As a photographer

As a photographer

in conversation

As a photographer

William Dalrymple is a writer, traveller and historian, and one of the co-directors and founders of the annual Jaipur Literature Festival. He is the author of several bestselling books, including Return of a King, White Mughals and Nine Lives. His latest book, The Writer’s Eye, revolves around a collection of photographs.

Curated by bestselling writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye photograph exhibition opened at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts, on March 18; and will be followed by shows at Vadehra Art Gallery in Delhi on March 29; and at the Grosvenor Gallery, London, in June.

How did you start writing?

My writing happened in college, and my first book came about when I was 21. I saw an announcement about a fund for research travel for the college’s medieval historians. I looked up in the library for the longest and most ambitious medieval journey I could think of following. So I applied for following the outward journey of Marco Polo, from Jerusalem to Kubla Khan’s Xanadu in Mongolia. The place names were the stuff of fantasy, and so, I felt sure, was the application.

 A month later, I received a letter and a cheque for the princely sum of £700. The expedition remains the most exhilarating I have ever undertaken: nothing I have done since, in half a lifetime of intense travel, has equalled the thrill of that 16,000-mile, three-month journey — walking, hitchhiking and bussing across Asia. It was also a journey that, in a very real sense, changed my life forever. My first book, In Xanadu: A Quest, was the result.

You’ve written on the history of art in India and in other Asian countries; on religions, and on travel and history. Which topic fascinates you most? Among your own books, which is your personal favourite?

I’m a man of many talents (laughs) and interests. Archaeology, history, various art forms, travel and many other subjects fascinate me. What I enjoy most is testing my artistic talents. Artists have the freedom to move and play around; to try and test things.

My most recent book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, is my favourite. It is about the First Anglo-Afghan War, which ended in Britain’s greatest military humiliation of the 19th century.

Which has been your most challenging project?

My biggest challenge has been raising funds for the Jaipur Literary festival.
No doubt the festival has grown, and writers are ready to support and participate. But getting adequate sponsors is an ongoing challenge.

The Writer’s Eye is your first book of photographs. You’ve taken photographs since a young age, and your photographs have accompanied the text in several of your books.

Apart from the convenience of your new Samsung Note, what made you return to photography in a major way?

My wife is an artist, and has been an encouraging influence. The idea for this book began from a casual conversation with my friend Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who suggested an exhibition of my photographs. I posted some of these photos on Facebook and
Instagram, and the response was great. The project took on a life of its own.

I’m a micro-manager for my books. But this book was not pre-planned. I was between books. These photographs are a record of my travels during that time. My camera phone freed me to just concentrate on the images. With it I could do things that were difficult with a big camera. With its complicated attachments, a big camera is too cumbersome and obtrusive. It makes you and your subjects self-conscious. The cell camera has this sneaky quality, letting it catch your subjects unawares. I captured whatever struck me, like the wild landscapes of Scotland; my home which I visit every year.

These are random images from my travels, from Leh to Lindisafarne, from the Hindu Kush to the Lammermuirs across the rolling hills south of Sienna; some of the world’s most remote places, especially in Central Asia. I’ll never forget the astonishing flight last year over the rib-cage of the Hindu Kush to Bamiyan, the dark slopes all etched in ice, each river valley white against the black granite of range after range of folding mountains. In the centre of the Pamirs, on the roof of the world mid-way from Kabul to Bamiyan, there are no signs of any habitation — it is a clear, empty, silent landscape lined with frozen crevice-skeletons of unmelted snow.
Certainly they have been inspired by the same travels and there are common themes — Mughal architecture, the ruins of Afghanistan, the domes of Golconda — but the photographs show, I think, a taste for the dark and remote, the moody and the atmospheric. My writing isn’t bleak or dark at all. I’m quite proud of the finished product.

Do you have any advice for budding art photographers?

Simply do it, go ahead and shoot what you like. Camera phones give you so much freedom. Photography should always be about the eye, not the equipment. It is the vision that counts, not the camera. The Internet is a democratic forum where you can post your photos and get spontaneous feedback.

Have you considered writing fiction?

No. I’m clear about my choice to continue with non-fiction. My talents are not of a novelist, and I’m happy with what I do. I’m interested in the real word, in giving order to chaos in photographic images; of discovering and artistically conveying the threads that bind facts together.

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox