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Varansi: 21 November 2009

Reflections on the politics of travel photography, cultural sensitivity, and the otherness of being a tourist.

Varanasi is an ancient city where the Hindus go to die in India.  The deeply religious have very strong beliefs surrounding this place and about death in general.  When one dies of natural causes, their body is cremated and there is significant ceremony surrounding this process.  Outside of Varanasi, I had witnessed a few cremation ceremonies and visited a number of crematoriums throughout India, because a friend of mine was researching them as architectural spaces.  During my previous experiences, the families had always been eager to have us witness their traditions and had even encouraged us to engage with the event and document and share what we saw. 

Varanasi is different.  In recent years, the city has become not only a major Hindu pilgrimage site, but a Western tourist attraction.  In so many ways, I was a part of this.  Upon arrival, you are distinguished as a tourist, identified as a Westerner, an outsider, and the camera around your neck is scrutinized.  You are identified and targeted.  Upon arrival, you are firmly asked not to take pictures of the cremation process or of the funeral pyres.  So in many ways, to the photographer, even the amateur tourist, much of the city’s wonder and intrigue was identified as off limits.

For the first few days that I was there, I accepted this, but was confused since experience throughout India had taught me that there was nothing inherently wrong with the documentation of this process.  In the past,I had been encouraged, and suddenly, here, I was denied in advance.

For the first few days, I respected the request of the men who had approached me upon seeing my camera, and avoided photographing the funeral pyres.  This was not easy.  As an amateur photographer, I really wanted to document this fascinating scene.  Since I was there for only a few days, I stayed up late into the night to watch the fires.  It’s an incredible thing to behold.  There is a conflict between the life of the river and the funeral flames alongside it, but it is one that is mesmerizing.  I just sat and drank five-rupee chai teas and watched the fires burn.

But on the last day, I realized that I would have no photographs to remember these scenes with, and my initial frustration returned.  My internal conflict over the politics of photography occupied my thoughts once more.  I wanted to be able to look back on these sights and share them with others, because it is such a different way to approach life and death, and I have always found difference refreshing.

Eventually, on the last day, my interest and desire to have some record of what I had seen won out and I betrayed the appeals of those who had asked me not to.  As discreetly as possible, I slid out my camera and without even raising it to look through the viewfinder, I quickly snapped four photographs, and slid it back into its case.  Just enough to share what I had seen, I told myself, trying to rationalize against the guilt that was building after my little act of disobedience.  I had to justify it to myself, because I really had no desire to show any disrespect.

I breathed a sigh of relief after a few moments had passed, but this relief came premature as a hand emerged from nowhere and firmly grabbed my arm.  Within seconds I was pulled away from the others I had been standing with and suddenly I was very alone.  The man began shouting at me, refusing to release his grip on my arm, still firmly pulling me in some unknown direction.

He accused me of having committed a terrible crime, he adamantly explained that he was responsible for seeing that I was brought to justice and punished accordingly and that it was his duty to report me to the proper authorities and let them decide what to do with me.  I had broken the law, and in the past, he said, people in my position had been punished with enormous fines and even jail time, months or even years.  He didn’t know what they would do with me, but there was no use denying my actions.

Despite my initial fears, I quickly realized that this was probably a con of sorts, one that he played on unsuspecting tourists, a tactic he employed to scare people into handing over cash to escape the threatened consequences.  I was almost certain that no legitimate authority existed that punished for such actions, and I was certain that the punishments he was threatening me with were completely fabricated.  So my initial fears quickly dissolved, although the sensitivity of the situation remained.

My initial fears were replaced with new ones.  My time in India had taught me not to expect legitimacy in such threats, but it had also taught me that despite the fact that no legal institutions probably existed that would act in the manners described, I had to believe that this man might not acting alone.  Such a situation could easily be invented and I could very well be in danger of facing these threats as a part of what I believed to be a production.  If I was not careful, I could have easily been taken to an invented authority and been put through a theatrical set of situations that I would have to adhere to in some manner to ensure my safety.

To a degree, I accepted the circumstances, and I took on my role.  I pretended to be afraid for the right reasons and I acted the part.  I apologized profusely and I played dumb, I behaved how I was expected to behave, but I attempted to maintain a position of understanding the situation better than it appeared.  As expected, I was able to quiet his threats and slow our progress by suggesting that there must be some alternative, something I could do to apologize for my mistake.  After some discussion, he suggested that there might be one alternative. 

We quickly began moving in the opposite direction, and he brought me to a building near the river and took me inside and up the stairs.  I had no idea what to expect, and he immediately had an advantage over me by taking me out of the public and into a building I did not know.  When we reached the top of the stairs, though, I was met with a scene that I could not have anticipated.

I faced what appeared to be a kind of primitive nursing home.  Around the large, dimly lit room, was an odd collection of elderly people at what appeared to be various stages of dying.  There was a kind of quiet expectancy that hung in the room, as if everyone was waiting for the same thing, but some were closer to reaching their desired ends than others.  Between my knowledge of the city and the man’s brief explanation, I realized that my initial impression was fairly close to the reality of the place.  This was indeed a kind of nursing home where the poor and ailing came to from across India at the point when they realize that they are approaching death.  I was in a room filled with Hindus waiting to die in Varanasi, in a building overlooking the River Ganges.

The man quickly took me over to one of the women closest to the top of the stairs, she appeared to be in better health than most, and in Hindi, he explained the situation to the woman.  Within moments she turned to me and began chanting, praying, and moving her arms about frantically.  I wasn’t sure whether I was being blessed or cursed, but the man explained that she was purging me of my sins and asking for forgiveness for my actions.  This appeared to be almost entirely for show, but within moments of its completion, the man began explaining to me that I must now make a donation to the organization that ran this nursing home.  That with such an offering, I could be forgiven and remain unpunished by making a donation to help pay for the wood that is burned in the cremation fires.  He explained that many of these people could not afford the ceremony they had come from across India to partake in, and that without funding, many died without a proper cremation.  He suggested that a single fire required approximately the equivalent of $200 worth of wood, and that I could be released by funding a fire.

I had nowhere near that kind of money on me or available to me immediately, and I explained this.  Within moments his fingers once again wrapped around my arm, and I was being led back towards the stairs.  Apparently my alternative options were diminishing, but I quickly apologized and began bargaining.  My goal at this point was to escape furthering my time being led about by this man, without risking complicating my circumstances.  After a brief discussion and a variety of numbers thrown back and forth we eventually settled on a donation approximately equivalent to $20.  I emptied my wallet to meet this agreement and was released, after which I returned to my companions who were nervously awaiting me outside of the building.

Looking back, it was a small price to pay for the experience and the photographs, which were never deleted from my camera.  But it is an experience that I will never forget, and one that will forever affect me as a photographer and as a foreigner, a traveler, and a tourist.  To this day, there is still a slight guilt I feel when I describe what happened that day, but I know that the experience changed me and my approach to photography as a foreigner.