-shine man had staked out his turf. Every visit we watched as higher castes would walk up to him, whereupon he would bow his head, not daring to make eye contact, they would pick up his brushes, use his polish and carry on their day with no remuneration to the man. On one occasion we went to the man and engaged him in conversation. He was nervous but accepted our gesture. And shined our shoes. We took his photo, paid him and left to the flower market, a veritable sea of humanity and chrysanthemums. At the flower market too we took many photos. The following year our shoe-shine man was there again. This time we approached and offered him his photo, printed and plastified to withstand the hardships of his life. The reaction was absolutely overwhelming. I swear he had never known such a joyous moment. It was an incredibly touching reaction to such a simple act. Likewise, again in the market, armed with a stack of fifty or more such images we gave each of our guests a pile of photos. The mission was to distribute them to their likeness. It was madness. When people who had never before seen a photo of themselves caught on to what was going on we were all physically grabbed (in the nicest possible way), or led by the hand to find their friends whose images we had captured the previous year. Everyone knew everyone else in the market it seemed and before we knew it all photos had been distributed correctly. I cannot describe the outpouring of emotions from both sides. The photos connected both cultures in a much more powerful way than we had ever imagined and it became one of our defining moments of the power of the image. A premise we still maintain today in our work in conservation.


Reneé Bish

One more reason to travel

Taj Mahal & Tom & Mariela Agra Uttar Pradesh, India UNESCO World Heritage Site

There are many reasons for travel but this time, for us, it was something new. Pete and I have lived in Ecuador now for 30 and 24 years respectively and we have known our best friends, Tom and Mariela, for almost that long. Much more parochial than us in their travel, they have seldom ventured to foreign shores. Recently they visited with some news. After a routine medical check up Tom was diagnosed with a leaky heart valve and needed surgery urgently for $250,000+ in the US, where he was a citizen, but with no medical insurance. It was a budget which blew that idea out of the window OR, $25,000 here in Ecuador but with a minimum of a 10% risk of dying and no fixed heart operating team (but he was told that they could cobble one together). Stuck between a rock and a hard place I made a suggestion. As a trained nurse in my previous life and having been in a hospital in India, on the point of death by all accounts, with Cholera, I recounted the tale of my unbelievable medical care and how impressed I was. I ventured an alternative. To our surprise, Tom went for the idea. Now suddenly, Pete and I felt responsible so decided to help guide them through the chaos that is the India we love so much and we booked tickets too. Having phoned a good friend in India for a reference for a cardiologist, then haggling for emergency visas, a week later we were en-route to Delhi! Mariela’s 50th was celebrated at 30,000 feet at the back of the jumbo drinking champagne with our new friend Christine, a truly benevolent flight attendant and before we knew it, Tom was in surgery! The care was fabulous and the equipment as modern as anywhere. The surgery team was a highly practiced unit, and performed a slew of such operations on a regular basis! Worse than we thought however the valve had to be replaced not fixed and Tom now is part pig! No more eating pork in that household. Recuperation time was 3 weeks, so having satisfied ourselves that all was well and it was only left for Tom to take it easy we set off in the interim to visit a remote head-hunter tribe in the far north east of India. Back in Delhi, after our sojourn, with a now perky Tom we decided he was fit enough to take him south to the Taj Mahal to sight see. Hence the classic tourist snapshot above to prove that he was there (wheelchair and all). The joys of medical tourism, Tom gets a new heart valve, a look at one of the seven wonders of the world and it only set him back $13,000 (excluding airfares)!! I guess that’s one way to see the world!

~Reneé Bish