Once there, I was glad that I had gone alone. It was a remarkable experience of my life, an experience that merited some silent meditation. I believed then, and I believe now, you cannot go through an exhibition like that without an internal shift. Something changed within me.
There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world and the child's name is All Children.
Steichen traveled to eleven countries, assiduously collecting 500 photographs from 300 photographers of seventy countries, essentially telling the story of ordinary people living ordinary lives through ordinary experiences: being born, growing up as children, playing in streets, eating with the family, working in the field and in factories, suffering pain and affliction, losing relatives, enduring war and hardship, facing old age and death. The interlocking story was of a human being, whatever the age and gender, striving and struggling, braving and living and succumbing and braving in every land.
The exhibition ran in the US for a record fifteen weeks, then, with government support, toured the world for eight years, in 37 countries in six continents, even the USSR where it evoked wide response from young people (it did not go to Franco’s Spain and Mao’s China). In India, the exhibition travelled to seven cities including Kolkata.
I was spellbound. It was my first exposure to what great photography can be. It was, I realized, not just a pressman’s tool or a wedding photographer’s instrument, to record a gesticulating politico or an overdressed bride, but a powerful artist’s paintbrush, to offer a perspective, clarify a vision, tell a story, and, in the best of cases, change our eyes and our life. Like a soldier’s gun, it can kill an illusion or an inset prejudice; like a surgeon’s scalpel, it can remove an obstruction and help us to see an extraordinary, unwonted truth.
I had so far thought very poorly of photography as an art form, compared to music or painting and certainly to literature. I was tired of kitschy depictions of sunsets, boats on rivers and blooming flowers in overstocked gardens. The exhibition showed me a completely different use of the medium. To tell us, succinctly and without pretension, the magnificent story of life, in all its beauty and ugliness. To help us uncover, without a word and in utter silence, the meaning of the unending flurry of human events that pass in front of us, often unregarded. It made a child’s laughter or a mother’s despairing look an unforgettable anthem of every family’s story.
I was seeing the masters. There was Diane Arbus, with her shocking representation of mentally ill and transgender people, Robert Capa and Mathew Brady showing us the incalculable human ravages of war, the fashion photographer Richard Avedon uncovering the faces behind the masks, Alfred Eisenstaed, capturing a sailor kissing a nurse on Victory Day, W. Eugene Smith who masterminded the idea of a photo essay, Andreas Feininger trapping the soul of a city in his film, Margaret Bourke White whose shot of Gandhi still adorns India’s stamps (and who, incidentally, took the best photo of my girlfriend) and the Frenchman who was to become my idol, Henri Cartier Bresson, telling heart-wrenching stories with every photo shoot. There was too a touching still from Ray’s Apu trilogy.
I later found that Susan Sontag had criticized the show as overly sentimental and Roland Barthes had commented that showing people being born and dying tell us little. No matter. The exhibition went on to inspire thousands, who felt in some way that it was telling their story. In that sense, Steichen was right in saying that, when people looked at the photos, the faces in the photos looked back at them, and there was a sense of instant recognition.
Even artists and photographers felt inspired. Ten years later, the German magazine Stern sponsored a giant exhibition similar in theme. Twenty years later, the UN sponsored an exhibition on The Family of Children. There have been retrospectives and exhibitions on women, on marginal groups and even an exhibition called The Family of Invisibles. They have highlighted the agonies of neglected and marginalized groups.
I know better what happened to me. I devoted five years to photography, learning its myriad techniques and loving the strange new world it unfolded for me. I became no more than a proficient photographer. But it did something more. I learned to see.