‘Mentioned in Dispatches: The Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, 2019

The Nectar Pot of the Gods. Who can resist a festival with a name like this?

This is a festival with a temporary city on an imaginary river. The Kumbh Mela and the mystic Swariswati. There is a real sacred river too, the Ganges, or Ganga-ma, Mother Ganges. She’s a trans-boundary affair that rises in the Himalayas and ends in the Bay of Bengal, 1,678 miles later.

Where there is water in India there is faith. Rivers are sacred entities, the Mother Ganges a goddess who washes away sin, once a river of heaven flowing across the sky. The creation myth is beautiful and wrapped up from the beginning in the tradition of holy men.

This is its story: An ascetic had been meditating when the ancestors of a king called Bhagiratha disturbed his meditation, and in anger he burned them to ashes with his angry gaze.

Not able to be freed from this earth or gain salvation, the only way they could reach salvation was for the purifying Ganges to flow over the ashes and release them up to heaven. Lord Shiva protected the earth from the impact of the Ganges as she fell to Earth by catching up the river in his hair, and the myth goes that the Ganges followed Bhagiratha out across the plains and to the sea, where his forefathers ashes were purified and restored to paradise.

No wonder Hindus are obsessed with the Ganges. They believe that if they deposit the ashes of their loved ones in the Ganges, they will either ease the transition into the next life, or be freed from the cycle of birth and death. The Ganges offers a ticket out of this spiritual life through her exceptional powers of purification. A dip into the divine waters will purify Hindus, washing away a lifetime of sins. As a result of this, relatives will travel thousands of miles to deposit the ashes of loved ones to the Ganges, and firmly believe that a daily dip is the way forward.

Many cities on her length are considered holy. Varanasi, considered the most holy of the cities in the Ganges, where death is most auspicious. And Allahabad, where the Kumbh Mela takes place, the site of the most important Hindu festival in the religious calendar. Bathing in the Ganges is the main reason sadhus and pilgrims visit the Kumbh Mela, and bathing on the most auspicious day of the New Moon absolves sun and breaks the cycle of rebirth.

February 4th 2019 is the biggest bathing date, and the Sacred Rivers Tour 2019 will be at the festival for this big day in Allahabad. We’ll be there, in the thick of it, (based in our Deluxe Camping), trying not to get lost in this temporal, spiritual city. I’m both wildly excited and terrified. We’ve got a guide whilst we’re there which fills me with gladness as I have the sense of direction of a flea.

Integral to the Kumbh Mela are the sadhus. These are India’s Hindu holy men, who follow various Gods and belong to varying sects. Meditation, contemplation and yogic practice are common denominators. The sadhus come to discuss matters of faith, disseminate information about Hinduism (and their version of it), begin or end chapters of religious behaviour that enables the holy men to continue along their spiritual journey. And bathe.

Often difficult to tell apart by the layman, they seem exotic and other-wordly to non-Hindus. At sunrise on the key bathing dates the different sadhu groups, with increasing fervour, head down in procession to the river to bathe. It will be crowded. There will be jostling and shoving. We will have our guide and fixer with us to help us find our way and reach brilliant photographic spots that they have scouted for us. It will be one of the most memorable things we ever do. We’ll be up early, walk loads, and to bed late.

I have often seen sadhus wandering India but other than a hilarious run-in with a friendly gang of them in the Kangra Valley a few years ago, I’ve not spent any time photographing them. I’ve done a bit of reading and thought a useful list of sadhu information might be useful. Each sect has its own camp, often close to the pilgrims, to encourage teaching and interaction. The Kumbh Mela has a temporary tent city, a huge affair, set over 5000 acres. My sense of direction is rubbish on a good day. Did I mention this already?! Radios, anyone? Or do we trust in the universe to help us find our way back to the tented camp?

Marajuana and sadhus

Certain sects, in particular the Anghora’s, use weed to concentrate their minds on religious mantras, & help them carry out strenuous yogic practices. The marajuana releases religious ecstasies and heightened their religious experiences. It’s the Fourth Consciousness. Lord Shiva to the Naha Sadhus is the origin of all spirituality, and he was not just a God. Shiva was the original ascetic.

Descriptions of his wild hair, chillum smoking and lack of boundaries could describe many sadhus today. Shiva denounced the world, in a way that many sadhus choose to do to be closer to Shiva. It’s about freedom from earthly matters and possessions, freedom to be closer to finding the stillness of the soul.

There’s no doubt you’re going to run into weed at the Kumbh Mela. The sadhus smoke it from a chillum, fingers closed around the end of it, and inhale via their hands. I’ve seen hash cakes in large mountains at the Nihang festival, designed for the horses, and there’s no doubt that an exhaling sadhu wreathed in beguiling smoke makes for a great image. Just don’t inhale.

Here are a few links from the web that will give you some idea of the scale and scope of our photographic adventure.

https://www.tripsavvy.com/india-kumbh-mela-pictures-4063998

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The Jaipur Photography Workshops

Rajasthan is full of palaces and princes. I first visited on my honeymoon 24 years ago, and I love it as much as I did then.

Last November I spent ten days staying at the lovely Khandela Haveli, fine-tuning my photography workshops, working out where the sun will be for the strongest photo opportunities, double-checking I’ve got my timing right for adventures to elephant camps and the flower market. Part of the adventure included being taken by a friend to his family home, an amazing fort about 40 minutes drive from Jaipur.

It was an amazing experience, with fascinating 16/17th century fort architecture & enticing glimpses into royal lives. The family at the fort in Bagru had a downturn in luck in the late 19th century, with the family fortunes spiralling away after the loss of a golden son by poisoning in his early twenties. This extraordinary event took place in 1885. The fort has a sense of poignancy about it for what could have been.

His father Thakur Sawant Singh is the gentleman in the photograph. I took this late one afternoon at the fort in what would have been his main rooms. His ceremonial robes and sword are stunning, a visual legacy to the important political role he had in the Jaipur Court and his closeness to the Maharajas of Jaipur. I initially made a mistake on my Instagram entry for this image, stating he was a Maharaja when in fact he was a Thakur. The title means lord. Either way his beard is highly impressive! The image would probably have been taken with a daguerreotype camera. One runs into old photographs the length and breadth of India and they always fascinate me. Captured light from a different world.

For first visitors to India, Jaipur is a wonderful place to start. The photography workshops are based for the week at the Khandela Haveli, a quiet residential area with no need for earplugs, a charming rooftop terrace and pool. A merchants townhouse built in the traditional courtyard style, the bedrooms run off the internal balconies and are perfectly judged. By the time my boy and the daughter had been there for a few days they were on first name terms with the staff and batch-ordering nimbu panis. The Amber Fort, visits to elephants and balloon safari kept all of us engaged and occupied. Despite us having been before, Jaipur has plenty to explore. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, was in full swing and going out at night was amazing. The shopping malls had really got into the groove and had gone full-tilt with lightbulb strings festooned from rooftop to basement. Completely unexpected. Our boy was born on Diwali and our Indian mates call him their Diwali baby. Better locate some lightbulbs for next November.

Picking up the photography theme there were early photographs of the family on the hotel walls, testament to their position and to Jaipur’s early adoption of camera technology. This is a city imbued with photographic history. Let me share it with you.

I have a wonderful inside view of the Pink City, and have carefully planned the itinerary for you to get the best out of your Rajasthani adventure.

Bring your camera.

Take home memories.

The tour dates for the Jaipur Photography Workshops are:

12-19th November

21st-28th November

Places are still available. Please visit my website for contact details via this link.

Workshops with Ali Warner Photography

Boy with a camera, Tabaar. 

The Street Kids Photography Project has had its first photographer.
 


Ramesh Paliwal, the Director of Tabaar, identified Kangres as the first lad to try out the single-use camera. While I was in Jaipur he took the camera out into the railway station and surrounding area close by the hostel. He also took pictures within the hostel and of his friends.


 

The images have a natural composition, despite the technical difficulties of getting a thumb or finger over the lens, and the simplicity of a point- and–shoot camera allowed Kangres to simply get on and photograph what he wanted to. I found myself very drawn to the images within the hostel, of friends playing on the seesaw, grinning for the camera, and of simple everyday life. Having a drink of water. The warmth of his friends and of the clear friendships he had made came through in the images. This crazy little idea we have had has facilitated something good.

 

One series of pictures were taken of the community existing off Jaipur’s rag-picking. Rag-picking is a way for the poorer sectors of society to generate an income, and rag-pickers are an informal community of people who collect India’s waste. Estimated between 1.5-4 million strong, the rag-pickers collect, sort, segregate and trade waste. 90% of India does not have a fully integrated waste disposal system, and it is estimated that only 75-80% of the waste generated in India is collected by official, municipal bodies. (I spent a lot of time examining waste systems as part of my PhD. Mountains of smelly waste generated by tourists and the rag-picking community involved in its clearing).

 The rag-pickers have no official status, no one looking out for health and safety, and their sorting stations are in no-man’s lands, under road bridges and on roundabouts. Often exposed to cuts, infections, respiratory diseases and TB, the communities involved are also exposed to poverty and harassment. Invisible non-members of an unrecognized system, the rag-pickers are a vital part of the recycling happening in India. Waste is particularly problematic in cities, where growing urban populations and increases in waste per head have resulted in spiralling volumes.

Kangres has a range of images taken under a bridge of rag-pickers, which I feel are people he knows. I like the way he has distance in front of the subject, a sense of space between him and the people he is photographing. I do not know why that space is there. It may be technical. Or social. 

 

None of us know what really happens when runaway or traficked children step out of their family environment and into an adult world. One can only hope the reason he returned to photograph the rag-picker life is to record people who were kind to him. Or perhaps he knows they won’t bother him with a camera in his hand. It’s difficult to know without being there, and being there changes what it might be. 

 Kangres recorded his friends. This is a shot of one of his friends. Thumb and all. 

The Kodak Brownie Flash 620 Review


The shutter button on this camera makes me want to cry. But not in a good way. Firstly I loaded the film back to front. The 620 takes, hmmmm, 620 mm film. It says so on the tin. You can’t find 620mm so it’s 120mm squeezed in against the spools. Two black coffees later and a lot of film pinging about, and a craft activity that involved scissors, I got the film lined up and on the right side of the shutterplate. Being a halfwit this took me a bit of time. It does actually say not to use 120mm. I need to pay more attention. I did read on the interweb that you can use 120mm so this was always going to be an experimental moment.

The shutter button is a light little creature. It has a nifty mechanical lock that holds it tight against misadventure. No wonder. The shutter is opened and shut at about halfway down the full depression, which threw me for the first 4 shots. It feels like you have yet to take the shot when in fact the shot is taken. Opportunities for blur, no doubt about it.

The film is loaded into the empty spool, wound right against the backplate, and does a fab job at telling you what frame you’re on via the red reverse viewing pane on the back.



This worked perfectly until frame number 7, at which point my dodgy lining up of the film in between spools meant there was friction and pressure at one end of my spool. I’ve sent an emergency panpan text to a friend with a dark bathroom as I’ve got to get inside the camera body and remove the film by hand. The locking mechanism under the camera is solid and more trustworthy than some of the delicious Bakelite cameras I’ve been testing.

The viewfinder was brilliant. I love the perspective that feels like it’s condensing the image down the viewfinder, and you can smell the old camera smell which I love. The lens looked like it had 60 odd years of crap on it. Looks like I need to clean it more thoroughly with vodka. Or gin. Or lighter fluid. Scratch that as you can’t drink lighter fluid. Or shouldn’t.

However, Bosham Creek called, despite the sub zero wind chill factor. Armed with the Patagonia parka and two beautiful collies (everyone needs a matching pair), I set off round the Harbour.

If I can find a sensible way to convert 35mm film with plastic take ups at each end, this little camera might work yet. It’s got oodles of charm. It has a cool, mechanical look to it and despite the shutter button, has a nice heft to it for such a small body. Annoyingly I find myself very keen on the damn thing.

Once I lever out the film in my buddies bathroom, re-roll it under a safe light, and send it off for printing, I’ll post the results. In the meantime it looks gorgeous and I’m working on a shoot that includes all my vintage cameras growing on a tree. This one was made between 1940-46. 70 years old, give or take. I wonder when it was last used. 1939 on the patent.

All the cameras in test will be for sale at Drapers Yard, Chichester over when the weather warms up. Workshops on using vintage cameras to follow.

The Ensign Ful-Vue Film Camera: A Review 60 years on. 

This little camera is an exquisite piece of design & manufacture. Made in 1954-59, the model I’ve been trialling is the Barnet-Ensign Ross Ful-Vue II, 12 Frame 6×6” shot on 120 film. Made post-war, it’s essentially like any camera: a box with a hole in it to catch the light. The beast has one lens, three hideously easy-to-knock focal lengths, a great prism on the top of the camera to look down into, and a sort of U-Boat, gunmetal black/silver vibe. You definitely feel like a post-war black and white spy using this camera. 


The process of putting the film in is simple enough. Unlock the camera using the arrow guide dial on the right of the camera. The side pulls out and you are holding the film holder part of the camera in your hand. 



Move the empty film spool from bottom to top . Slot the film roll into the bottom holders. Advance some film by hand, holding the tongue so the film sits nice and flat on the wide side, lying over the rollers. Tuck the tongue into the top spool, wind it checking the fit and ‘flatness’ of the film. Advance the film with the winder until the black line is in the middle of the aperture. 

Pop the film holder into the body of the camera. Jiggle till you’ve got it a tight fit shut, and then lock the camera body again. 


This is where it got tricky on my camera. I couldn’t see any film advancing numbers through the red window on the backplate, so I had to guesstimate the number of winds it took to move each frame forward. It also had a little rotating disc internally that keeps the light off the film for sure. To be safe I left it on the shut position. I think I over-advanced, taking pics on a freezing cold day in Bosham with snow in the ground, I started the advance rate at 13 then moved onto 15. 

I felt the need to keep a tight grip on the camera, making sure there was a little pressure on both sides of the tin can to keep the sides in tight. I forgot to do this in the excitement of taking pics so if there’s light leak, that’s possibly why. 

This image below is the film wound onto the receiving spool at the top of the camera, with some notes on the film after I had licked the gummed tape shut. I love that bit. 


The optical view lens was bright and clear, and with practice I could keep the horizon straight. I recall reading that the optics are better than the images when printed. The shutter is set at f/30, and I knocked the tiny lever from / to ‘t’. This is the equivalent of Bulb. So it may be I am over-exposed. And blurry. It’s the magic of film!


The lense unscrews a little way for zoom at 2 feet, then 5-3 feet, then in at 6 feet to ~ infinity. I kept it on infinity. 

This is a pic of my current favourite boat in School Reach, Bosham that I took with my iphone after I’d definitely used up the film. I’m hoping I’ve got one on the Ensign. 

I’ll post a follow up blog once I’ve got the film back. 


These various old box cameras will be on my stand at Draper’s Yard, Chichester, for demonstration and sale, along with details of photographic workshops using these gorgeous old cameras. Dates for Drapers will be posted. 

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Photography Workshops on Chichester Harbour 2018

The Easter Hols are approaching, and for some kids, this means the opportunity to get involved with various workshops. If GCSE and Alevels loom, this might be the time to indulge in a days photography workshop, either to enhance and develop camera skills, or to offer up light relief. For children who enjoy a blend of the great outdoors, and the challenge of learning new techniques, the workshops are an immensely fun way to learn camera skills and improve their photography. 

Chichester Harbour is a beautiful place and every day brings different opportunities to photograph. Birds, seascapes, boats, seals if you’re lucky. Depending on the needs of the  children, we will look at camera settings, capturing light, the relationships between lens and shutter, camera pre-sets, and once we’ve covered these crackers, it’s out into the Harbour for a long photoshoot to practice new found techniques. There’s an editing session afterwards.  The workshops have limited numbers and are based out of Itchenor Sailing Club. I run adults workshops too. 

                                                   Workshop Dates 

Children 2018 Easter Hols

23rd March 2018 (10-12 yrs) 0930-1630 Itchenor Sailing Club, Itchenor, West Sussex

6th April 2018 (13-15 yrs) 0930-1630 Itchenor Sailing Club, Itchenor, West Sussex

13th April 2018 (16-18 yrs) 0930-1630 Itchenor Sailing Club, Itchenor, West Sussex

Adults (UK) 2018
16th March 0930-1630   Beginners 
27th April 0930-1630      Intermediate 
4th May 0930-1630         Seascapes 
25th May 0930-1630       Beginners 
1st June 0930-1630         Intermediate
22nd June 0930-1630     Light on the Harbour
29th June 0930- 1630     Coastal Landscapes

Barbados  & the Box Brownie Special. 

The Eight Frame Project on the Collectors Table. 

The recent purchase of a tiny Bakelite Box Brownie Special as a print film project is very exciting. Each film only takes eight frames, and is taking me back to the very old days of the 1930’s & 40’s of 127mm film. For a digital photographer the change from limitless to eight is a brain-squeezing jump and thus good discipline. There may be light leaks. There may be soft focus. There will definitely be fun. The Eight Frame Project has forced me to think carefully about what I put in my frames. The constraint of limitation has both widened (and, by default) narrowed my creative bandwidth. The Box Brownie Special was loaded this morning in the gloom of the corner pantry under the stairs, and the red hole at the back covered with a bit of sticky stuff from a ‘Heavy’ luggage label stuck on by Virgin Airlines. I’m not sure my film isn’t affected by the red window but was advised by The Camera Guru to tape it up. Anyhow, I’m enjoying the mix of old and new here. I have eight frames per roll, and I’m not sure how many twists make a progression of the frames so I’m working on three full twists of the knob for this first roll of film. And luck. All images below are taken by my iPhone 7. 

Day 1

We had an early morning adventure to Foul Bay, a wild Atlantic beach on the East coast of Barbados. I adventured this morning without the camera, looking for inspiration, and themes are slowly starting to emerge. I’ve been looking at Bajan culture through the Eight Frame Project, and research has unearthed the one hundred strong churches in the island, and underneath a remnant of the old culture in Obeah. It’s funny when you start looking how certain things then shine. A few web pages refer to the Obeah symbolism (white cockerels, pentacles, animal bones..). Nothing you spot on a normal morning jaunting to the beach. 

Down the road to Foul Bay was a bin with Voodoo graffitied in it, a pentangle in the sand, and a sweet older lady feeding bread crumbs to a white cockerel. On the way back we saw a garden with animal bone wind chimes in the garden. If your shadow was caught you were under an Obeah spell. 

Is Photography nothing more than Shadow Catching? 

I came back to Green Cottage with a mixture of treasure trove. Flotsam along the strand line of Foul Bay unearthed loads of plastic bottle caps, in varying formats, a child’s flip flop lost in the sand, a baby shoe dropped. Organic matter too: driftwood, a fishing spool on a little bit of wood, a sponge dislodged from reef further up the coast. In my minds eye I found similarities when the shadows cast from the sponge echoed the roughed-up fabric on the tiny shoe. Shadow-catching. 

The Baby Box Brownie has a 5 foot minimum focal distance, and the collection lying on my table in bright sunlight would have been lost. But I liked the grouping of the flotsam plastic bottle caps and used my iPhone and Snapseed to capture these particular shadows. 

Day Two

Another walk down to Foul Bay after a windy, windy night. The beach had wonderful sea fans in the tideline, chunks of well washed sea glass and (amongst other flip flops and whole shoes, a recurring find) the sole of a shoe. 

At about 745am the Baby Brownie Special took its first image, that of a path winding to an unfinished house with two palm trees. The second image was of bone wind chimes, and the third the local cow with her egrets. Three used. Five to go. 

At the top of the road leading down to the beach is a church. At the bottom of the road is a bin, and another form of religious iconography. 


The pentagon in the sand had been washed by the rain but was still visible. This time I had my phone on me, and the next few images are of the area around the car park at Foul Bay. There was no sign of the white cockerel today. Or the sweet lady feeding him. Christmas is tomorrow. Not sure I’d want to be a cockerel on Christmas Day. 


Back at the Collectors Table I looked for relationships between my findings, other than the common denominator of being found in Foul Bay. 

As part of the flotsam collective I like the connection between the hard shadow of the shoe and it’s faux nature pattern on the sole, and in contrast the extreme delicacy of the sea fan’s natural lattice formation. The other seaweed form reminds me of a tiny underwater tree. Which, on reflection, it is. 

Eight frames is not a lot. These entries (somewhat shanghaied by the IPhone camera tech) allow me the space to breathe life into ideas, and to think. The Baby Brownie is becoming part of a philosophy.

The Victorians were fabulous natural historians and Collectors. Gerald Durrell recurring again as my early life inspiration.  The Collector’s Table works as a visual forum for discarded plastic, flotsam, discarded elements of modern life, set in the context of seaglass (returning the silica and sand to its original form) and then the natural shapes found in driftwood, coral, shells, seaweeds. 

This collective is sea glass  with a coral find. Again, man made and natural. The shadows are barely discernible through the glass. The Collector’s Table is becoming a thing when I frame my finds. I like the natural frame it brings to the Flotsam Series. The scale of the finds are obvious when the images are viewed as a collection. I’m savouring collective, collected, collection. And the hard cast shadows of the table legs on the tiles of the veranda. The 9am light is already very, very bright here in Barbados. 

Sometimes my mole feet get in the photoshoot. 


The difficulties of shooting from above. 

I’ve been looking at other stuff on the interweb about Brownies. I’ve done a hack involving magnets, sugru, elastic bands and tripod mounts, so I can put my little Baby B into my z tripod. Next stop is the old houses, the Chattel Houses, in and around Georgetown. The architecture here is enchanting. In between the more modern houses are tiny little wooden gems, painted tictac green and yellow, rose pink, mint green. I’m in love. I think these are perfect pics but I’m shooting in black and white so need to think how to structure the eight frames. 

The East Coast of the Island is a ancient fossilised coral coastline in battle with the Atlantic. Rollers last seen in Africa storm the beaches. Sea glass is pounded back to its component forms, and salt spray fills the spaces between particles of air. The plants are lush and crazy. Coconut palms use serrated leaves to bend and caress the huge winds, and storms roll up and over the island making tin rooftops hum. Towns and beaches  have evocative names: Bathsheba, Newcastle, Bath. It’s not for the faint hearted when the weather rolls in. Raindrops are hard and fat. The chattel houses have deep balconies to avoid the worst of the wet, and steep rooftops to channel the rain away. You can drink rainwater in bars. And rum. I like this island.