David Abram rediscovers a subject of one of his favourite photos – and gains an understanding of the power of photography
I never knew her name, but I've never forgotten her face. Framed by a wool hat, seed-pearl earrings and necklace of turquoise and coral, it has gazed down at me for the past 15 years from my studio wall: my own Himalayan Mona Lisa.
The photo was taken in 1998 in Zanskar, a remote mountain region of north-west India. I'd walked there in mid-winter along a frozen river – 'Chadar', as the locals call it. The trip had been gruelling, terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. By the end I was a stone lighter and had a belly-full of bugs, which is how I came to be convalescing in Karsha, the first major village you come to after the ice finishes, in a room that looked across to an astounding wall of saw-tooth peaks.
I spent a sunny week staring at those views, between long bouts of tea drinking in the family's soot-blackened kitchen. Keeping me company was a young Zanskari woman, a sister-in-law of my host family who, as she explained in halting Hindi, had recently lost her husband and had come with her two toddlers to live in his ancestral home.
Despite lacking a language in common, we passed many pleasant hours together. When the day came for me to leave I asked if I could take their picture.
The portraits took forever to set up on my wobbly tripod. I had to bracket each one half a dozen times because the batteries in my old Olympus OM-in were dead. 1 never expected to capture a presentable image, let alone one that conveyed the mother's beauty, dignity and grace at what must have been a painful time in her life. But I got lucky.
Ever since, I've wanted to send copies to the family, and always imagined I'd one day take them myself. But I now have children of my own and can't see it happening, for a while anyway. So when my friend – Andrew Lubran, of the motorcycle tour company Livelndia – announced he was heading to the region to recce a new route, I asked if he'd find room in his panniers for a couple of framed photos.
Months passed and I'd completely forgotten about the request, when one day an email arrived from Andrew. He'd indeed found the lady and her now teenage children, still alive and well in Karsha.
The first photo he presented to them, wrapped in a Buddhist white silk scarf, was of the kids. Not having ever seen an image of them when they were small, Mum was rendered speechless. Her eyes filled with tears, which flowed down her cheeks when she opened the second photo to see a picture of her youthful self staring back. The teenagers were, apparently, aghast at the spectacle of her unlined face.
In this era of instant imaging, smart phones and online galleries, it's easy to forget what a miracle photography is.
I'm delighted these photos now hang on the family's wall in Karsha. But one thing continues to trouble me. I still don't know the lady's name – a good enough excuse to return myself one day.
David Abram is a regular Wanderlust contributor and has written the Rough Guides to India and Corsica.