Opening India – Behind the Scenes, Pt. 1

Opening a new photo tour is a lot of work. Fun yes, interesting of course, but a lot of work nevertheless. Our Luminous India photo trip was no exception. As I have done for each new rollout, I will do the same for the India photo tour, and write a multi-part article about the process and some of the happenings on the ground. I always tell myself going in that ‘this time’ I’ll keep copious notes intended to make the writing process much easier once I get around to it. But I never do! Maybe next time – in Bhutan – I’ll remember! But here I shall have to retrieve the details from the foggy corners of my cluttery old skull, and translate whatever I can uncover onto this here page.

David Lazar with sadhus in Varanasi while researching for Luminous Journeys India photo tour.
David Lazar and Sadhu Friends in Varanasi, India, 2017

Our intention was to arrive in March during the Holi Festival (which takes place in February in 2018) but unfortunately photographer David Lazar was not available. So we arrived in April, during the HOT season! Especially hot in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. David got into Delhi from Australia a day before I did from Thailand, so he and our stellar guide Vikas Kumar of Ekno Travels, met me at the airport. Once over at the domestic terminal with a few hours to kill, it was time for lunch, a pitcher of beer and some Luminous India photo tour conversation…

Security was a big topic. Not that we would be in danger for our lives, but that we would be in danger of not having the kind of free access for photography we were used to in previous trips to this phantasmal land. Varanasi would not be a problem, which was good news. But some of our creative plans for the Taj Mahal would be dashed, and alternatives would need to be found.

Rajasthan looked to be fine, as long as we could locate the right stepwells and a large tract of private dunes and avoid the crowds that would be in the main tourist areas of the desert next February. Finding good models for our arranged interior fort shoots – as well as free use of certain photogenic areas – would be a challenge. We are well-experienced at this, but in India things are done differently. Quite a bit differently!

The biggest challenge for this India photo adventure was soon apparent – Holi Festival in the Braj region. Specifically in the small towns of Barsana and Nandgaon where the most intense action anywhere in the country happens. For starters, nobody of many we queried seemed to be 100% sure about next year’s dates, and scheduling the entire tour was dependent on those dates! There will be much more to learn and say about our adventures with Holi as the research trip – and this article – progresses.

Let’s go city by city.


Let Varanasi be a lesson to all you photographers thinking about going it on your own someday. First, you’ll want to have a fixer, as you will throughout India. Without one – a good and honest one – your trip will be much less rewarding photographically. There are some places in the world where you can wing it, and if you have enough time and money, do pretty well on your own. But not here. It’s not impossible, but it would be unnecessarily difficult.

Thank Shiva we will have Swarup Chatterjee on tour with us in February 2018, who knows Varanasi like the back of his camera and doesn’t play games. He knows precisely how to get things done and goes after it with the kind of tenacious politeness that is required in India. Despite the underperformance of our fixer, we still managed to get a lot done, including choosing one of the precious few nice hotels right on the Ganges for the tour.

One of the most fascinating and yet difficult to photographic places in Varanasi is the cremation ghats, where a succession of dead bodies have been burning non-stop for a thousand years or more. But time is running out it seems. The new prime minister, Modi, is on a quest to clean the country up. With the Ganga being one of the most polluted rivers on the planet – he has actually had it declared as a living being with the inherent right of persons not to be abused by other persons! And so serious plans are underway to cleanse the legendary Ganges, including installing modern crematoriums. There is already one built and operating a bit downriver from Manikarnika, which is the main burning ghat. It seems Manikarnika is next, and so this mind blowing scene that’s been in operation for millennia, is planned to be modernized. Like most things in India though, nobody seems to know when, or even if it’s certain to happen.

Lazar and I met with the local dalit (untouchable) who manages the ghats. We wanted permission to access the cremation area and take photographs, which is strictly prohibited. There are two ways to get permission. Find the right guy and pay baksheesh on site, which is quite expensive for about 30 minutes of access, or go to the local magistrate and give him a compelling reason to grant you access. I have done it both ways. I prefer the magistrate, as it’s not only free, but official and above board. He also sends police protection for you, so the locals don’t assault you or your camera. Once they know you have permission though, nobody seems to care, not even the families of the dead. They are solely focused on the ritual and the beauty of their loved one’s souls finding salvation in the fires of moksha on the banks of the Mother Goddess.

On this occasion the ghat manager was our protection, and he stood watching us where everyone could see him. When someone said something, we just pointed at him and all was fine. Three bodies were burning or being prepared to burn in the central area. I got right into the mix, up close in the searing heat and smoke, while Lazar took a more distant approach. It’s not for everyone, but being a documentary photographer as opposed to a fine art guy, I felt right at home. It was a fascinating shoot, even if no great images came of it. One would need to work this scene multiple times to get it done right, and to date I don’t think it’s ever been done. I’ll put together an essay of my modest efforts soon.


In the early evening we took to the river in a boat to position in front of Manikarnika. The idea was to wait for Blue Hour to capture the bodies aflame against the temple backdrop and hopefully perfect blue hour sky. But it was not to be. From grey sky to dwindling fires to laundry drying and blocking part of the view, the scene just never materialized in way that could be compellingly captured.

That’s part of the process of putting together and essential shot list for any new photo tour. Some things work out, some things don’t. And through a sometimes painstaking process of time and spent energy, you discover and keep what works best and forget about what doesn’t. And with the best photo tours, even ones that have been running in the same locations for years, this process never stops. You keep your eyes open, keep your contacts working, and keep your tour evolving and refining. The rest – which is most – are the cookie cutter photo tours you want to avoid.

There is much to shoot in Varanasi beyond Manikarnika. And we’ll get it into some of that in future posts. In PART 2 of Opening India, we’ll move on to Agra and the Taj Mahal.

To be continued…