Fish In The Filter

Waves, sea cliffs and mist on the north shore of the island of M
Waves, sea cliffs and mist on the north shore of the island of Molokai, Hawaii.


The massive cumulonimbus clouds ripe with rain were well over a month away from rolling atop the blue hills of the Western Ghat mountain range in Tamil Nadu and enveloping the region in the mist of monsoon.  My pet project for the dry season at the photographic college where I was teaching was to insure that the students in black and white darkroom of were receiving clean water in which to process their negatives.  During the wet season, the school harvested rain from the rooftops of its buildings into a massive tank from where the water was piped into all the darkrooms.  During dry season, the school was forced to truck in water from a less than clean source, which led to all kinds of problems with the emulsion of the student’s images, and all kinds of headaches for grading their film fairly.

I initially approached the problem of filtering the water by procuring the purchase of a number of cone filters.  In America, this system would have worked brilliantly to remove any small bits of sediment, and was in fact used by many photo labs in which I had developed film.  Unfortunately the mud brown water the academy was receiving from the tanker truck would clog the cone filters within a couple of days causing an enormous drop in water pressure in the lab and it soon became apparent that maintaining this filtration system was untenable.  As a stop gap solution, I had a huge pack of coffee filters shipped from the USA for my students to pre filter their lab water before processing their film.  This method worked reasonably well, but was to dependent on a resource not locally available, and I knew I had to find another solution.

As my frustration and emotional investment in fixing the water situation grew, my options for solving it seemed to narrow.  I searched the internet, and spoke with friends all to no avail until halfway through the dry season, a newly hired office manager offered a brilliant idea.  He suggested building a series of tanks that would allow the dirty water to flow, at a slow rate, between a series of successive concrete settling tanks.  Gravity would act as the filter forcing the sediment plaguing the students in the darkroom to settle to the bottom of each successive tank, until the last tank contained nothing but crystal clear water.  Nothing happens quickly in India, but the simple, smart, low cost idea did come to fruition a few months later and a smile spread across my face every time I visited the students in the lab and saw the crystal clear water in their beakers where the mud brown liquid used to be.

One morning, not long after the completion of the sediment filter, I was in the lab preparing to develop some of my own film when I noticed a pungent fishy smell coming from the tap.  Perplexed, I closed the faucet and wandered up the hill to the series of settling tanks, where I found, much to my great chagrin, they were filled with hundreds of floating dead fish.  I sat, jaw open in awe, until I saw, in clear movie montage in my mind, what must have led to the fish in the filter.
Some four hundred yards away on the grounds of the school lay a fish pond.  It was built as a place of solace for the students to relax and enjoy the beautiful view of the mountains that the grounds afforded.  Without any rain to replenish the pond during the dry season, its level had been steadily dropping over the past months leaving less and less water for the fish to live.  In my minds eye, I saw the image of the schools gardener, in an act of compassion, bucketing the fish out of the nearly evaporated pond and transporting them over to my filter.  Unfortunately for the fish, the filter had a corrugated metal lid that was placed over top to prevent debris from falling in, and that lid was enough to cause the water temperature to rise to a deadly soup for the fish.  In the act of trying to save them, the gardener had condemned them to a quick death.

No sooner had I seen this montage my mind, than I burst out laughing.  I laughed like a maniac back to my office, and when fellow faculty member Rudy Loupias asked what was going on, I could only point up the hill and manage the words “check out the filter” before I burst into another fit of merriment.  Months and months of planning, fighting loosing sleep for this filter, and all the gardener had seen was not a brilliant sediment filter, but a five tank fish pond.  I had to let it all go, and laughter was the chariot that loosed my holding on.

How often do I as a photographer put myself in the same predicament with my images, as I did with the filter?  I labor and plan a story, research and think through how to best execute a shot.  I carry my gear and my knowledge sometimes half way around the world to the place of maximum potential and click the shutter at the right moment.  After the shoot, there are heart wrenching decisions.  Do I choose this photo, or that?  Which image captures the idea that I wish to communicate?  In other words, I put my heart and soul into creating an image and when the image is published, I want the world to recognize and congratulate me on my fine execution of the photo or photo story.  However, just as the gardener saw a fish tank where I saw a filter, once the images are in the world how they are perceived has nearly nothing to do with me and everything to do with my audience.

Recently I was on the phone with a family member who saw an image on my website that they liked.  It was a landscape I was quite proud of producing and the family member was talking me into giving them a print.  I asked where they planned on hanging it – and they said ‘Oh its just perfect for my bathroom!’  I was momentarily offended as my mind raced through the sacrifices I’d made for this print to hang as bathroom art, until I remembered the gardener, and the fish in the filter, and laughed to myself and let it go.