Remember the portrait project I did in India in 2013 during Maha Kumbh Mela? (If you’re in need to be filled in, you can catch up here to read more about this insane gathering of 100 MILLION pilgrims — yeah, that’s a lot.. and it was the first and largest of this magnitude ever, and will be the only one before yet another 12 years…)
Above is a snapshot of yours truly on the day 30 million people ran into the Ganges river over the course of the same morning to purify and get a better karmic reincarnation.
An interview came out recently about why I had wanted to go and photograph the pilgrims there, and about everything that went into the preparation, the type of gear I used, etc (spoiler alert: I used a Profoto Acute B600 pack and a softbox in the field, as in the Profoto.com article on the project mentioned a few weeks ago).
I thought I would share it as a way to further emphasize the importance of doing personal work. I believe that is one of the most important (if not THE single most important) action one can do to express a VISION. So I included below a more extensive version of the answers to the great questions I was asked by my agent, Wonderful Machine about this project. I think they tap exactly into that “power of personal work” theme.
Are you doing or prepping any large-scale personal project? How do you see this particular avenue of work helps you grow as an artist, and find a better voice in this world? (or even get more work)
I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Fire away below!
Here is the Q&A:
WM: How does this project fit into your photographic style? How did you get involved with this?
MR: I have been doing this kind of portrait work for quite some time now. It is part of an ‘expedition’ style kind of travel I do to serve the purpose of a personal project of mine, Climate Heroes. If you visit the project website at www.climateheroes.org you’ll notice it shows the faces of women and men who have started acting to help mitigate climate change. The first trip I took was to Indonesia, Sumatra in 2010. I portrayed former illegal loggers who now lived by protecting the forest and growing their own fruits and coffee in a sustainable manner. Then I traveled to another island to portray a tribe that wanted to have very little contact with the outside world. Both were very “run and gun” kind of projects, although I was shooting with battery-operated strobes in order to make a stunning portrait of each of the persons I wanted to photograph. This was over a week of walking in the jungle, covered in mud, but a lot of fun! I therefore decided to continue doing those portraits when I had the chance to fit them between commercial jobs.
Why do you create personal work as a photographer? Why do you believe it’s important?
I think personal work is the most important thing a photographer and an artist can do. This is where you unique voice can be expressed. Where you choose everything, from the angle of the story you want to tell, to how you want to tell it visually, and where and when you want shoot it. You have total creative freedom. And in today’s world where there are many good photographers, the only thing that matters is not trying to make a better picture, but trying to make a picture that’s genuinely different and personal, to tell a story that ONLY you can tell. So personal work, as the result of all your influences, inspirations, personal creativity and history, is the single most powerful vehicle to produce the kind of work that really matters, and be the artist you want to be. Imagine you only shot commercials one after the other for years on end. Where would you end creatively? Probably in a very normalized way of seeing things, dictated by what the market wants, what consumers like, or what advertising agencies call you to deliver, which is essentially a kind of images you are already comfortable with doing. So with each of those personal trips and subjects, there is an opportunity to go out of your comfort zone, see the world, think about what you want to say, and also enjoy yourself a lot without any outside influences!
What attracted you to this particular subject?
I had seen about 2 years before that 2013 would be hosting the next and largest installment ever of Kumbh Mela (caled Maha Kumbh Mela). I did extensive research about the event and found that the ancient Hindu festival Maha Kumbh Mela is the largest pilgrimage on Earth. It takes place at its largest scale every 12 years, and the last one to-date was held in the northern Indian city of Allahabad from January 25, to March 10, 2013. Pilgrims came to bathe at the confluence of the mythical Yamuna, Ganges and Saraswati Rivers, to purify their karma. It drew around 100 million pilgrims on an area of 58 square kilometers, making it he largest single gathering – some call it migration – of humanity and of all times.
Just that was enough to trigger a wave of excitement. I couldn’t miss this opportunity. Plus I had never been to India, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity. Why not jump in the water and go all-in? I am really glad I did, because it was just insanely crazy.
What was involved in planning/preproduction?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to use strobes to make portraits there. I wanted to carry my Profoto battery operated pack, with a large softbox, as this is the gear I have used routinely on my Climate Heroes project. So I needed an assistant, but couldn’t afford to make someone travel with me. I therefore had to find somebody there, not only in India, but directly in the city of Allahabad.
As I didn’t want to spend days searching and interviewing assistants when reaching the city, I started making contacts online. I posted notes to Facebook, asked friends of mine who were based in India, used my networks, and finally found someone via the 500px.com website: a young photographer student based in Allahabad who would be available and wiling to help me for a daily fee, but who would also be interested in improving his photo techniques by learning from this experience, in a very open process. I really wanted to make this a win-win experience. I assisted famous photographers in Paris when I started, and am always very keen to learn, so I wanted to find someone in that same vibe.
The rest was more routine: organizing all the logistics to reach Allahabad in due time for the largest Bathing day of the entire pilgrimage, having a place to sleep (a tent by the Ganges!), and make sure there wouldn’t be too many surprises.
Were there any challenges involved with this project? If so, how did you overcome them?
Yes, there were quite a few!
The first one was key: I needed someone to help me carry the softbox while I took the pictures, as I couldn’t leave it on a stand in the midst of several million people and curious wanderers. There was also the language barrier, as I do not speak Hindi.
Thankfully, my assistant solved both, making the first contacts, translating for me when I was introducing the project and of course, he was instrumental in manipulating the softbox and the flash. With sudden crowd movements, keeping all the gear safe and in working conditions was a constant worry. If the flash bulbs broke I would have traveled for nothing.
Also, walking around a 58sq.km area during a week with all the gear on my back (that was about 16-17kg) for days on end under the sun, was daunting. But there’s not much you can do about it except carry on, and I would do it again anytime! Being parachuted in the middle of Maha Kumbh Mela was a life experience. It was just crazy. People were all over the place, everything was crowded. But everyone was so incredibly nice with us. Although I would warn that you should be very cautious about what you do, if you cross the line you can be beaten by Sages who want to look tough. So always take the time to learn the culture before you become to daring :)
What has the reaction to the images been so far?
Well, first and foremost, it was amazing to see the welcome of pilgrims, and their reactions when showing them the portraits. They were so happy that we took the time to talk and learn about their origins, and it was totally worth the effort. I sent the images to as many people as I could (when they actually had an email, a phone, or we just brought them printed copies, made in a small lab in town).
Back in Europe, people really loved to see the portraits, and to see such a different side of the event that what had been seen over and over again in the news. I deliberately wanted to part from the usual folklore pictures seen about bathing pilgrims and Sages running in the water holding their swords.
What have you done with the images?
I sent a sample of the portraits (I have over 60 portraits) to magazines in France and in the US, such as National Geographic, Geo, Time Magazine, etc.
Very few magazines are comfortable with having only portraits in a portfolio, but Time Magazine was interested. Indeed, I saw so many photographers on the Kumbh Mela site, but during the time I was there, I didn’t see anyone going for the same style I chose, with quiet portraits, located off the effervescence of the “action”, seen in the press.
We’ll have to wait a bit though before any new article can be published, as many have already been written this year. But there is still time before the next Kumbh Mela, in 11 years, so we have plenty of time ahead!
Any future plans for this project?
Who knows, there is so much time until the next Maha Kumbh Mela. I might go back next time if I can!
Another project in the making is to write a piece with a Historian friend and author, about the cultural significance of this pilgrimage in the Indian society, throughout social classes. I speak about classes, not castes, as I purposely wanted to go beyond the traditional way of seeing the Indian society based on Castes, which many now deem to be outdated.
I precisely intended to show the constant evolution and renewal of the Indian society, which as it gains momentum in the 21st century, is still very attached to its customs and religious practices, but increasingly parting from its caste heritage. By making those portraits of the men and women coming from all over India and more (Nepal, Bangladesh, etc), I approached this Kumbh Mela as the epiphenomenon of a society ready to carry out acts of important devotion in order to satisfy to its religious customs, but currently in a definitively modern and progressive stance.
Did you learn anything through the creation of this series?
I was so intense as a learning experience. Of course it was my first time to India, but also a first-hand experience with the Indian religious practices and beliefs. It was a humbling experience too, to see pilgrims and families travel for as long as 3 months by foot to attend the pilgrimage, and then 3 more months to walk back home. It was also a great human experience, with the friends met there, and the connections made.
And as is the case for the other portrait/expedition projects I do, showing that I can produce this kind of work in very tough environments, with many things that can go wrong, is a great asset to have. Most importantly, I am extremely happy about what I learned, and to have been able to live such a unique experience in my life.