SEEING THE LIGHT

In a distant corner of Ladakh, they have never had electricity—but they do have sunshine, which is now being turned into electric power. Duncan McKenzie tells Rahul Bhattacharya how he captured our latest photo essay

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Duncan McKenzie had never encountered light so clear: maybe the morning light of the tropical latitudes years ago when he was sailing across the Atlantic. But out in the crazy high-altitude moonscape of Ladakh (see slideshow), the light was "so pure, so strong, it had an almost sterilising quality," he says. "It was like seeing things for the first time."

McKenzie, 41, is an English commercial photographer who had come to disagree with Dr Johnson’s contention that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. He was seeking something inexact, something wild and remote, a human story set against a landscape. He had wanted to visit Ladakh since his first trip to India as a 19-year-old. When he arrived in its capital, Leh, after "an epic journey" across the Himalayan ranges, "it was dusk, a redness like Mars". The next morning, he found "clarity and luminosity everywhere".

If McKenzie had seen the light, so too, in quite another way, had Ladakh, now home to one of the world’s largest renewable-energy projects. In areas too removed for the national grid, but blessed with over 300 days of sunshine a year, communities were being exposed for the first time to continuous electricity. One evening, as power came and went in a hotel room in Leh, an engineer from a Delhi-based consultancy ("lying in his bed in his pale-blue socks") told McKenzie about Shayok. It was a beautiful village, a pilot for the solar project, and about to be introduced to satellite television.

McKenzie hired a motorbike and went there unannounced, to the puzzlement of the lady who ran the only shop in the village. She was the headman’s wife. The family took him in, an act of generosity that made his stay there the highlight of his six months in India. On his second evening, he found a man disembowelling a dead sheep in a corner of the room, to make the Ladakhi speciality of blood sausages with barley flour. McKenzie ate it gratefully, even though he is a vegetarian.

With a pair of English-speaking brothers as his fixers and translators, McKenzie documented Shayok’s changing days and nights. Outdoors, beneath the snow peaks, the rows of new solar panels dazzled blue, "all facing south, like sunflowers out of sync". Inside homes, he shot the first television evenings in the village; the children, who had never seen violence before, were moved to tears by scenes from a Hindi film. The texture of these interiors, the gleam of utensils, the colours on wooden panellings and carpets, are frozen in an atmospheric television glow, which McKenzie amplified by placing a flash-box covered with blue gel film on top of the set.

One gorgeous frame offered itself when McKenzie, drinking home-made barley beer with his guides, stepped out into the backyard to pee. A silvery indigo moonlight falls over the mountains and turns the valley into a fairy-tale. In the foreground are the small lights of a shack: the house of the TV-watching children. The familiar wonder of electricity is made magical again.

In another image, a stunning panorama shot from the balcony of a monastery, you can see a green oasis amid the bare brown spread. There the village school, though not discernible, has a solar installation. The photograph was taken far from Shayok, on a trek in the western region of Zanskar, which was to McKenzie the "ultimate remoteness".

"I can’t stress enough", he says, "that the whole thing about the solar project in Ladakh is purely because of the remoteness, and the landscape pictures show that remoteness and scale." For some of these pictures he would frame up and wait for people to animate them. "It’s like a stage set and I’m predicting what some actors might do." He found that the harshness of late-morning or early-afternoon light, usually the worst to shoot in, could suit the drama of colours and patterns.

The landscape in these photographs is so unexpected as to be bewildering. Are those flowers strewn across a sandpit, you wonder, glancing at an expanse of speckled orange, or just a peculiar rug? And then the elements reveal themselves: a winding path, a pony, human stick figures. McKenzie took the picture from across a gorge. The orange tufts are dry bushes (it was October, autumn) that villagers uproot and roll downhill towards their homes, one bush gathering into the next, for animal fodder in winter.

It is McKenzie’s favourite picture of the set. "It’s just so graphic. The symmetry, with the grey stripe running across. I love to photograph symmetrically from the side. All my best work is done like that, sort of anally lined up. There is no distraction, only the narrative."

When photography is going well, he says, it becomes a physical process. “I’m only really thinking about my eye muscles. I’m scanning and looking and I’m waiting for something to fall in place, and when it does my eye will twitch and that’s the same moment that my finger presses. It’s where you see what you’re hoping to see."

Picture: The sky and mountains glint off the solar panels which have transformed life in Shayok. Like most remote Ladakhi communities, Shayok, a village of 26 families at an altitude of 3,640 metres, is not connected to India’s electricity grid

Rahul Bhattacharya is a novelist based in Delhi. His book "The Sly Company of People who Care" won the 2011 Hindu Literary prize and the 2012 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize