Photographing Varanasi at dawn
You can see more of my work on Varanasi here
I have spent years traveling to Varanasi, India. From my particular experience it is one of the destinations that I consider the most unpredictable for a photographer. And yes, that’s were I will be, again on my next India Photo Tour. It is here where I took the photo that won (then lost) the first prize in the National Geographic Photo Competition in 2012, and where I took the photo that made me a finalist at the Sony World Photo Awards in 2013.
After the first ten minutes a visitor begins to comprehend the disorder of Varanasi (the chaos, mashing together of opposing smells, sounds, cars and scooters blurring by) that accompanies them throughout their stay. The city is a concentration of all the most magnificent excesses of the country.
I used to put myself up right on the bank of the Ganges, away from the center of the mob of tourists and their activities. It is there where everything photographically interesting happens in Varanasi: pilgrims, shamans, cows, holy men and sometimes a very lost tourist will drift my way.
Here in Varanasi, we normally begin at the very first hour of daylight, in and around 5am, just before dawn, in the moment called ‘the blue light’. The priests convene with the worshipers for the rite of Arati, which is the perfect excuse for an official to set fire to a streak of petrol streaming from a small vessel, which begins to draw luminous scarlet figures against the backdrop of the still-dark sky.
You can visit the published series “Life Along the Ganges” where you could possibly approach the atmospere of Varanasi and the essence of India
What we are going to photograph is the devotion of the faithful accompanied by hymns, bathing in the river, floral offerings with the petals set alight, fiery streaks floating and grouping, drawing entire universe along the dark water of the Ganges.
It is all incredibly photogenic.
This is real low light photography where the tripod becomes an almost indispensible boon. You need to use every luminous object as much as possible. But for certain you have to have interest and patience both as well as a keen eye, but you can get magnificent results if you do with just about any camera.
A rowboat comes close to the bank and drifts by the line of observing devotees and tourists, who are contemplating the scene from terra firma.
The occasional wayward goat or sacred cow, distracted by its appetite, joins the scene eating the flowers that have been left by the devotees on small altars as offerings. No one stops the animals from eating them, though.
We stay, the travel photographers I have brought on the photo tour with me, and myself, taking pictures of the river until the sun breaks free of the horizon and lights up the landscape. And in this instant we photograph, immutable, women and men both half naked and immersed in both the water and their bathing ritual.
A Photographic Breakfast
When things calm down after the ritual, we make our way over towards the Ghats. From where we are, it takes us about thirty minutes to reach the Gath where we’ll sit and have breakfast, in an hotel attic with a view of the Ganges. We breakfast slowly, enjoying the scenes as the first light of morning welcomes fishermen, washer women to work, and children out to play in the streets.
Now it is about nine in the morning and the predicted thing happens; the tourists have started to show up. It is time for use to go to our hotel. Only a few more enthusiastic members of the tour choose to stay on and explore. Others go with me to rest and prepare for the next photographic adventure coming later in the morning: a lost riverside temple, where the light sparkles off the petals floating down Ganges.