Archivi categoria: essay

Another Big Camera Store Fails: Why Are So Many Closing?

40 years ago, Bob Khoury and Warren Steinberg started selling used photo equipment out of a showcase in an Atlanta, Georgia, flea market. Soon they moved to a brick and mortar store which, to incorporate their earlier experience, they called Showcase. The store grew to be the largest in Atlanta and sold photo and video equipment to amateurs and professionals alike and last year they celebrated their 40th anniversary.

To provide the best customer experience they hired knowledgeable sales people, some of whom have been with the company for more than 20 years.

Fast-forward to 2017 and they are the largest camera store and the last one left standing. However, dark clouds have been covering the horizon for some time and on January 5th Showcase announced:

As you are well aware, the coming of the Internet and high-volume consumer electronics stores have progressively shrunk our retail market. We have adapted to these changes in as many creative ways as we could and have survived to be the last photo and video store in Atlanta. But we have reached a point that we can no longer sustain a retail business. So it is with great regret that we will be closing Showcase Photo & Video on Tuesday, February 28th.

Signs at the checkout are a painful reminder that the once thriving Atlanta store is closing for good.

A General Manager’s Perspective

Showcase general manager John Williams, who has been around for nearly 50 years in the photo field and as a manufacturers’ representative, believes the business is unsustainable based on the current combination of factors and pressures on the photo retail business (e.g. there are several things that are going on now that are affecting most all photo retail stores in the country). Williams outlined 3 main reasons why independent camera stores are going the way of the dodo into extinction:

#1: An “Uneven Playing Field”

“The first thing is that we’re all operating in an uneven playing field which has been influenced by the failure of states, in this case Georgia, to require the collection of sales tax from retailers operating outside of state,” Williams says. “Failure to come up with a way of collecting sales tax has put a burden on our company and others in the state that is currently 8%, soon to be almost 9%, so I’m operating at an 8% disadvantage.”

“Now I can tell you that the state is collecting their 8% from me, and that in many cases far exceeds the percentage of profit that I’m making on merchandise. The state makes more (profit than Showcase) on many of my sales, which strikes me as being an unsustainable number.”

#2: Information Boom

“The second issue has to do with the amount of, shall we say, digital information that’s now available,” Williams says. “In the old days customers would sometimes seek information or seek pricing for a product by using one of the several photography magazines that were available, so they thumb to the back, find the product and see what the price was in the back of the books.”

“Sometimes that was reliable and many a times it was not. Well today the consumers do not have to worry about a magazine as they have a computer in their hand in their smart phone that will tell them instantly what the product sells for here and elsewhere so they have an instant comparison shopping. And well, I’m fine with that and we are very competitive with most everybody else in the whole country.”

“However the consumer, more often than not, now is not coming in to listen to our conversation about the product, the value that we bring to the product and what special offers that we might have. What we’ve seen over the last couple of years is steadily declining store traffic and as the store traffic has declined the sales volume follows that and has been shrinking.”

Harold Alan, photographer, has been shopping with them since they began for 40 yrs. Today he picked up a monopod bargain.

#3: Manufacturer Marketing

“The third unsustainable issue is that manufacturers have come up with a marketing strategy that involves rebates, often referred to as instant rebates, when we take them out immediately,” says Williams. “As an example a $1,000 camera might have a $200 instant rebate so the way it is set up to work is that, I have a choice whether to offer the rebate or not. But I can assure you that the consumer knows there is a rebate and I’m having a gun held to my head and told by the manufacturer you basically have to offer this to your customers.”

“Here’s how it works: I sell the $1000 camera to the customer and then I deduct the $200 instantly, so $200 of my money is gone. In order for me to collect the rebate from the manufacturer I have to file various documents on a timely basis and hope that they honor and fill those requests in a timely basis. That could be weeks to months so in a fact they’re holding my money for weeks to months. Now when they reimburse me for the $200 instant rebate they do not reimburse me 100%. The way it works is they reimburse me 80%, so it’s an 80-20 arrangement where the manufacturer reimburses me $160 and I’ve essentially given up $40 of my money on the sale.”

“So as I said before, this is just another unsustainable proposition that’s going on in the industry and dealers are putting out tens of thousands of dollars and in some cases hundreds of thousands to support the manufacturers’ rebate programs, which are only being reimbursed to the tune of 80%. Once again, it’s an unsustainable model.”

“Unfortunately, the industry has become driven by-product, so that the manufacturer regularly introduces new products. Of course we see the pick up in sales but if they’re not introduced by the manufacturer then sales tend to tail off or decline at the end of the life cycle and that’s unfortunate.”

“Just as unfortunate is the beginning of the life cycle where the manufacturer introduces a product and is unable to supply the product in sufficient quantities to fill the existing demand. So not only are you unable to fulfill a sale but in many cases it basically stops the sale of other merchandise. The consumer decides I want that particular model so you have kind of a Catch-22 of not selling one cause you can’t get it and you can’t sell the one you have because it’s not the current model.”

In the Business of Losing Money

“People come and ask me what happened with Showcase, a company who’s been in business for 40 years, and the answer is that the curve between making a little money and losing money has intersected, so now we’re at the point we’re not making but losing,” says Williams. “And a business can’t be sustained very long if you’re losing money, so that’s kind of where we’ve arrived.”

“It’s a very interesting from an economic view-point where you have essentially a city of almost 5 million people and here we are the only photo-video specialty store in the city with a 40 year track record and we found that we are unable to sustain our business in a profitable fashion.”

“Now, I often think to myself maybe it’s something we’re not doing or something we did wrong and so forth. But we have a lot of experience and I have spent my whole career in the photo business, and that’s about 50 years. I’ve seen from both sides of the desk not only this position but out on the road and I visited hundreds of dealers (as a manufacturer’s rep in the past) and did business with them so it’s a very difficult position.”

“As I look around the country, just a few months ago a major West Coast dealer Keeble & Shuchat Photography out of Palo Alto, CA shuttered his business and if you read his remarks, they’re not a lot unlike those that I just made about the state of the industry.”

“Now what’s going to happen going forward is really difficult to say but the manufacturers have not done themselves a favor. The state of Georgia has not done itself a favor. Georgia is not only going to lose the sales tax that was generated on a regular basis out of this location, but also there are other fees and taxes that they collect during the course of the year which is immediately going to drop to zero.”

“So the State is essentially forfeiting in excess of a million dollars, which is a small amount and before you know it is a 100 million and then 500 million and now it is almost approaching ‘real money’.”

“The decision to close the business is extremely difficult for a lot of different reasons most of it is that I’ve never done it before and there are no guidelines as to how to go about it. How do you deal with personnel, all kinds of issues and insurance? It’s kind of unfortunate especially when you have personnel who have been with the company, not perhaps for the entire forty years, but we have a number of employees that have been here over 20 years. And they didn’t stay here for 20 years because they weren’t good at what they did, but they happen to be very good at what they do.”

“They are excellent technical people, they are excellent sales people, they work well with people and the customers relate very well to them and we’ve had literally hundreds of customers come in and say they were very disappointed that things have played out this way and they were very sorry and wished us well.”

“Another casualty of this whole process, besides the State and the manufacturers, will be our customers who will not benefit from our employees’ expertise and the ability to come and visit us and talk about photography and video in general. And unfortunately our sales staff will have to find other homes in order to do what their specialties are.”

The Fall of Showcase and Rise of Showrooming

Showcase owner Bob Khoury says his business kept on growing till 2012, when it started to plateau off. They were pretty flat for 2013 and 2014, then dropped off a little in 2015 and more in 2016. This was enough to paint a picture that they could not sustain their current business model and they had to either dramatically make some changes and cut overhead or they had to close.

Showcase did not want to reduce the staff or their level of service as their customers had come to expect that from them and any thing less would not have been fair for the loyalty they had provided to the business. When it came to inventory they had to stock all the popular lenses and cameras and hold as much inventory of everything as they possibly could — if customers were told that items were not in stock, then they would go home and order online and not come back.

Showcase’s demographic was aging, better cameras on smartphones were eating into the digital camera market, less customers were coming into the shop and even those that came were often showrooming. The word “showrooming” gets underlined in red by my Microsoft Word spellcheck, so I go to Merriam-Webster but it is not there either. However, showrooming has become a legitimate word in the last few years and Wikipedia defines it as the practice of examining merchandise in a traditional brick and mortar retail store and then buying it online, sometimes at a lower price. Here they were not just examining the merchandise but getting the input and advice of the experienced staff to figure out which model was the most suited for them, holding it in their hand, picking on their knowledge, using their time… and then buying online.

A Canon EOS 5D Mark IV DSLR Camera with 24-105mm f/4L II lens costs $4,599.99 at Showcase, which is exactly the same at most major players, but the added 8% sales tax of $368 is what the customer gets to keep as a bonus by buying out of state. Canon and other manufacturers provide a MAP or Minimum Advertised Price and when the main players stick to that the others have to follow. Amazon does charge tax in Georgia because they have warehousing facilities in the state but that does not apply to online photo retailers.

“Amazon is not my major competitor,” says Khoury. “My major competitor is New York.”

Brad Fox, who lives 30 miles away, has been shopping here since 1990. He was happy to buy here at B&H prices and maybe that was their fault, he points out.

Shrinking Profit Margins

Sales tax is not the only reason that Khoury has to shutter his doors: margins is the other. In the past margins were around 20%, today it is half of that on cameras and lenses and even less.

“One of the main reasons — and I in no way want to come across as a victim — is the manufacturers, and I lay a lot about it on the manufacturers, who have been cutting my margins for years and fixing Minimum Advertised Pricing to the point where it’s very difficult to make any money in this business,” says Khoury. “My margins have fallen 5% over the past eight years. To give you an idea, the minimum advertised price on Canon lenses is 5%; we make 5% on Canon lenses. Others are 10%, but even that’s not enough to sustain the business.”

“The margins have been cut so low on our major products and then the manufacturer say, well the reason you know we’re doing this is that it drives business to your store. Fine, but if somebody comes in and buys a lens that I make 5% on and if they pay me with an American Express card I have to give American Express over 3% of that. Where are my margins? I have no margins.”

“Camera bodies are a little more, anywhere from 7 to 10%, still not much, not when I used to be able to make 20% on cameras years ago, back in the good old days. Those good old days are gone.”

A small item like a filter might have margins of more than 50%, but unless a dealer can accessorize a camera/lens purchase there may not be sufficient margin on the sales. And even then a small item like a filter may not be enough to compensate on an expensive lens being sold at a low margin.

Brick and mortar stores have to go online to survive, but Khoury says: “I never had the resources to properly do it. In order to do it right it needed $500,000 just to create a website that works well! We did our best when digital came on to embrace it and to sell, but unfortunately it’s just become impossible to make any money, enough money in this business to sustain this business model.”

Big online sellers are getting special deals and that is okay with Khoury as they are buying in bulk at a level that he can’t, as that is their business model.

“More power to them,” Khoury says. “The only complaint that I have is the sales tax issue, because everything else I can fight. I am in business and I realize if somebody else has a better business model or a different business model, I can change and I can adapt, but I cannot change the federal government giving my competition an unfair advantage.”

Khoury says that after his store closing on February 28th and after he has paid off all his vendors, he will “go up to Washington DC and see if I can lobby somebody to get this (sales tax) bill passed, because what has happened to me I don’t want to happen to anybody else. When Keeble & Shuchat Photography went out it devastated me. It made me realize that the writing was on the wall and I really had to look hard and fast at it to determine where I wanted to be.”

A West Coast Perspective

Terry Shuchat, who owned Keeble & Shuchat Photography in Palo Alto, California, for 51 years and closed in October 2016, says: “The photo industry is really in trouble. So many people are no longer buying cameras. They’re quite happy with pictures from smartphones and that has taken away a nice chunk of the photo business. So few people are printing pictures and that was also a nice part of the business.”

“Its [slow down] been happening gradually for the last three or four years. It has been accelerated for the last year and a half. I own both of the properties where we were and I did not have the problem where high rents have forced other stores out of business. But just the lack of sales forced us out of business.”

“We started losing money about four years ago, first it was just a little bit and then it got greater each year. But we made a lot of money for a bunch of (earlier) years. I have a lot of the same employees for 20, 25, 30 years and more and I felt really badly for them. That was one of the reasons I kept it going perhaps a little longer than I should have because I had great respect and cared for them. But then it just reached that point when it was becoming just a money pit instead of a manufacturer of money.”

“We started in 1965 and lasted 51 years, which is a good run. We were even profitable in the first year in 1965. I enjoyed retail. Back in the days of film, customers came in to see us often, when they would come in to buy a roll of film and we talk to them, then they bring the (exposed) roll of film back for processing and we talk to them, and then they come back to pick up the pictures and then we saw them again and we had a close rapport with our customers.”

“Once the digital age came particularly in the last few years when cameras have gotten so wonderful that we would sell a camera and they had no reason to come back again. We gave classes and the enrollment went up dramatically the last few years but they did not produce the kind of sales increase we would have hoped.”

“And the other thing is that places like B&H Photo Video and Adorama, which are huge, are very honest and good places to deal with, so customers aren’t taking any kind of chances when they are buying from them. Whereas back in the days of mail order, there used to be a lot of dishonest dealers, so mail order had a bad reputation and it wasn’t hard combating someone buying mail order but in the Internet Age there is nothing bad to be said of them.”

Cameras as Electronics

Profits have gone down dramatically ever since cameras became part of the electronic industry. Earlier there was a huge, separate photography trade show put on by PMA (Photo Marketing Association) and in 2011 it got merged into the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) annually in Las Vegas. Back in the days of film cameras models were out for longer and the profit potential was much higher. Today it is minimal.

“The manufacturers allow us to make so little profit,” says Shuchat. “Quite often the value of the instant rebates is more than our profit, so we would sell a camera at a loss until we received the instant rebate back from the manufacturer. And there is always a lag time there, so cash flow became a problem. The rebate was reimbursed at 80% and the manufacturer justified it saying our profit margin was the same.”

“I say we are still making whatever we are making, 15% or 13% but our actual dollar amount that we made is less. So we have to sell more cameras to take in the same amount of money except that camera sales have been going down every year. So it was not possible to make it up in volume what we were losing in each sale. Even if the margin on a camera is 15%-17%, but if the customer gives you a credit card you are out 2% there, and the customer will sometimes say OK, I’ll buy it as long as there is no sales tax (like online), then we would agree and pay the sales tax and now we are out 2%+8%=10% and then we have to pay the sales person, so we could conceivably lose money on a sale.”

Keeble & Shuchat Photography had an online site as well but the locals mainly used it as a reference and there were not much national sales. “When Amazon started collecting sales tax in California 3 years ago, we initially noticed a little increase in our sales,” he adds. “But the ratio of customers going to New York retailers as opposed to Amazon is 75/25”. He is not bitter at his store going away and even adds, “We made a lot of money the first few years from digital as it was very profitable.”

Ritz and Wolf

Ritz Camera which was started in 1918 ended up being the largest camera-store chain in the US with 1,200 stores in 48 states plus the District of Columbia and estimated annual revenues of $1.34 billion as reported by Forbes in 2002, but today has almost vanished with only five stores remaining and being run by another company which bought out the name. This huge number was achieved by acquiring and merging with other photo chains, including Wolf Camera which had 700 of its own stores nationwide — 70 in just Atlanta alone (with one mall having 2 Wolf Camera stores), and 50 in Chicago and lesser amounts in Dallas and other cities.

Wolf Camera at one time had 70% of the Atlanta camera, lenses and accessories market share. Ritz Camera/Wolf Camera had a business model that failed. Both based it on film processing or 1-hr processing especially in malls where you could drop off the film roll, finish your shopping and then pick up your prints. Digital ran them out of business when people could view their images without having to pay for paper prints.

Chuck Wolf, a relative of Benjamin Ritz (who started Ritz Camera almost 100 years ago), says, “Ritz Camera and Wolf Camera were about the same thing and sold a lot of cameras, but mostly the business profit was from photo finishing. So 40% of my business was photo finishing and 60% was other sales including cameras and accessories. And the 40% that I sold on photo finishing was a lot more profitable.”

“In my days you made 20-25% on a purchase (camera sales), but we probably averaged about a third as we sold accessories with it, camera bags, service contracts, filters and tripods and now it is below 10% (margin) on just cameras or maybe even 8%, and have to wait for rebates, I understand, and you don’t make any profit.”

“It’s not a real healthy thing to be a retailer of cameras right now. Photo finishing was 70-75% gross profit, maybe more. People used to bring 3-4 rolls of 36 exposures and that was about $15 a bag (each roll).”

Wolf who says “a photo is not a photo until it is printed” has been beaten by electronic devices, which have made viewing prints easier than shuffling through paper albums and cheaper too!”

About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at International Center of Photography in the 90s. You can reach him via email here.

Image credits: Header photo by Random Retail

Photo Books: The New Photographic Ritual

Moving down the aisles that are carved between each row of seats, the line slowly edges on. A choir of no more than three people — woman and two men — expel their voices gently and slowly, serenading the churchgoers as they inch forward toward the pulpit where they receive their bread and wine.

The communion is a ritual in Catholicism that occurs at the height of the mass. It exists in a ceremonial way to cement the beliefs of the Catholic church between those who gather at each mass. It is unremarkable and unsurprising yet it remains an event of significance. Catholics understand it’s importance and, like most rituals, it plays a pivotal role in helping those who participate to understand different traditions, stories and values. Traditionally, in a ritual, every person present must participate. The act of the ritual requires the whole necessarily because it carries the tradition and maintains the sense of community through interaction and representation.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a small library of photobooks. Few of them collect dust and are rarely viewed. The majority, however, are often spread throughout my house and office. I find myself continuously looking back to them, attempting to dissect what integral information I missed the last time. Maybe I interpreted something wrong, or I want simply to experience them all over again. Photobooks are more than just books of photographs that happen to go together or follow the same theme. There is a sense of narrative experience that is revealed within the pages of these books. It comes to life in the editing, the design, the paper choice, the ink; the physical things help to bring it to life-like wine or bread.

Sometimes I buy photobooks full of images I don’t – can’t – understand. Such was the case when Delaney Allen’s inaugural book Between Here and There arrived at my doorstep. The thick cardstock that forms the outside of the book with a typewriter font stamped onto the front cover is peculiar enough but the images inside perpetuate that sense. A snapshot-like image of a girl, blonde haired and ecstatic with bulging black sunglasses leads the viewer in. A close-up image of water with light refracting through it creates a rainbow while flares and dust settle around the edges. A cave; light peaking gently out of the far-end carries the viewer through the narrative. Of course, you must allow these images to lead you, to let them consume you and take you on the journey and to tell you the story they want you to tell. Further enhancing this effect are emails between Delaney and his then girlfriend. They break the flow of images but not in the way you would expect. Finding them hidden between caves and oceans they carry the narrative while forcing the viewer to maintain their own sense of curiosity and to form images in their own head of the events described. The combination forces you to question whether the images in your head were ever in the book.

Surely it can be understood, then, that the importance of the single image in this book is a moot point. There is no one single image that stands out rather, a collection of images that form an entirely new world. This new world that I so eagerly live in – one that I can escape to whenever I want – is the only point worth discussing. It is not a world given to me but one that I create of my own volition and is a direct product of the ritual nature of the photobook. My persistence in tracing back and forth the images as they relate to each other, trying desperately to understand what story they tell and how they relate to me. By sheer participation I have joined them in the collective act that is the photobook as ritual. My role as the viewer allows this story to be told and to be lived, to transcend the confines of when it occurred, if it ever did.

Photobooks have not always been as common as they are now. Yes, photographers made them, but they persisted to be a sacred element in the trajectory of the photographer’s career. The accessibility and availability did not exist for the amateur, hobbyist or emerging photographer to make a photobook. Recently, however, we have seen the rise of photobooks and zines in many forms. Photographers are frequently self-publishing large monographs of long-term works, approaching boutique publishing houses to produce limited zines and small-run books, or simply reigniting a DIY ethic where Xerox machines and home printers transform into a workshop for homemade books and zines. The photobook adds an unexplainable element to the significance of the image in our lives.

Photographers don’t, and haven’t been able to, heighten the significance of the photobook all alone. The collaborative nature of the format – the designers, editors, publishers, printers and audience – ensures that it is ever-evolving. Furthermore, the inclusiveness that the photobook provides is a glimpse into the ritualistic nature that it embodies. All of the participants of the bookmaking process work together to understand the narrative, to allow it to exist on a fundamental level that transcends just photographs in a book and rather, provides a platform for them to be understood and to live in the real world. Photographers look to books as the final form of their projects. The image in book form provides an interaction that every single person who comes in contact with it, regardless of their role, will interpret differently. This allows these images to live almost forever. Like a ritual, the photobook suspends in time the ideas and narratives expressed by the images, allowing them to be absorbed by viewers forever.

In celebration of such extraordinary and widespread publishing efforts by photographers, the Aperture Foundation, in October 2015, published a manifesto of self-publishing titled Self-Publish, Be Happy. This book serves as a bible of sorts for those who live the DIY ethic and endeavor to make their own photobooks (a relatively new concept given technological advancement and increased accessibility to professional-grade printers). Even still, the celebration of self-publishing isn’t to say that a photographer should completely avoid the traditional route for publishing a major body of work, but instead, this book showcases some of the many methods of bookmaking and speaks to the fact that each project demands its own methods for expressing its ideas.

Photographer Stacy Kranitz’s images live within the pages of her latest publication, Speak Your Piece. This book is much more a representation of a place than it is attempting to tell a set story. The typical boundaries of a book don’t exist. Kranitz experiments with the relationship between text and images but in an unexpected way. Many of the pages do not feature images at all which, at first, seems an odd choice but the lack of images and instead flourishing amount of text – all taken from a local paper with a column that shares the same name as the book – allow the viewer to define their own relationship in much more abstract terms. It leaves the viewer attempting to decipher who these people are and a craving overcomes you to know them. In a single quote, it is impossible to know them but it allows a brief glimpse into their lives and the things that make them tick. The simple act of you reading their letters – letting them speak their piece – allows them to move past the confines of time and space, enhancing their voices in a way that puts you there, with them.

The shared experience fills you with a sense of place. The looking over and over again at the images and text within these pages places you within them. It makes me think back to being told stories as a child. We were told these stories in a commanding way, as if they were biographical accounts of someone’s lives, but once they were told they were left and they simply existed. We discussed them, changed them, lived within them. I’d argue the same thing happens when peering into the lives of Stacy’s subjects who live between the pages of her book; although you read the stories as told by the subjects, the incompleteness forces upon you the duty to fill in the blanks, forming your own stories as you go, in fact becoming a part of the story.

Living within the image is a common trope in speaking about photography but it holds true at every turn. Staring long enough at a photograph prompts you to make up your own stories about them, as if you are there in the picture, not as a camera but as a part of the scene. An effective ritual does the same by placing you within the context of it – the story and events that it represents.

The first time I looked at Bryan Sheffield’s book, Lord God, I thought it was simply a record of trees across the United States. Sure, it is that. It is also a celebration of them, of nature, of the beauty of it but in a mysterious way that only Bryan could convey. The flash-lit images thrust you into the personal space of the trees. If it’s possible to find a candid moment in the life of a tree, he does it. The journey these images take you on is like no other. The viewer is sharing their existence with these trees each time this book is opened.

I’d imagine the only way to explain the mystery of looking at this book is by comparing it to a walk through the forest. Slowly, you move down the path, between the trees and bushes. The cool autumn air brushes your hair across your face but you remain unmoved. Your hands caress each trunk as you pass by it. These trees have been here for years; growing, living, stretching out across the landscape beneath the earth in web-like formations that go on for hundreds of feet. It’s like they are all connected to each other and in that moment of reverie, you too are connected to them. The forest speaks to you. Even if you decide to look up and away from the trees printed in ink back onto themselves, it becomes impossible to ever leave that forest because it grows deep inside your mind.

Within the confines of a printed book or zine, images take on a life of their own. The viewer interacts with them differently. Upon gallery walls, surely the viewer takes in the images in just as substantial of a manner, but there remains a separation between the viewer and artwork. The physicality of the image in printed form and our ability to truly interact with it lies only within the confines of a photobook. The viewer controls how the images are absorbed, experienced, the pace, the meaning, the story. More and more, this is becoming a viable option for photographers wishing for their projects to truly live within this world.

While the photobook industry has admittedly become oversaturated with books and not all of them holding deserving bodies of work, the importance of this medium cannot be ignored. The celebration of the book has changed photography’s role as an art form into something more experiential. The book has woven photography into the fabric of our lives. These books fill the shelves that line the walls of our homes, sit in piles upon coffee tables in living rooms around the globe, and sit forever open in our minds.

We live with this art in ways that are impossible as simply a single image anchored on the wall (or even embedded on a screen as a digital apparition, for that matter). Moreover, the true ritualistic nature of the photobook is proven in its transcendence of time. Each time we pull apart the pages of these books we again experience the story and it becomes a part of our consciousness.

You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.

About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long-term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.

Photo Essay: My Road to Recovery from Traumatic Brain Injury

My name is Trevor Gavin and I’m a photographer based near San Francisco. I’d like to share a very personal story of my darkest time. It’s a part of my healing and a part of moving on. It’s the only way I know how to express my emotions.

I am humbled and so thankful to all who have been there for me. As with my other adventures, I find joy in sharing my experiences. I share the good, and now the bad.

On March 9th 2016, my world turned upside down… quite literally: I woke up in a hospital bed with no recollection of what put me there

My head had been shaved and stitched, I had tubes flowing in and out of me, including one coming out of my head. Everything at this point was very foggy, but I quickly learned what put me in that hospital bed. I was in disbelief no matter how many times I was told. I had taken a pretty gnarly fall on my skateboard riding through the streets of San Francisco on my way to a market for something to drink.

I landed square on the left back portion of my head, resulting in a fractured skull and internal bleeding in my brain. I hardly had any other signs of a fall, it all went to my head.

No, I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Lesson learned.

A witness called 911 when I lost consciousness. I wish I could thank that person because knowing myself, I would have gotten up and shook it off; not realizing the severity of my injuries. I wouldn’t be here to write this if so. The ambulance driver took this picture on my phone to show me that I needed to get help.

Picture taken by ambulance medic to convince me I had to go to the hospital.

I was taken to SF General where the ER rushed me in for emergency brain surgery. I was diagnosed with a epidural hematoma, which needed to be drained. I found later that 15-20% of these injuries are fatal. Scary. I remember none of this although I was moving around, speaking and conscious.

My wife and best friend were at my side the whole time; close family and friends coming later into the night as the word spread. It saddens me to hear about what they experienced that night. So much uncertainty on the final outcome as I was rushed into the OR. Everyone was worried sick as they prayed for the best. Thankfully, four hours later I came out alive, the surgery went well. My family was told I would make a full recovery, although it was uncertain on how long it may take. I also came out with a bad hair cut and new tough guy scar.

The hospital stay was a blur of bad food, pills, visitors and discomfort…I don’t remember much of it. I was in the ICU for three nights before they moved me into a room for another two. Before I knew it I was whisked away in a wheel chair with a towel over my head to a mini van which was my transport home.

I was very sensitive to light after the surgery. At this point I could still hardly walk or eat but it was nice to be in a more familiar environment. Sleep was tough and I had to have a towel on every pillow I laid my head on due to it ”leaking”. (Sorry, I know that was gross.)

The first few weeks were the hardest. I couldn’t feel half of my head. I couldn’t watch TV, browse the Internet, or read. The house had to be dark because of my sensitivity to light. My mom came down to stay with us to help my wife take care of me as we had a five month old baby at home as well. I was taking so much medication they had to set alarm clocks every four hours and write which meds were due at what time. Percocet; anti-seizure; Tylenol; anti-nausea, etc.

Between the baby waking at night to eat and me needing pills every four hours, they weren’t getting much sleep. The support I had from my wife, mom, family and friends was amazing. I can’t say thank you enough. It’s very special to be able to see how many people care about you all at the same time. I’m so grateful.

I received calls/texts, get well cards, care packages, toys and visitors. So much so, my wife had to balance what could be passed my way and when as to not overstimulate me during the early stages of recovery. We had to minimize sensory overload by limiting my exposure to sounds, images, lights, feelings, smells, thoughts. Not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re me.

One of the best gifts I received was a face mask that blocked out all light. This allowed me to go outside, breathe fresh air and take in the smells around my yard. It felt so good to sit outside after being cooped up in a dark room all day. This allowed me to take naps outside on my hammock which were my best friends at that time. Naps were golden!

LEGOs were my next best friend. Took me a little longer than normal to piece together but it was so fun while keeping me occupied and entertained.

After I began to get my strength back I had my wife shoot a few portraits to be able to look back on. Stitches in, weak, face swollen and still on medication.

With the bad you have to take the good. I had incredible help with my business. My team stepped up and kept things moving forward. I couldn’t ask to have better people at my side in times of need.

On the personal side, I had a beautiful baby girl who I was able to spend more time with than I normally would not have been able to. I cherished this time. My little girl grew up a lot and I was able to be apart of it. I was there as she learned to sit up, crawl, and stand on her own. It’s amazing how fast they learn.

As time passed and I gradually started feeling better, I found different things to pass the time and allow myself to heal. One of the most important was escaping to the mountains. I went to the Lassen National Forest area where I had grown up to sit around to do nothing but enjoy nature and take in the fresh mountain air. This seemed to be the best thing for me. I felt more rested and had more energy when I spend time in the great outdoors.

Photography also helped me get by. I took many photos with my daughter being the main focus – a cute happy subject. I visited the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve often – another old stopping ground from my childhood. Photography allowed me to get my mind working again and release some creativity; while giving me some much needed physical activity. Taking short walks was a great way to get my stamina back. It’s amazing how fast you loose your strength when something like this takes you down.

Here I am alive and 4 months into what should be a full recovery. I now have a bad ass head scar, some plastic and titanium screwed into my head as a constant reminder. Writing this has given me the opportunity to look back at these last few months. At times it feels like it’s creeping along and other times it’s flying by. It can be frustrating, yet I’m reminded how far I’ve come and how lucky I am to heal so well.

It’s difficult for me to think there was a chance I could have left my friends and family behind. Thinking about not being there for my wife and my daughter as she grows up is hard. Life is fragile. I am using this tragedy as something to grow from. This experience has forced me to step back and see things in a different light… a view one seldom gets to see.

I feel truly blessed, I have an amazing group of friends and family and I am very lucky to have them by my side. I have a new baby and wonderful wife that has been a tremendous help and companion through this whole process. Thank you again to all that have supported my family and me. It has meant more than you will ever know.

About the author: Trevor Gavin is a photographer and filmmaker based near San Francisco, California. He’s the CEO and Creative Director of ALCHEMYcreative. You can find more of his website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. This article was also published here.

A Matter of Perspective: The Privilege of White Males in Photography


“Yet to an obsessive his obsession always seems to be of the nature of things and so is not recognized by what it is.” Those words, written by art critic John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing, annotate one part of his understanding of the history of oil paintings: it’s obsessive tendencies toward showmanship of what one has, and the relationship between property and art.

A wealthy patron of the arts may have commissioned an oil painter to depict their life by painting their property – a room in their house full of their many collectors items. Of course, embellishment of the truth was allowed because the important idea was to create a sense of envy in the spectator. The subject of the painting wished simply to convey a sense of dominance; a sense of superiority.

Now we look at oil paintings in museums and galleries and sit in awe of the technical prowess provided by such works. It feels so realistic, the way the light sweeps in through open windows while the scene unfolds nearly unopposed to the charismatic beauty of the world around them. The subject sits aloof to their own dominance.

Photography mimics this same sense of beauty in the mundane. Street photographers scour the streets of cities waiting for the sun to begin it’s descent and create pockets of lights like a stage for their subjects. Rather than overtly attempting to convey a sense of dominance over the viewer, photographers, specifically those who walk in the documentary tradition, wish to convey their own experiences and leave them as tokens for the audience.

Honoré Daumier once said photographs describe everything and explain nothing. What a photograph describes to the viewer depends largely on who the photographer is. No two people share the same experiences in the same way. So, when a photographer encroaches on a scene, and in the instant in which they trigger the shutter, their experiences become etched into that photograph forever; like memories.

We often collect these memories – photographs – in books and albums, on gallery walls, in magazines and social media, in a nostalgic effort to relive the past. Memories are radically powerful in this form – we can learn from them and in how others absorb them. When we share photographs, we provide the viewer an opportunity for empathy. Empathy helps us to be more understanding and the more of this there is, the better the world will be.

But, it is a matter of perspective.

Point of view will always reign supreme in shaping this world. That is why the reality of it is so damning. Throughout the life of this medium the same point of view has always commanded dominance: the point of view of the straight white male.

In a history of photography class that I once took, I learned about some of the most important voices in the history of the medium. From photography’s noted inventor, Louis Daguerre, to some of the most iconic photographers we can remember — Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Ansel Adams — to more contemporary practitioners like Alec Soth, Bruce Gilden, David Alan Harvey, and Elliot Erwitt.

All of these names are some of the very best and I can bet that at the moment you read those names, you could visualize some of their most famous images. Eggleston’s famous color images, such as that of a blue and white tricycle, paint chipping away, in front of a suburban home, evoke a feeling of enduring childhood. Adams’ images whose painterly black and white quality throw the viewer into the scene – the Snake River or the Yosemite Valley – and perpetrate a sense of an infinite Eden awaiting your personal exploration.

"Memphis (Tricycle)" by William Eggleston (left) sold for $578,500 in 2012. "The Tetons - Snake River (1942)" by Ansel Adams (right).
“Memphis (Tricycle)” by William Eggleston (left) sold for $578,500 in 2012. “The Tetons – Snake River (1942)” by Ansel Adams (right).

The simple beauty in Soth’s images that rival the overwhelming emotions evoked by Adams’ will most definitely stand the test of time as a document of the often overlooked, the ignored, the culturally deemed insignificant aspects of modern American society. Finally, the compulsory inquisitiveness generated by the in-your-face images of Bruce Gilden – photographs of Triads on the streets of the city, wearing suits and smoking cigarettes with a mixed reaction of surprise and arrogance.

What I mean to say is, while the above mentioned photographers are unequivocally important, their voices are not the only ones that matter. Photographers like Eli Reed, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and their contemporaries – Andre D. Wagner, Ruddy Roye, Lise Sarfati, and Chien-Chi Chang – have all been able to grasp onto their own success but are an exception.

Their voices, however, are magnificent and beautiful, poignant and descriptive. They show us a world that emanates with their experiences. Wagner’s photographs, poignant moments describing everyday life in Black America. His images – like the one of a young black girl holding the hand of a nun-like figure, looking back curiously at the photographer, while two older children, presumably her siblings, walk ahead with no regard to the scene unfolding behind them – famously capture what many Americans would otherwise ignore: Black America.

Photo by Andre D. Wagner
Photo by Andre D. Wagner

Wagner’s personal experience reflects throughout his images and provide us, the audience, an opportunity to reflect on what the Black experience is.

From Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s ongoing project, Empire that looks back on the remnants of the 200 years of British Empire that colonized the continent including Bangladesh in contemporary time. Photo by Sarker Protick / VII Photo
From Bangladeshi photographer Sarker Protick’s ongoing project, Empire that looks back on the remnants of the 200 years of British Empire that colonized the continent including Bangladesh in contemporary time. Photo by Sarker Protick ( / VII Photo

Ruddy Roye, another famous black photographer, uses portraiture, and the power of brief but intimate connections, to draw his audience into his images. A young black man dressed in a coat, wearing a hood, is standing in the middle of a cotton field with his hands up.

Photo by Ruddy Roye, selected by TIME as Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2016.
Photo by Ruddy Roye, selected by TIME as Instagram Photographer of the Year in 2016.

His eyes are locked onto the lens and pierce the image and make contact with my own. The image is a common trope – “hands up, don’t shoot” the protesters say. The cotton field in which the subject stands is a testament to not only the past of Black America, but also speaks pertinently to the now.

Old Man. from Ether, a photobook by hispanic photographer Joe Aguirre that explores the quiet moments, the in between, the parts of our experience that we just don’t seem to have words for. Photo by Joe Aguirre ( / Burn My Eye.
Old Man. from Ether, a photobook by hispanic photographer Joe Aguirre that explores the quiet moments, the in between, the parts of our experience that we just don’t seem to have words for. Photo by Joe Aguirre ( / Burn My Eye.

Lise Sarfati, with her beautifully poised project She, shows a side of humanity that is often ignored. The book is more than a project full of portraits of women. She is a testament to the female experience. By avoiding the common trap of depicting women in art as some form of Madonna, Sarfati draws the viewer in and allows them to experience, with her, this moment in these girls’ lives.

This working method is not unique, however, to this project. Across Sarfati’s bodies of work are the same themes and the same working process. Her approach is near-objective, save for her genuine interest in her subjects and their friendships, and it quickly becomes apparent that her intentions are pure. What Sarfati shows us is that her experiences, and the experiences of her subjects, are worthy. Her photography radiates with a certain stealth as she searches for the anchor in her subjects, the moments that speak to who they are and represent them, with little regard to the photographer’s agenda.

Part of an ongoing project by Italian photographer Sara Zanella documenting America Society that follows the direction of much of her other work focusing on travel as a catalyst to photograph the many cultures within a society. Photo by Sara Zanella (
Part of an ongoing project by Italian photographer Sara Zanella documenting America Society that follows the direction of much of her other work focusing on travel as a catalyst to photograph the many cultures within a society. Photo by Sara Zanella (

Finally, Chien-Chi Chang, a Taiwanese photographer and also a member of Magnum. Chang offers a very unique perspective in his photography. Shooting in a style that, until recently, has been disregarded as amateurish and unprofessional, Chang approaches his subjects and his projects with a kind of intensity that reflects life in Asia. Heavy contrast, shadows, reflections, slow shutters – all tools he uses to help convey a sense of restlessness that many experience. When looking at his work, I get the feeling that I’m right in the middle of the scene. My head is turning quickly as I try to comprehend all that is happening around me.

These images are quickly juxtaposed with his most recent publication, Jet Lag, which features calm and well-composed black and white images of travel. There’s a certain solitude in this work that you don’t find in Chang’s previous work that I think speaks to him at a point in his life. Is he spending less time in Asia? Is this Chang’s attempt to find peace in a world outside of what he has fervently photographed since the 1990s? The contrast we see between this work speaks to his unique point of view as an outsider. It speaks to what it is like to see the world from a Taiwanese point of view and helps the viewer to better understand the complexities of our world.

[Case Study 40154] - The Case Study project by Filipino photographer Mark Rosales is, by definition, a record of research in which detailed consideration is given. With this project, Rosales hopes to learn something from each photograph. Photo by Mark Rosales
[Case Study 40154] – The Case Study project by Filipino photographer Mark Rosales is, by definition, a record of research in which detailed consideration is given. With this project, Rosales hopes to learn something from each photograph. Photo by Mark Rosales (

But why must we reduce the accomplishments, the vision, of minority photographers to just one or two names to represent them all? True, it is, that the widespread availability of the photographic method has led to an uprising, regardless of race or ethnicity. Until recently, accessibility to professional photographic equipment was a major roadblock to the aspiring photographer. The high cost of materials along with the need for proper training on use of cameras, film and darkroom equipment built a barrier between those who could afford it and those who could not.

This image, taken by German photographer Sarah Pabst is part of a larger, ongoing body of work in which she examines Home, Family and WWII.  Photo by Sarah Pabst.
This image, taken by German photographer Sarah Pabst is part of a larger, ongoing body of work in which she examines Home, Family and WWII. Photo by Sarah Pabst.

What becomes obvious very quickly is that the demographic who was able to afford an interest in photography is the demographic who maintains most of the praise in the photography world still to this day. This creates a narrow perspective that is representative of only one experience. Even if photography were a truth-telling medium that exposed to us our world for what it really is, we cannot honestly believe that what we are shown speaks to the diverse reality of the billions of people on this planet. The single voice that demands we look at the world in one way is the same that, for thousands of years, has entrenched their dominance the world over.

But that way of thinking is no longer valid. With the democratization of photography – through mediums like Instagram and Snapchat – we have slowly started to zoom out and look at the world in a more interesting way. This willingness to understand the world around us from a less traditional approach will start to bridge the gap in our understanding of the “other”. Knowing that our experiences are each as vivid and intense as the person’s next to us provides us with compassion and empathy for their realities.

By recognizing the work of photographers who do not fit the standard “straight-white-male” demographic, we see the world in a truer way. There are many perspectives in the world, billions, and it is imperative to our society, in understanding the human condition, that we approach the world from as many as we can.

One point of view is not more valuable than another. We all live life with the same density of experience. –Teju Cole

You can find the archives of Alex Thompson’s column here.

About the author: Alex Thompson is a documentary photographer living in California’s Central Valley. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. His work focuses around environmental issues and the social consequences of environmental degradation. His work has been featured in publications like LA Weekly and The Guardian US and he is currently working on long term projects documenting the effect of extraction in Wyoming and life in communities along the SF Bay-Delta. You can find his work at or on Instagram @alexthompsonphoto.

Photo Essay: The Longest Train in India


If all journeys are teachers, it may well be that a journey to India is the greatest teacher of all. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Bizarre travel plans are dancing lessons from God,” and it was in search of a new dance that I purchased a one-way ticket on the longest train in India.


Timelapse video:

Indian Railways train #15906, the Dibrugarh-Kanyakumari Vivek Express, travels 4,273km as it winds its way from the north-eastern corner of Assam to the southernmost tip of mainland India, an 85-hour journey which gives it the prestigious title of the longest train in India, by both time and distance. It departs Dibrugarh at 10:45pm on Saturday and arrives in Kanyakumari at around 11am Wednesday, three days and 4 nights. The first part of the journey is in darkness, and making your bed and meeting your neighbours are the only activities. When the sun rises, the lovely hill station of Diphu, Assam slides by, shrouded in a light fog.

Train #15906 crosses Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu on its 4,273km journey
Train #15906 crosses Assam, West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu on its 4,273km journey

The train itself is 21 cars long, and fully loaded, carries over 1800 people, 3 or 4 times the capacity of a modern jetliner, or perhaps equal to the population of a small town. There are 4 classes of accommodation on the train: 2 and 3 tier AC (two or three levels of bunks), sleeper (also 3 tier, but no air conditioning) and unreserved (floor to ad hoc hammock… anything goes). There is also a pantry car with a kitchen, and various luggage and specialty cars, plus an electric locomotive.


Bathroom facilities are a bit grim, and you can forget about a proper shower. Tip: pack baby-wipes and hand sanitizer.

That sinking feeling...
That sinking feeling…

The conductor verifies my ticket, and I quiz him for trivia. He searches through the jumbled mass of loose paper in his lap, and it turns out I’m the only person doing the entire 4,273km trip, passengers or staff. I’m haunting #15906 on this run.


So, what is there to do for 85 hours on a train? No shortage of things, it turns out, especially shopping.


The train is plied by vendors and vagabonds of all kinds, at all hours. You can buy bracelets, batteries, or donate to a beggar, procure wristwatches, wicker-ware, a new wallet or mouthwash, invest in a cellphone, a bedsheet, a comb or a set of headphones, and purchase food ranging from bananas to biryani, eggs hardboiled or omelette-ized, idli, vada, tomato soup, water or chocolate, soft drinks (but no booze) and one hundred varieties of chaat…a cornucopia of snacks. The train is a rolling street market, complete with the odd acrobatic act tumbling deftly down the aisle, and occasionally punctuated by the two sharp claps of a hijra making her way through the coaches collecting alms.

But, most importantly, you can buy little cups of chai.

Tea number...uh...twenty-something...
Tea number…uh…twenty-something…

Tea is ritual in India, and doing garam garam chai shots on the train & platforms is a vital part of the experience. I was determined to track my chai consumption, but lost count in a caffeinated delirium about 48 hours in. Tip: a wallet full of 10 rupee notes is necessary preparation for adequate caffeination.

A snacks vendor prepares for a rolling disembarkation near Asansol, West Bengal. He made it look easy, but stepping off a moving train in flip-flops onto coarse gravel while balancing a tub of cookies on your shoulder is an art, without a doubt.
A snacks vendor prepares for a rolling disembarkation near Asansol, West Bengal. He made it look easy, but stepping off a moving train in flip-flops onto coarse gravel while balancing a tub of cookies on your shoulder is an art, without a doubt.
Combs, nail clippers, soap, peanuts or tea… these guys have you covered.
Combs, nail clippers, soap, peanuts or tea… these guys have you covered.
A young acrobat boarded the train at Jagiroad, Assam, performing an astonishing floor routine of tumbles and cartwheels down the aisle, hoping for donations.
A young acrobat boarded the train at Jagiroad, Assam, performing an astonishing floor routine of tumbles and cartwheels down the aisle, hoping for donations.
On the train you can: Eat...
On the train you can: Eat…
Drink tea...
Drink tea…
Watch...Charlie Chaplin movies?
Watch…Charlie Chaplin movies?
Look out the window...
Look out the window…
or just hang out, watching the world go by...
or just hang out, watching the world go by…


All that consumption produces a fair amount of garbage, and I was initially encouraged to discover that a cleaning crew swept through the train once a day. I wondered where all the collected refuse went, since there were no garbage receptacles, and sadly, the tracks are consistently and liberally littered with trash, for good reason:

Station stops are highlights, and increasingly familiar nods to fellow passengers waiting in the doorway as you pull into a new station herald conversation and new friends. If the train is a street market, train platforms are street markets on speed. Vendors have only minutes to sell as many cups of chai, samosas, idlies and vadas as possible, and the platforms are filled with as unique and varied a set of calls as any jungle.

Listen: Vendors at Vijayawada Junction, Andhra Pradesh

The romance of train travel is legendary, and while I think 85 hours might possibly be a tad long for a first date, the experience of Indian railways train #15906 definitely has its moments. I watched the three sunsets from the train door (where I spent an inordinate amount of time drinking tea and taking photos), and none failed to impress. Deep sleep eluded me for the duration in the cacophony of doppler horns, rattles and snores, so I was unfailingly at the door waiting for the sun to make her appearance each morning (the train travels so far south that the 3rd sunrise is 42 minutes later than the first).

Morning light at Asansol Railway Station, West Bengal
Morning light at Asansol Railway Station, West Bengal
7:07am, Trivandrum Central, Kerala
7:07am, Trivandrum Central, Kerala
Chaparmukh Junction, Assam
Chaparmukh Junction, Assam
Morning commute, Neyyattinkara, Kerala
Morning commute, Neyyattinkara, Kerala

It’s not all tasty snacks, misty mornings and romance however. Stations can be dirty, rough places, frequented by the homeless, crippled and desperately poor.

A boy begs for money between cars at Guwahati Junction, Assam
A boy begs for money between cars at Guwahati Junction, Assam
An amputee makes his way along the tracks outside Guwahati Junction, Assam
An amputee makes his way along the tracks outside Guwahati Junction, Assam

The largest employer in India with 1.4 million employees, Indian Railways is one of the largest railways in the world with over 115,000km or track over a route of 65,808km and 7,112 stations, carrying a staggering 23 million passengers a day, with freight and passenger revenues of US$24 billion. Rolling stock includes 10,499 locomotives and 66,392 passenger coaches. The infrastructure is gargantuan, and at times beautiful.

Where railway ties are born, outside Cuttack, Odisha
Where railway ties are born, outside Cuttack, Odisha
Evening on a trestle bridge across the Mahanadi River in Odisha
Evening on a trestle bridge across the Mahanadi River in Odisha


Indian railways is so large it has its own police force, the R.P.F., or Railway Protection Force. I’ve rarely felt unsafe on my 10 trips to India, but three soldiers toting sub-machine guns suddenly whipping back the curtains and stepping into my coupe to chat did give me a moment, I have to admit. Likely they were only there to quell the growing unrest due to the late appearance of the morning chai-wallah. Tip: photographing the RPF is frowned upon.

An RPF officer guards the door of the 3 tier AC car outside Diphu, Assam.
An RPF officer guards the door of the 3 tier AC car outside Diphu, Assam.

The train winds her way west through Assam on the first day, then south overnight through the Siliguri Corridor, or “Chicken’s Neck” , a thin strip of West Bengal at times only 20km wide between Nepal and Bangladesh that had my phone connecting to a Nepali cellular network for awhile. The second morning finds you in Dubrapur, West Bengal, crossing into Odisha after lunch, and passing through Srikakkulam in Andhra Pradesh as you prepare for bed.

Mr Upper Berth, Feb 2016, outside Cuttack, Odisha
Mr Upper Berth, Feb 2016, outside Cuttack, Odisha
A glimpse into a packed unreserved (aka Second Class) car at Vellore Railway Station, Tamil Nadu
A glimpse into a packed unreserved (aka Second Class) car at Vellore Railway Station, Tamil Nadu

Bustling Vijayawada Jn. in Andhra Pradesh, the 2nd busiest railway station in India (after Mumbai Central), greets you on the third morning, you lunch near Nellore, and pass into Tamil Nadu in time for afternoon tea, with the train angling west to cross into lush, coconut-laden Kerala overnight. The final sunrise of the trip arrives about 6:30am as you pass Thiruvananthapuram, and the almost empty train crosses back into Tamil Nadu about 8:15am for the final push south to Kanyakumari, finally gliding to a stop around 11am.

Train #15906 cruises ever southwards, less than 1 hour outside Kanyakumari
Train #15906 cruises ever southwards, less than 1 hour outside Kanyakumari
End of the line
End of the line

As far as dancing lessons go, it’s an an epic gambol across India ending in an appropriate location, as Kanyakumari takes its name from the Hindu goddess Devi Kanya Kumari, who removes the rigidity of mind, and is also home to a 40m tall statue of Tamil poet/philospoher Thiruvalluvar, who reminds us:

It is compassion, the most gracious of virtues,
Which moves the world.

Thiruvalluvar statue, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu
Thiruvalluvar statue, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu

About the author: Ed Hanley is a Toronto-based multi-dimensional artist – photographer, creator, performer, producer, cinematographer, recording engineer, video editor, writer, and tabla player. You can find more of his work on his website. This article was also published here.