South India: Watered Down

The hull is splintered. Upside down. And forgotten. The remains of the tiny fishing vessel clutter the shore, but like the beauty of a colorfully abandoned conch, it continues to spread the Good Word. Did its owner survive the massive wave? A young girl and her friends have turned the wooden carcass into a playground. Jump! Child. Laugh. And shout. You inspire me to dig beneath the sand.

My senses are overrun – a foraging pendulum grasping the air, begging for answers. Who constructed the pieces of this puzzle? India.

I’m a visitor in this enigmatic southern village; an Oceanside town smothered by coconut trees and heavy rainfall. Broken dirt roads lie flooded. Men wearing dhotis drift by. Women walk in small packs, in silence, their solemn majesty reined beneath an ornate sari.

I haven’t slept. The undulating energy of this country has found its way into my soul. And I don’t want to miss a beat. Not one. I sip tea and watch the village come alive. The carpenter’s hammer is playing an early morning beat. My elderly neighbor is chanting her daily prayers. And a hopeless scooter is creeping down the street; the day’s milk delivery is right on time.

Every morning, at exactly eight-thirty, a group of schoolchildren bang on my front gate and scream for my attention. Dreamy and disheveled, I greet them on the terrace. “Mr. John!” they shout – delighted, it seems, by my mere presence. Through word fragments and other bits and pieces of language, gestures and wide eyes, we communicate. Each one of us swimming in our unequivocal humanity, with an unspoken, but resounding internal hope, that somehow everything is being understood. Moments later the kids wave a last goodbye and with childhood laughter and proprietary whispers, they disappear up the road.

John Torrente Written by:

It's three-thirty in the morning and I'm on the coastal railway from Bombay to Mangalore. Nineteen steamy hours on the Matsyagandha Express. The woman on the bunk across from me has reconstituted her sari into a blanket. There’s a full moon. It’s my forty-second birthday. And I haven’t slept a wink. The retired banker occupying the bunk just above me is resting peacefully, though his gentle snore is no match for the relentless grind of steel on steel. The windows are wide open and I’m drenched in the rush of the unforgiving night air. Earlier questions from my friendly bunk mate have my head spinning. They were simple. General curiosities people share when they come across me in a space clearly not my own. Mine is a story that’s taken over a decade to create. And a lifestyle I struggle to explain. In nineteen ninety-nine I dropped my corporate copywriting gig in San Francisco and went searching for Big Change. Having been a social worker on the overnight streets of Manhattan, I secured a volunteer position in Oaxaca, Mexico working with families living in the surrounding mountains. A year later, with my suburban ruse dismantled, I knew there was no going back. I traveled by bus through Central America and eventually wound up studying photography in Quito, Ecuador. I started taking portraits, printing the images and bringing them back to the people. This exchange broke down language barriers, cultural differences, economic disparities and complex social mores. Photography was bringing me deeper and deeper into the lives of the locals. My process is simple. I make contact with a group. I live with them for a month or two. And when it feels right, I use my camera as a means of cultural exchange. When my time is up, I head to a city where I can process the film and make the prints. Then I put them in a box and send them back. I’ve done projects with the landless farmers movement in Brazil, Indian schoolchildren who lost family in the tsunami, indigenous tribes in Mexico and Peru, gypsies in Turkey and seven foot tall drunken fishermen along the Danube river in Serbia. Three years teaching English in China and the occasional freelance project has helped finance my work. My home is where I land. And everything I own fits in a backpack. I use a forty year old Rolleiflex 2.8f TLR and typically shoot black and white film. I don’t publish or sell any work.