Opening a new photo tour is a lot of work. Fun yes, interesting of course, but a lot of work nevertheless. I know, poor us! Our Luminous India photo trip was no exception. I always tell myself going in that ‘this time’ I’ll keep copious notes intended to make the writing process for the blog much easier, once I get around to it. But I am a horrible note taker. So here I shall have to retrieve the details from the foggy corners of my cluttery skull, and translate whatever I can uncover onto this here page.
Our original intention back in 2016 (this is an updated post) was to arrive in March during the Holi Festival, 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 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. (This was accomplished!) 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 starting with the most fascinating.
First, you’ll want to have a fixer, as you will throughout India. Preferably that’s Luminous Journeys! The main photo subjects are along the Ganges River, but there are plenty hidden opportunities as well. Fixers don’t only help you find photo ops – they grease the skids of everything else that can be time wasting, money losing, and mentally exhausting! Without one – a good and honest one – your trip will very likely be much less rewarding photographically, and otherwise. 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 and time consuming.
Thank Shiva we will normally have Swarup Chatterjee with us on tour, 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. The same can be said for our Guidemaster, Vikas the Great! Despite the underperformance of our Varanasi fixer on this research trip, 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 photograph 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. 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 burning ghats. We wanted permission to access the cremation area and take photographs, which is 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 one of these days.
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. Our often repeated refrain on these trips is, “Never take ‘no’ for an answer.” We keep pushing if turned away or denied and look for another contact, another way. And more often than not, we end up successful.
There is much to shoot in Varanasi beyond Manikarnika. We’ll finish up with that in PART 2 of Opening India, as well as get into the Holi Festival as it happens in the Braj. Please note that this year (2021) we are bypassing the late starting Holi Festival and going to the remarkable Ranthambore Tiger Reserve instead.
To be continued…