India in Analog | Part One – Varanasi

12 July 2010
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The following is part one of a literal pile of photographs that were taken in analog across the Indian subcontinent. Like a majority of camera wielding travellers (still in denial of the term ‘tourist’) I’d replaced my manual film camera for a digital SLR yonks ago – the pros just seemed to outweigh the cons. No more film purchases, no processing costs, no waiting, unlimited shots, Photoshopping, Facebooking, instant gratification… The list goes on.

Still I missed the click and clunk of my old analog, the anticipation and uncertainty, the physicality. In the foggy banks of my memory film was crisp and pure… but expensive. If I was ever going to shoot film again India was the place. Thanks to the third world economy, a roll of film in India costs about a tenth of the price in Japan, processing is about the same. So I left my digital SLR camera at home, bought an old, sturdy as fuck Nikon FE, circa nineteen seventy something, and attempted to take some photos.

It really did take some getting used to again, but once I got in to it, again the pros seemed to outweigh the cons. I had less money around my neck to worry about. I had no digital display to show the kids who seemed forever present, yelling “Photo! Photo!”  And as I was travelling and developing at different labs the colour and quality always came back different, which was exciting also.

For all the shitters than ended up in the rubbish I managed to get a few pics that I think are worth sharing. I don’t think I could have taken them on digital either. Analog to me just seems raw and real, much like India. So in that respect these photos captured my months there in a way only film could.

Part One
Varanasi

Also known as Benares, Varanasi is one of the oldest constantly inhabited places in the world. Once you arrive in India many a traveller and local alike will tell you “You have to see it.” It’s the kind of place you either love or you don’t. Some will tell you that it is amazing, full of life and art and music, and others will say it is the closest thing to hell, full of stench, liars, cheats, disease, decay and death.

For many, particularly Buddhists and Hindus, Varanasi is undoubtedly a holy city, if not the holiest. It sits on the banks of the River Ganga, it is where the goddess Sati’s earrings fell and nearby the Great Bhudda gave his first sermon. It has been home to many prominent Indian philosophers, poets, writers and musicians, such as Kabir and Tulsidas.

Varanasi receives more than a million pilgrims each year. Many come for inspiration, to learn music or to make art, though most come to pray and many to die. The smoke from the pyres on which their bodies burn wafts across the roof tops from the river banks.

I think one of the hardest and best things about spending time in Varanasi is the smells. One moment you get a nostril full of rich boiling curry, the next a fly infested cow pat. One street the scent of flowery incense, turn the corner into a steaming puddle of fresh human urine.

Personally I liked it. Though very intense at times it is never boring. It’s tight cobblestone alleys, decaying castles and temples are medieval… If I hit my head and forgot the year it would have been hard to figure it out. Mark Twain wrote that “Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”

Coming to Sideroom.com next week:

India in Analog | Part Two – Hindustan and the Mustached Men

So, what do you think about all this?