Sunday, March 18, 2012

Building a Narrative with Photos

Once in a while I come across an idea that I think would make a good photo exhibit, something that lets me add a brief narrative. Right now I’m working on an exhibit about Pongala, an annual festival held in South India, honoring Bhagavati, and drawing three million women to the city of Trivandrum, in Kerala, to make their offerings to the deity. This may not seem like it has much to do with writing, other than a few captions, but at the end of every exhibit, I realize that I’ve worked on the same challenges I face as a writer.

The most obvious challenge is to select from the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of photographs to tell the story of Pongala. This should be easy—picking the ones that seem the best, whatever that is. At least that’s what I think when I start out. Am I looking for texture, design, drama? Or the ones I like the best? When I find myself with four photographs of the same scene, taken from different angles, I know it’s time to start over. And the first question is, what’s the point of the exhibit?

The point of the exhibit is to tell the story of Pongala and the women who participate in it. After that is settled in my mind, the rest of the task is easier. I look for photographs that each tell a part of the festival, the ninth day when Pongala itself is offered to Bhagavati and how this happens. I begin with the signs of the festival approaching, when piles and piles of clay pots appear on the city streets, waiting for buyers, along with the stacks of bricks and firewood the city puts out, at no charge, for the devotees.

The women arrive in droves on special buses and trains on the eighth day, and take over the city for the night. Most don’t stay in hotel rooms. They doss down on the sidewalk where they’ve set up their bricks and pot, or on the bare ground of a courtyard where a family has opened its gates to the visitors. For twenty-four hours, there are women everywhere.

On the morning of the ninth day, women are provided a free breakfast and later a midday meal of rice and vegetables, but the morning is taken over with cooking the offering. A lot more goes into this than I can say here, but the process of thinking about the Pongala as a narrative guides me in pulling out photographs that will tell a part of the story.

Building a novel is similar. The main question—what is the point?—has to be asked and answered. What is the main idea behind the story? What are the characters really up to in their lives? And then I choose the scenes, the select few that will carry the reader through these strangers’ lives. Some scenes might be wonderful to write, lots of fun to read, but not helpful in telling the larger story; I have to omit them. Just like a striking photograph that doesn’t elucidate Pongala and so is omitted, a scene must contribute to the story being told. No digressions allowed.

I’ve used the Pongala photo exhibit as a metaphor for constructing a novel, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps if I were less of a mystery writer I would see the exhibit differently. But I prefer narrative. I have a passion for seeing things move forward, take shape, and deliver a discovery—whether it’s a photo exhibit, a novel, a song. I like to begin in one place and end up in another.