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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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Roberts connected with naga sadhus, Hindu ascetics, by handing out prints of his photos to show the work he was doing. This genuine and gentle approach enabled him to engage with and photograph this group of newly inducted nagas.
"I got to know a couple of the nagas, and when I brought back the printed photos to them, they said, 'Okay, this guy's different.' They gave me real access. If you're a bump-and-run guy who's there for three days, you don't have time to do this. You have to be a long-termer."

The fruit of Roberts' gentle tenacity in the Juna Akara is a "once-in-a-life-time" shot he took of the newly inducted nagas gathered around a fire. No one would recognize it as an iconic picture, he concedes, but it's a sacred vision that few outsiders ever get to witness.

On the morning of the most auspicious bathing date, Roberts fought the flow of people and made his way downhill. Approaching the riverbank, he found himself amidst a crowd of people so large and unyielding, he thought he was going to die. Twenty million pilgrims had come here to wash away their sins.

"They just lifted us up, as if we were in a stampede," he recalls. "We had no control over our feet. The crowds just took us where they wanted to go."

Roberts' best images weren't shot on that day—it's hard to find one's bearings in the midst of such chaos. Photographs are always secondary to the experience, he says, and cameras should never be allowed to rob you of the joy of the moment. Consequently, he returned home with a legacy far more enduring than mere images: a pure and absolute reverence for the pilgrims he met on his way.

Concludes Roberts, "That they would take everything they owned and put it on their heads and walk and take trucks and buses and trains and get there, regardless how far, regardless of what percentage it took of the money that they had, and live on the side of the road and sleep on those streets just to get that holy bath and then to go home—I mean, to be around that many people with that kind of powerful fervor is quite an exquisite experience."

Fredric Roberts' work is exhibited widely. He has published three books and will conduct a series of photography workshops among disadvantaged communities for the Save the Children foundation in 2014. Go to www.fredricroberts.com.


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