The picture I didn’t take

by Ricky Toledano

It was of a little girl walking on a make-shift, not-so-tight rope, 2m above the ground. Swinging so swiftly on the rope from side to side, she looks as if about to break dance, but she balances with a cane of bamboo as if motionless, completely secure, even when moving as the fastest of pendelums. It is a movement so incredible to that I order our cab to halt. We had almost arrived at our destination in the old city and could easily walk the rest of the way, but I simply had to see the streetside act and contribute to the money pot below what seemed to me a six-year-old girl on the dusty ground. 

When we get out of the car, she is already walking backwards on the rope and then forwards, artfully stepping a bicycle tyre frame across the rope. She looks as if cycling. Her face seems expressionless, but it is hard to see her behind the oversized sunglasses and sequin-studded ball cap that is also too big for her. They create a contrast in the bright light of noon that shade her face. I am quite certain her braided pigtails, like antenna on each side of her head, help her balance. Her t-shirt and jeans do not have the comically smart attitude of her hat. They are very grubby, just like her chapped feet.

“They are doing this for food, bhai. Let’s help them,” said my great friend, leaning into my ear.  I was already digging in my bag for my wallet, while awestruck. My dropped jaw surprised my friend, “You mean to tell me you’ve never seen this before?”

“Never! I’ve never seen something like this before!”

“But they also have them in Delhi. You’ve never seen them in Chandni Chowk on Sundays?” He asked me, incredulous.

The girl’s instructor must be a teen-age relative. He is just as shabbily dressed as she is, except that he wears a Muslim taqiyah hat. There is another, older youth standing in full white kurta-pajama and skull cap, operating what we used to call a boom box. He changes songs for the little girl’s acts. The starkness of his white dress against the backdrop canvass of cement, dust and terra cotta would be eye-catching, if were not for the amazing talent of the little girl, who at such a young age has an astounding dominion of breath, mind and body that even the motorcycles passing by stop and lean over to drop coins in the pot. On the other side of the street, a small crowd of all ages has gathered. We have joined them, and I have taken my turn, like a few others, who have shyly dashed across the street between breaks of cars and motorbikes to deposit money in the pot.

It is impossible she concenrate with all this movement around her! I think. If she falls?

“These kids are all over India, bhai. They have so much talent! I wish I could take them all, have them trained professionally… no one could stop them! They would fly!” 

My fingers were itching to get that shot of the girl on the rope, but I hesitated.  It will remain the one picture I would have liked to have taken, but didn’t. I couldn’t. I simply refrained. Others might have jumped at the chance to capture her. I do not judge them; it’s just that I simply couldn’t. Although it was a public display, there was something that made me uneasy about capturing her. I can’t really explain why.

Two days later and in another city, I am still thinking about the little girl and why I didn’t take the shot. I think it has to do with not knowing exactly what I wanted to frame — what I would frame — before giving it the limitation of four borders. I would be saying something about a scene I had witnessed without knowing exactly what. It would be a kind of insincerity.  A real photographer cannot vascillate like that. 

Sipping chai on a cool morning, remembering a portrait of a little girl I’ll never forget, I cannot help but to think, Maybe words are worth a thousand pictures. 

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A native of Chicago, Ricky Toledano has lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for over twenty years as a writer, translator and teacher. [a]multipicity is multi-lingual collection of reflections through the humanities.

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