By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
Sometimes a photo leaves you speechless, no matter the thousand words its worth.
A stunned December silence greeted Matt Brandon's first-ever photo exhibit at the Cultural Activities Center in Temple. The curator used just one word to describe the mood.
'Shocked,' said Marilyn Ritchie, CAC curator and visual arts director. 'People were shocked. Nobody expected his work to be so beautiful.'
Six of Brandon's photos were sold.
'It's not usual for people to buy that many photos at an exhibit,' Ms. Ritchie said. 'Two or three, maybe, but not five and six. That's a lot.'
People don't buy photographs as frequently as they purchase paintings and sculptures, the longtime curator said.
'For some reason, people don't see photographs as art, but (Brandon's) photos - you look at them, and you know they're art,' Ms. Ritchie said. 'I've never seen a photo exhibit be received so well.'
Borrowing a term from photography, the exhibit was called 'Catchlight.'
A portrait of a young Indian girl, 'Gujjar Smile,' inspired the title, Brandon said, because of how well 'her eye catches the light.'
'If you focus on her eye, you can see the reflection of everything in front of her,' Brandon said. 'The sky, the mountains and the rocks I'm standing on as I take her picture. It's beautiful.'
In the eye's mirror, the photo takes on a second story.
'It's no longer just about the girl, her looks and her clothing,' Brandon said. 'It's also about a secret - the world in her eyes.'
Catchlight is the phenomenon that makes humans in art seem lifelike.
'It's the gleam in people's eyes,' Brandon said. 'The sparkle of reflection.'
Without it, Brandon said people would appear dull and two-dimensional.
'Catchlight is what makes a good photo,' Brandon said.
That's a lesson he learned from studying the images of Steve McMurry, the National Geographic photographer known for his portrait 'The Afghan Girl.' (McMurry's work, coincidentally, is on display at the Waco Art Center through March 30.)
'Every one of his good photographs has that catchlight,' Brandon said. 'So I use that as my goal. I try to capture it in everything I do.'
'Anybody can take pictures of dirt,' Brandon said. 'It takes a good photographer to find joy in the midst of the dirt.'
The photographer was talking about the Philippines.
'That's a region known for its dirt and filth,' Brandon said. 'You don't see that in my work. I'm about showing dignity. People have trust in me as they allow me to photograph them. I'm not out to exploit.'
This principle is important to him, Brandon said, as he explained that his forte is 'capturing the moment of a person in his or her everyday life.'
His favorite subjects are the people who live in the Gujjar region of India.'They're a shepherding people,' Brandon said. 'They just want the world to know they exist.'
One of his Gujjar photos is of a woman kneeling before a brightly colored mosque. To the right of the woman, a sign read, 'Non Muslims and ladies, do not proceed beyond this point.'
'I want to show how life is - without judgment,' Brandon said.
Another Gujjar photo shows a pair of Indian newlyweds on their honeymoon in India. Both man and wife are smiling as they embrace each other.
'Only in a new marriage is it OK for Indian couples to show public displays of affection,' Brandon said. 'They caught my attention in a restaurant. They were so cute, hugging and petting each other.'
The photographer urges people to shed their own cultural values and ideas as they look as his work.
'I'm challenging people to look beyond their world - to the vast expanse of culture around us,' Brandon said. 'We attribute value to things that are different from us, so often we say it's wrong or stupid when most of the time, it's just different. No better, no worse. I'm not speaking about moral issues, I'm speaking about culture - the way we live, look and work.'
He calls himself an entrepreneur with a flair for photography.
'I got a degree in photography from a college in Kentucky,' Brandon said. 'But I never really did anything with it.'
What he did do was start his own business - Frontier Treks and Tours, a company that offers guided backpack tours through the Himalayan Mountains in Kashmir.
Brandon relocated from Kashmir to Temple in February 2006 after more than a decade of managing his business.
Central Texas is home base for the photographer and his family. Waco is where he met his wife.
It was India, though, that reopened the businessman's eye for photography.
'India was where all the beautiful images were,' Brandon said. 'But it was hard to get film processed there.'
Santa took care of that problem and gave him a digital camera.
'I had the freedom to explore,' Brandon said. 'Images were free. I didn't have to depend on film to see them.'
Once Brandon's interest in photography was rekindled, he started surfing the Internet for 'anything about photos and cameras.'
'I came across the Travel Photography Network,' Brandon said. 'I got a lot of good critique, and there was a good catalogue of images to study.'
Then he met the owner of an image stockhouse in Kashmir. (Image stockhouses sell photos to businesses needing images for advertisements.)
'He looked at my work and said he loved it,' Brandon said. 'He wanted to know if he could represent me. 'Sure,' I said.'
Ads from businesses like Honda Motors started to showcase his work. Brandon said he saw his pictures just about everywhere in Kashmir - on bulletin boards, newspapers, Web sites and posters.
In Dec. 2004, the BBC (British Broadcasting Co.) bought rights to Brandon's photographic coverage of the infamous tsunami that killed thousands.
In the tragedy's aftermath, when so many people were left homeless, a non-profit organization hired Brandon as a contract photographer. Partner Aid International wanted him to take pictures of the low-cost housing structures it was building for tsunami victims. (PAI is one of many non-profit groups that have hired Brandon as a photographer).
Then, last year, Brandon's work caught the eye of an Indian publishing company, Bhari and Sons of New Delhi.
'The publisher asked me if I would provide the images for a book called 'Kashmir: The Mystery.' There was no way I was going to say no.'
The publishers said the book is available for purchase in India, but Brandon has not yet been able to obtain a copy for review.
Since coming home to Temple, Brandon hasn't just been relaxing.
NeighborWorks of Waco, a non-profit group that seeks to provide affordable housing for low-income families, has hired him twice to take pictures of mission activities for publicity newsletters and grant applications.
'I am very impressed with the quality of his work,' said Roy Nash, executive director. 'He catches the spirit of people beautifully.