‘Regions of Cloud and Air’

Photographer Nicole Gibson tells Brandon Hoops the story behind a picture from Kashmir

By / July 2013

The day we arrive in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, I still feel Delhi rattling through my body. I could blame the maze of streets. The traffic. The fretful commerce. The steady cadence of the crowds. But Delhi is unapologetic for carrying such a loud and urgent personality.

Luckily, out here, in these regions of cloud and air, where the Pir Panjal mountains take thin and cool breaths, I encounter a more amiable friend. At the edge of the courtyard to Shah-e-Hamdan, affectionately known as the “Paper-Mâché Mosque,” I stop. For a moment I allow myself to smile. Although there are people scattered about, some eating and others walking, nothing imposes on my attention. The building that rises from the banks of the Jhelum River is more extraordinary for its detail than size. The brass inscriptions. The geometric shapes in the wood. The turquoise facade. I hear the whispered moan of prayers and the dull conversation of pigeons.

Nicole Gibson

I am in the company of such a quiet, yet substantive, presence. It’s enough to ease the chaos that accompanies me and quicken my camera’s chattiness on this portion of the Lumen Dei Photo Workshop. I consider going inside the mosque. Then I remember my limitations there and stay outside, loosening my lens with a steady diet of easy, predictable images, the ones most likely to fill any tourist’s SD card.

For the sake of my workshop, and for my own creativity, I start looking for more. I want something deeper, something someone else would care about. So I turn away from the buildings. The surroundings lack the austerity of the mosque. Gray is the predominate color pulled off the palate. Pigeons stumble about randomly, pecking at stale food scattered among the cement pathways and steps that frame sections of dirt and greenery. But even for all the drabness, I find characters in quotidian routines and situations, who seem to be carefully placed so as to animate the scene.

I see a man sitting in the sharp sunlight. Maybe he is there to worship. Maybe to rest. He seems content and pays no mind to the pigeons around him. As I move closer, something scares the birds to flight. I take one photograph in this moment, hopeful to catch something representative of the ordinariness and intimacy of this man in this moment. Later that day when the others study my images and start tossing out superlatives, I realize just how lucky I got.

Still today, whenever I show my work, people say this photo is their favorite. It shocks me. But it also affirms the underlying desire that informs my photography. The focus is not the big iconic building behind the man. The focus is the man with life happening around him. And the thing is, most people don’t know where this image was taken, which makes me think there is something accessible there, whether they’ve been to India, New York, Paris, or some other big city.

Photography lets me interact with the world, whether slipping in and out of hurried crowds or settling into the quiet shadows of some beautiful mosque. People tell me I have simplistic and straightforward style. That my work is uncluttered. I think it’s reflective of my introverted and contemplative tendencies. I like the process of figuring things out. The more patient and attentive I am, the more I am able to present photographs that show I actually care and possess a piece of me. Because isn’t it true, if the images don’t mean something to me, why should they mean something to you?

 

Nicole Gibson, 29, is an award-winning photographer based in Arizona. You can see more of her work here

 

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