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"On my part, I remain committed to the process of dialogue. It is my firm belief that dialogue and a willingness to look with honesty and clarity at the reality of Tibet can lead us to a viable solution."

Interview: My cynicism has been my spiritual path

September 14, 2010

Nadine Kreisberger
Indian Express
September 12, 2010

Pablo Bartholomew is a photographer.

Q: What does spirituality mean to you?

A: It is such a misused and misunderstood word !
I was not brought up in any kind of religious
background. My parents were socialist,
intellectual, artistic. At home we never had
icons or statues or photographs with any religious meaning.

Only my grand-mother was closer to something of
the sort, as she was a follower of the Bramo
Samaj. But it didn’t influence me in any way.

In the last sixties, my father [Richard
Bartholomew] worked in Delhi’s Tibet house and
set up its museum for His Holiness the Dalai
Lama. So as a child, I was exposed to some
elements of Tibetan Buddhism. People were always
nice, funny, smiling. It felt light, accessible,
without dictate. So I was drawn to it and still
am, because of that lightness and non dogmatic approach.

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On the other hand, I cannot stand going inside
most Hindu temples with their stench and smell
which erases any potential spiritual appeal to me.

So spirituality for me is nature -- the sky, the
sun, water, animals, trees. In a way I feel
closest to an animistic view of things. When you
look at a great sky whether dark and cloudy or
blue, both have their strength and essence, and
it lifts you. That’s spirituality -- whatever
lifts you. Unlike when going into a temple and
encountering all those smells, dirt and the
go-between of someone insisting that they can “take you through that passage”.

Did you have shamanic experiences, since you
mentioned an animistic sensibility?
I worked for many years in the Naga hills, where
people are now mostly Christian, American
Baptist. But there were animistic pockets in very
remote areas next to the Burmese border. And for
sure I could sense a very high connection to
nature in most tribes, a natural way of living
life where everything you do goes back to the soil.

I photographed gurus, like Rajnish, Mukhtanand
and many others. But none was for me. Instead, I
think you can find spirituality in very simple things.

Q: Like what?
A: Like great food, and not necessarily a lavish
meal. Let’s say like gathering some wild berries
and enjoying their fresh taste and texture. It takes you to another level.

But really, I haven’t thought much about
spirituality and all those questions. I didn’t
grow up in that way. And later on, I guess I was
not drawn to it. I didn’t feel the need.

Q: When you look at your life, do you see it as all random?
A: Some accidents happened when I was young and
formed me. For instance some accident got me to
be in photography. And over time I came to the
conclusion that it really is the thing for me,
where I want to remain because that’s where I am
most comfortable and happy. It doesn’t bring me
vast amounts of money, but obviously that never was my main goal.

Q: When you were a kid, what did you want to do?
A: A fireman because I played with those toys !
Then I wanted to become a biochemist. But it
didn’t work as I was not good in math, my
interest in physics was not great and so on.

Q: Through your photography, you can sensitize
people to all sorts of realities -- do you see it
as part of your life purpose? Do we all have a life purpose?

I don’t think so. I went into reportage as a need
to find work and recognition. But at no point did
I feel that I was there to be a "crusader of
truth." There are many truths and media plays
many kinds of role in it. And I am so frustrated
with the media. Because I am not sure it is a
vehicle of change it could be. For instance I am
known for this one image from Bhopal. And in a
way it is a responsibility I don’t want to have.
Because the gap between what that image
represents and what actually happened to the
people makes me feel very sad. If I could have
really been a conduit, then things would have
changed. So somewhere there is a heaviness I
carry. Especially recently when the story all
reemerged. There is so much talk. But I don’t
think anything will really happen. More money may
be spent but how much will really benefit the
people? I tend to be very cynical. My cynicism
right from my teenage time has actually been my
savior. In a way, it has been my spiritual path!

Q: But for instance when you did all those
reports on the Nagas -- you brought those worlds to us who haven’t been there?

A: Yes, I document and record things which are
important to me. Most of my large projects have
some resonance with my family. Being from a mixed
background -- my father was Burmese, my mother
from Lahore - there is always this existentialist
quest about one’s identity -- who am I, where am
I, where am I going and so on. My father, left
Burma and came to India through those Naga
tribes, which is why I was so interested in them.
I resonated with them which made my work
possible. I worked there for ten years. Like on a
spiritual quest. Photography is a way of finding
– of finding some feeling, a place, people, a culture.

I am the residue of all those experiences I have
gone through, some good, some really bad.

So during really difficult experiences, like very
difficult stories, where do you find your anchor and energy?

Within what I do. It’s like a mission. You go in
to do something. You may fail sometimes badly. And then you come back.

There were years when I didn’t have time to think
or reflect on any of it. Today it affects me more
than at the time, when one’s energy, mind,
sexuality are all so strong that you don’t think.
You are just trying to prove something to
yourself. You go from one thing to the other to
the other. And you don’t ponder about it. Now I
have more distance. And I do less the kind of
difficult work I did in Bhopal for instance.
Among others because it doesn’t have that much of
an impact. So why bother. There are much deeper
things I need to work with -- like all that has
to do with my family. And my own creative work. I
was more creative before I joined the media,
which is like a factory. I was much more in touch
with myself, with my creativity, my feelings. But
I wouldn’t be recognized for it.

So I was frustrated, and joined the media, in
order to get that recognition. Once you are
saturated with recognition and success, you look
at the sum total of it. And it’s definitely not
very deep. Before, you had a certain freshness, a
certain way of looking at things and you had to
put them away because the factory didn’t want it.
It was too subtle, too layered, too complex. The
factory only wants bold, striking images with an easy to understand message.

Three decades ago, I took many photographs of a
certain society in India. It is a documentation
on a period, a way people lived and behaved, how
they were influenced by certain things. That kind
of thing has much more importance for me. And
that is what I now want to focus on.

Q: Is there any such thing as God for you ?
A: I believe there is a force, in the form of
nature. I am an inconsequential fragment of it
who can try and contribute. You feel it when it
rains, when there is great light, a little bit of
breeze, fragrances, when it drizzles and the
earth smells. That for me is very powerful and at
the end of the day, God is a presence that makes
something happen within you. And nature does it.

If there were such a thing as God, and you could
ask a question, what would it be?
How can I transcend time and space? Not to be
eternal though. There are cycles of birth and
death, we must respect them. I don’t think the
earth will live forever. It will die and be reborn in a different way.

Q: If there were such a thing as rebirth, what
would you choose for the next round?
A: As a human being, as there are so many
unfinished things to complete. But with the
knowledge of this life, as I wouldn’t want to
start the same crap all over again.

Q: Do you agree with Buddhism when it says that all life is suffering?
A: 95% of life is drudgery. The other 5% make the
excitement. But you have to go through those 95 to get to the 5%.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?
A: It is a sense of wellbeing. Of being able to
do what you want to do and do it well. I wouldn’t
say I am happy or unhappy. There are many things
I could do to improve myself. But I think I am
fairly content. If I look at myself and many of my contemporaries,

I find that they may have greater wealth, they
may have arrived in many more ways, but somewhere
I can feel their discontent. So often they tell
me how lucky I am because I never got married and
I am free. Or how managing wealth in itself can
create a whole set of worries. So I think I’m ok and that’s what matters.
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