An unorthodox Easter at Lalibela

Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of those places that once you've seen pictures of it you will always want to go there..  For years I've seen articles and images of the amazing monolithic churches carved out of the rock and thought that one day I'd have the chance to get there and see it for myself.  Fortunately that chance came a few years ago on a photo/research trip through northern Ethiopia with a writer/photographer friend of mine.  Not only did we get to spend a few days at Lalibela but we also chose to visit at one of the best times of year - during the Ethiopian Orthodox Easter celebrations when thousands of pilgrims come from all over the country to pray.


The 11 rock hewn churches at Lalibela are thought to have been built during the reign of Saint Gebre Mesqel Lalibela who ruled Ethiopia in the late 12th century and early 13th century.  Biete Giyorgis (above) is probably the best preserved and most finely executed and iconic of all the churches and is carved out of the top of a sandstone hill.

Over the Orthodox Easter period people flocked into Lalibela in their thousands, coming from all over Ethiopia as well as abroad to pray and attend the numerous services and processions that were taking place around the churches at all times of day and night.  The devotion of the visitors was incredible - sleeping in and around the churches, praying and studying the Holy scriptures seemingly their entire waking hours.

After dark the place took on an altogether different atmosphere.  Wandering around the churches in the near pitch black was an intense experience, at times you would be on your own trying to find your way down rock carved alleys from one church to another and the next moment you'd be surrounded by pilgrims walking in endless circles round one of the churches.  One particular moment I will never forget was hearing the distant drone of many people chanting and the sound of the brass rattles (sistrum) used throughout the churches in Ethiopia - following the resonating sound down the passages it led to a small carved out where I witnessed a scene that can barely have changed since the days when the churches were first chiseled from the sandstone.  A group of Deacons lit only by waxed tapers and clad in simple white robes rocked rhythmically back and forward in unison to the sound of drums and sistrum.  Off the main chamber another priest swung a glowing censer that permeated the air with the intoxicating smell of incense, the roof blackened with the waxy soot of nearly a millenium of prayer.


Outside in the main areas surrounding the sunken churches, dozens of pilgrims wrapped in simple shawls curled up in whatever space they could find to try and snatch an hour or two of chilly sleep whilst those around carried on their prayers by the dim flickering light of a taper.

I shot everything during this trip on the Canon 5d mkll, my main camera at the time.  The cameras low light performance never fails to amaze - the 5dlll I now use is amazingly even better.  The ability to shoot in seemingly near darkness without having to resort to lighting is fantastic.

These images and many others from this and other assignments are available direct from me or through the various agencies I'm represented by, including: Axiom Photographic, Getty Images and DesignPics

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.

Tawang Monastery video

Whilst looking for new content for the adamson visuals website I came across this short film shot and edited very quickly a couple of years ago and thought it was worth sharing again. I was traveling through the region with writer and photographer Stuart Butler who was researching the Lonely Planet guidebook for the region. Unfortunately as is always the case on these type of trips we were very pushed for time and only spent a couple of nights in Tawang but this gave me enough of an opportunity to visit the stunning monastery starting in the dark and cold with early morning prayers at about 0430.

Shot on Canon 5d mk2

Tawang lies at just over 3000 metres in the northwestern part of Arunachal Pradesh in an area bordering Tibet and Bhutan and is home to the largest buddhist Monastery outside Tibet. The 12 hour drive from Tezpur in Assam is pretty arduous and is at times spectacular taking in the steep and heavily forested Himalayan foothills and passing over the 4176m Sela pass where from where you get fantastic views to the high snow covered peaks of the Himalaya beyond.

The Tawang monsatery was founded in 1681 in accordance to the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama and is a major holy site for Tibetan Buddhists as it was also the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.