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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Faces Of Kumbh Mela

Amidst a cacophony of humanity, Fredric Roberts’ photos of the 2013 Kumbh Mela isolate the individuals, and through that, his images tell the broader story

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"If you have a real relationship with someone and you take a picture that reflects that, then you've broken through the clichés. It's not just one of these instantaneous things where you smile at somebody and they smile back and you think you have a relationship—you have to really spend time with them and they have to hang around with you enough to sense an honest emotion," he explains. "Once that feeling [of weariness] dissipates on its own—and it has to dissipate on its own—then you have that relationship and they'll open up."

It's a technique Roberts has intuited during 13 years spent roaming the globe as a photographer, living with local communities in countries like Bhutan, Cambodia, Myanmar and India, capturing their lives in pictures and, in some cases, documenting the dying days of ancient cultures. This creative pursuit is a world away from his former life as an investment banker, during which he spent three decades haggling with people intent on one thing only: the gathering of monetary riches. Today, it's the poor he most often communes with, and they have shown him a world more enriching by far than the one he left behind.

But it was hard to tell rich from poor in the ashrams that towered above the tent cities carpeting the shores of the Ganges—expensive cars wedged up around their facades, gurus wafting by on a scent of money, pilgrims clustering together in orange knots, ash-caked naga sadhus sucking on chillums (pipes), wearing the gold watches and strings of pearls gifted to them by pilgrims and delivering blessings upon the faithful for a few rupees each. Out on the streets, council workers sprinkled antiseptic lime about and pilgrims flowed across bridges and took boats out to the Sangam. On and on these people went, restless in their spiritual quest.

Roberts stepped into this melee carrying with him the most important piece of equipment a photographer could possess: his eyes. He made his way to one of the big ashrams where, day after day, one group of sadhus after another would file in, sit down in rows, eat their meal and file out again. The ritual drew Roberts in emotionally—the lines of orange sadhus, the fervor of the people listening to lectures delivered by Swami Ji. Eventually, the swami approached him and said, "Weren't you here yesterday?" and so the barriers crumbled. Finally, Roberts took out his camera and began to shoot.

"Swami Ji and I would sit and talk and form a relationship, and the sadhus pushing their way in to lunch would see me two or three or four days in a row and they would start talking to me. And so I wasn't just a tourist with a camera," he says.

The ashrams became Roberts' emotional bedrock. Soon, he was ready to venture into the Juna Akara, headquarters for naga sadhus undergoing induction; the men were about to forsake all material comforts to live as ascetics, foraging for food, meditating in sub-zero temperatures, relying on strangers for kindness. It was almost impossible to engage with these people. Fortuitously, Roberts' entrée into the Juna Akara was enhanced by advice from photographer David Ducoin, whom he met at the mela. Ducoin suggested he make prints at Allahabad's only photography shop and hand them out to his subjects as an act of goodwill.


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