naga

A Grand Day Out

As a photographer who spends several months of the year shooting on location in remote areas one of the things that always astounds me is the amount of time one can seem to waste in the back of a 4WD vehicle getting around in country.  Almost inevitably the best parts of the day (the morning and evening) are spent bumping along dirt roads while you can frequently be tasked with getting your story or images in the heat and intense light of the midday sun.  There is also the frustration of being on route to a particular location with a time schedule to keep to and passing countless good photo opportunities as you go - all highly annoying.

On some rare days though, when you have a little more time on your hands, you have the chance to stop and take advantage of the the location and the journey and get the images that normally pass you by.

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AGDO-3

On this particular day we had been photographing in the village of Longwa that straddles the border of Nagaland and Myanmar.  The people of the village are of the Konyak tribe and were extremely hospitable despite their not too distant past history of head hunting.  Facial tattoos are pretty common among the older men of the area and this along with the beauty and remoteness of the region is what draws in the few visitors who make it here.

Village headman - Longwa, Nagaland/Myanmar border
Village headman - Longwa, Nagaland/Myanmar border

I shot a few portraits including the one above of the new village Headman (lit with a speedlight and shoot through brolly held at full extension in my left hand - my 'go to' quick and dirty lighting in these sort of situations).

Leaving the village in the early afternoon we were faced with the usual long drive to get back to the only guest house in the area but this time had a few hours to kill and spend on the journey.  The first stop was for this guy who was standing beside the road on the edge of a scruffy little village. Come on......, how could you pass up the opportunity to go and chat to a man with horns?

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AGDO-4

After the usual pleasantries we broached the subject of shooting a few pictures and as typical in this region it was met with a smile and a nod of the head.  We were then ushered into the mans nearby house and invited to sit in the near darkness whilst the fire was re kindled and the tea made.  With a sweet brew in hand it began to dawn that we were in fact sat in a smokey little opium den with a few other quietly staring reclining figures tucked away in the shadows.

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The man with the horns began to prepare his next pipe, explaining as he did so how he got the opium from the Myanmar side of the border and how he could afford little else other than his habit.  Things then took a peculiar twist.  Our host put both feet behind his head - resting on the dirt floor on just his bottom.  He then stuck his opium pipe in his mouth and took a burning branch from the fire to light it - but then rather than throwing it back on the fire he rubbed the flaming branch up one arm after another explaining as he did that the continued use of opium had completely de-sensitized his skin.  It seemed to have no effect on him at all.  Looking back at the images now I realize I missed capturing the moment concentrating more on shooting portraits rather than documentary images - maybe the smoke had clouded my judgment?

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AGDO-6

Leaving the smoke and drugs behind we soon picked up a character we'd given a lift to earlier in the day.  With his bright red waistcoat and blue beads around his legs this was a local village chief who we'd picked up in the morning.  With nothing more than a live chicken in a basket he was on his way by foot to a funeral in a village some 30km away.  Luckily for him it was a day with time in hand so we'd stopped and offered a lift.  It was now the chiefs opportunity to reciprocate and invited us back to his village for tea.  Having accepted we suspected there might have been an ulterior motive as this then took us miles out of our way down dirt paths to deliver him home - again without the time in hand we would never have gone.

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Leaving the chief and by this stage late in the afternoon we passed several hunters on their way into the forest - needless to say it was another encounter too good to pass up.  Young guys with guns - hunters or insurgents?  Nagaland has several insurgent factions demanding regional independence but also involved in kidnapping, extortion, smuggling and inter-factional clashes.  Maybe stopping and shooting the breeze with these guys was not a good idea but again encounters like this are for me what make travel interesting.

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AGDO-9

As is so often the case these young guys were flattered to be stopped and have the attention - 2 minutes of chat and then we had the all clear for as many photographs as wanted.  As is so often the case if you just have the time to stop and chat and make time for people you soon realize that there are interesting encounters to be had had even when you are driving along dirt roads in the middle of nowhere.

Hunter, Nagaland, India
Hunter, Nagaland, India

The Nagas are coming

The Nagas are coming..!

The 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad has recently come to an end.  The 55 day festival held at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati river brought together the largest gathering of humanity the world might ever have seen.  Some estimates suggest that over 100 million people attended over the course of the festivities.  Whatever the real number is almost irrelevant – it was without doubt a one of a kind event and an amazing thing to be part of, if only for a few incredibly tiring days.

I went to photograph the festival as a result of a long chain of events beginning about 14 years ago in Ecuador.  I was surfing on the coast having finished a shoot for Oxfam in Colombia and there met a writer/photographer/surfer who was staying in the same guest house.  In the course of conversation the subject of the Kumbh Mela came up and it was there that the seed was sown.  In 2001 the last Maha Kumbh Mela was held and for some long forgotten reason I didn’t go – I guess work probably got in the way.  That meant a long 12 year wait until the festival came around again and the next opportunity came to photograph the largest religious gathering on earth.

The most auspicious bathing day, known as Mauni Amavasya, was this year on the 10th February.  It is then that the Sun and the Moon enter into the sign of Capricorn and it’s believed to be the day when the universe was created.  The day holds extreme religious importance and taking bath on this day in the holy waters is deemed immensely significant and auspicious.

Being the busiest day of the festival meant the crowds were incredible – no forget that – beyond incredible.  Setting of from our camp on the Western side of the river it took in excess of 3 hours to walk to the main bathing area at the Sangam – the river had to be crossed several times via the numerous tightly packed temporary pontoon bridges end everywhere was a solid mass of humanity.  The sheer number of people and density of the crowd is almost impossible to describe, at times the crush was literally breathtaking – it seemed as though entire villages of people were walking together hand in hand – the women all holding the hand or sari of the woman in front and impossible to pass through without getting carried away by the flow.  Tempers were tested to the limits but remarkably there were incredibly few signs of any anger or aggression.

Having got close to the Sangam (the main bathing area) by 4:30am is was time to get into position to photograph the procession of the Naga Sadhus – the naked, ash covered ascetics devoted to a life of austerity and prayer.  Police were everywhere – restricting access to the main procession route but a bit of sweet talking soon got me the right side of the barriers.

Just before dawn the fenced pathway was cleared by police and officials and the cry “the Nagas are coming” was heard.  Lots of locals advised to stay clear of the Nagas – they have swords – they are uncontrollable – they might hurt you – these were all warnings that police and other told us.  As the first hint of the sun appeared so the first wave of Nagas came down the road – difficult to photograph with rapidly changing light – a mix of tungsten floods, dawn light and a  bit of off camera fill flash.  Waves of excited (probably cannabis fuelled) Nagas were followed by their Gurus riding on tractors and trailers with thousands of devotees behind.

By dawn it was time to battle the crowds and move to another location – but this was a experience that will be hard to forget.