Varanasi India and the Within the Frame Workshop

I just got back from leading a Within the Frame Workshop to India. We went to some of my favorite places–Old Delhi, Jodhpur, Bundi, but, a personal highlight was returning to the sacred and ancient city of Varanasi.

I had been to Varanasi back in 2006. I loved it then, spent 6 days and felt like there is so much more to see and to photograph. This time we only spent 3 days in the city, but, that was enough to remind me of why the place is so special, so magical.

Leading a workshop means not really shooting yourself. It’s about being there for the participants, so, that’s what I tried to do, as much as possible. I showed some around and gave others advice, while we were on the go. Varanasi was towards the end of the trip, folks felt more comfortable, so we all just wondered around the ghats, shot from the boat or got lost in the labyrinth of narrow backstreets. I finally  got a chance to “let loose” for a bit. These images are the result.

I’ll note yet again that I used the Fuji x100s for all the images except for one. I didn’t even take my DSLRs. I don’t want to sound like an obsessed fan-boy, but, I love the camera more and more. There is something so pure about wandering the streets with something so small and the fixed 35 mm equivalent lens.

A typical morning scene at the ghats. People come to bathe in the sacred waters, believing their sins will be washed away. The crowds arrive early, before sunrise. Surprisingly, some tourists/photographers arrive early too these days. I don’t remember there being so many people last time, but, maybe it just wasn’t peak season.
Pilgrims come in large groups. Early mornings, as crowded as things get are less crowded than just an hour later. I ended up calling some of the photographers photo predators. Some groups from Japan and Malaysia or Indonesia just weirded me out. No smile, no contact, just get in there, click, click, click and off you go to the next thing. I don’t mind not talking or smiling while taking photos, but, when someone looks your way, smile then at least, be human.
After the pilgrims bathe, they wash their clothes in the Ganges. Here the man is washing his dhoti, a traditional garment worn my men almost like a skirt.
At a certain point during the morning, the ghats (steps going to the water) become pretty colorful with different colored garments.
I wanted to really play around with the idea of photographing different garments drying and things happening in the background. I sat on the steps and just watched things unfold.
Shooting through a Saree provided me with an interesting effect. The figures became silhouettes and the frame became somewhat surrealistic, with flowers and patterns all over.
More Saree drying. The pilgrims use every bit of “real-estate”, boats, steps–whatever they can spread their stuff.
Cows are holy in Hinduism. With Varanasi being a very Hindu place, the cows roam the streets and basically do whatever they want. I was pretty surprised to see this cow enter a restaurant where I was having breakfast. The restaurant owner explained that he fed the cow every morning and proceeded to do just that, as I snapped a couple of images.
I photographed around the Cremation Ghat, a place where the dead are cremated after being dipped into the holy river. The area is notorious for scam-artists. Initially I managed to avoid all of them by not being there during the peak hours. I was only met by a few un-enthusiastic opportunists who kept their distance after I asked them to be calm and quiet in Hindi.
It was impossible to avoid the scam-artists completely. After taking this image, I was approached by a young guy, who told me that photography is not allowed. I knew this was a lie and confronted him. I probably tried the wrong approach and was a little too confrontational, hoping that the guy would get intimidated and scram. He didn’t and tried to play tough. Neither one of us fell for each other’s bluff and after exchanging a few unpleasantries, we parted ways.
In Varanasi there’s something interesting on virtually every corner. This man is making kachoris (an Indian pastry). The light was illuminating the scene nicely, the boy set next to the man, the girl entered the scene and sort of framed it, and, I pressed the shutter.
I think if one picks a spot and just stands there, someone interesting is inevitably going to appear at some point. I thought this guy was a character and the woman walking in the opposite direction added something too.
More street life in the narrow lanes.
When I started out, I wouldn’t shoot scenes like this one, because of the harsh contrast. Now, I like the interplay of light and dark. I feel that it lends something very regular a sense of mystery.
Being a sacred pilgrimage site Varanasi is of course full of Sadhus (Holy men). I consciously avoided photographing them. A lot of them are simply phoneys and wait to be photographed to ask for money later. This man seemed different. He was very into his book. As I pulled the camera out, I noticed one local man put a garland over his neck and the woman, who is in the image, put a 10 Rupee note on the book. Good sign, I thought and took a few frames. He didn’t say a thing. Since these guys live off of donations and this one seemed to be a genuinely devout man, I made a small donation too.
One can probably make a photo essay (or perhaps has made) on the tea-makers around Varanasi. All the smoke, backlit by the rising sun looks wonderful.
There are many tea-makers and I had my share of tea and photos of them and their clientele.
There are also plenty of vendors of all sorts of religious paraphernalia, including flowers to offer to the Gods in the temples and in the holy river Ganges.
This was a peculiar scene. The man is a Hindu holy-man, but he was hanging out with his Muslim mates outside a Mosque. Anyone who has been in India for long enough knows that Hindu-Muslim relations aren’t great there, but, these men said very clearly – we are brothers.
During the hotter part of the day, when there are very few devotees or priests by the ghats, young village men came to collect bamboo from a broken down shelter. They would take it back to their village by row-boat and use it for construction.
I was walking the backstreets with one of the workshop participants, basically looking for light. We found it and a few bright yellow/orange freshly dyed sarees, being hung to dry.
The light and the colors made for a good setting. All we had to do was wait for someone to appear on the scene to give a photo some life.
I’m always fascinated by light and by how it turns the mundane into magical. Walking the streets in Varanasi closer to sunset provides a lot of these mundane-to-magical moments. Here the local men are doing their everyday things. Reading the newspaper, hanging out. Yet, from a certain angle the light renders this scene into a dramatic play of light and dark.
One evening I and a couple of workshop participants decided to join a pilgrim boat, just to get a different taste of being on the water, on the Ganges.
These pilgrims were from South India, from Bangalore to be exact. This kind of tourism has been present in Varanasi for hundreds of years. It’s fascinating to think that, but, also makes you realise that the scam-artists and hustlers have had hundreds of years of practice to dupe the outsiders into emptying their pockets in one way or another.

The Ganga Aarti is an evening ceremony by the river. It involves music, fire and a lot of smoke. It’s hard to get a good spot, but, somehow I managed to squeeze myself in and got a relatively nice spot from where I could see most of the men performing the ceremony.

I made this photo with the Fuji X-E2 and the Voightlander 75mm f/1.8 lens. While the lens is manual focus only, it was surprisingly effective in this situation. Generally auto focus is hard anywhere, whenever you have smoke, like in this scene.

The Ganga Aarti is pretty photogenic. Our whole group photographed it for the 3 nights that we spent in Varanasi.

These are the people watching Ganga Aarti. There were lots of Japanese tourists, with masks and all. They were as much a part of the audience as the Indians, so, I thought I’d include at least a couple into my images.

Man selling flower lanterns by the Ganges. You buy one, make a wish and set it off into the river.

I’m back in Sydney now and I’ll be here for a while. I’ve had a pretty life changing event in my life. I’ve become a father to a very little and very cute baby girl. She’ll be joining me on the road almost as soon as she can hold her head up, but, for now, I’ll be staying put for at least three months.

I meant to post images from Mauritania, from my time with the nomads and I’ll still try to do that soon. For now however, the Indian trip is still very fresh in my mind, so, I wanted to share that.

Stay tuned folks.

21 thoughts on “Varanasi India and the Within the Frame Workshop

  1. Great pictures as always, Mitchell! Congratulations for your baby!!

  2. Great work Mitch, I like your recent style change and it’s good to see how your images have evolved with the change to Fuji. Keep it up and at this rate Mia will have one of the coolest dads around!

  3. Great work Mitchell. Good to see you trying out new cameras in familiar places and producing new images. You are an inspiration! Good luck with the little one :)

  4. Awesome post and amazing clicks from Varanasi , India
    Congratulations, Best wishes for little Angel :)

  5. Wonderful images that conveyed a great deal of mood and atmosphere. I enjoyed your commentary also very much.
    Congratulations on your baby daughter!!

  6. Beautiful pictures, as always, and so interesting to read….and learn. Thank you for sharing! Daniela, from Rome (Italy)

  7. Eloquent, moving work, Mitchell. Poetry in images.
    This series from Varanasi is even more impressive when one considers that you had very little time to “let loose” while leading a workshop.
    As good as these are, your very best work, in my opinion, has to be that done in Tigray, Ethiopia. I review the images captured in Tigray often. They are a source of constant inspiration.
    Nicolo Famiglietti, Ph.D.
    Travel Essays:

  8. Jeff

    Very inspirations work Mitchell! Loved it, thank you. I wish I was there with you guys. Congratulations, and welcome to this world your baby girl!

  9. Extraordinary pictures. And I know your feeling with the X100S; it is the only camera I brought to my Within The Frame adventure to Venice with Jeffrey a month ago!

  10. Really a great work on Varanasi with a lovely informative text !

  11. I love following your work Mitchell! I have all your books and love your intrinsic and intuitive style! I look forward to more of your posts and hope to join you one day on one of these trips!

  12. Patrick Cummings

    I simply love your images.

    I have taken to Street Photography (only really got into photography a year or so ago) and am very impressed and take lots of inspiration from these Varanasi street shots.

    I will definitely be following you.

    Well done and I look forward to your next lot of shots.

  13. Hi Mitchell, wonderful photography as always. I particularly like the Ganga Aarti images. Very evocative. India reminds me very much of my years of living in the Philippines wher I spent 10 happy years and where my love of photography began. The people there are so welcoming and life there for ordinary people is so similar to the people of India. I would love to go to India with my camera one day …
    Many congratulations on your lovely baby girl . I have 3 children all grown, and they have been the joy of my life.. treasure each day, it goes by too fast.

  14. Many many congratulations and welcome to the club of dads. it’s fun. i took my baby to the Himalayas when he was 4 months & he turned out to be the fittest amongst all of us. it’s good fun..:-)

    Wonderful images as usual, especially the man having tea…
    .one quick thing on this mirrorless/100s, it seems to me the quality of images are more on compact camera side than dslr. or am I reading it wrongly?


  15. Love your pictures from this fascinating city.
    If I may add a word of caution: Be mindful of sensibilities when photographing at the burning ghats. I suspect you (Mitchell) are familiar with customs and act respectfully. Sadly there will be many reading this blog who will try and follow your footprints without such an understanding – and I fear more than just a few unpleasantries could end up being exchanged. Perhaps best discourage others from photographing at a site where, at the end of the day, people’s loved one’s are being sent off.
    Keep up the fine blog.

    Rgds, Doss

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