India is so big, so complex yet a fascinating place : John Williams
Ph0tographer John Williams at the Kumbh Mela India
John Williams is in love with India. Since 1999 he has visited India 7 times with his camera. His self-funding trips to catch, you know what, “The Death” . He is a passionate man to shoot something very common yet distinctive. What attracts him to a land of extremes i.e ‘India’ is its ability to surprise. One moment you are filled with love, the other with awe and next can be oh God..!
He has brought his complete Indian experience in different shades of black and white. It is a true and real reflection of the aesthetics. His fascination to capture death in Varanasi, Indian city where every religious-minded Indian dreams to die, so as to seek comfort in the arms of the Creator. He has given his photo documentary the name ‘Pilgrimage’- meaning ‘A journey or search of moral or spiritual significance”. Pilgrimage is a documentary exhibition containing images of different aspects of pilgrimage in India and Sri Lanka. This includes the biggest congregation of people in the world, the 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela in India and the pilgrimage to die in India’s holiest city, Varanasi.
Indianz X-PRESS took the opportunity to speak to John on this occasion to seek better insight as to what pulls him to India and what does he intend to portray through his fascinating images of black n white.
Q- Do you consider photography an art form?
- Yes, yes I do, it depends what type of photography you do. Commercial photography which is done for advertising and stuff, but others like these documentaries on a gallery wall are perhaps more artistic in their nature.
Q- Tell us what inspires you to dedicate your life to photography ?
- Wow, it is a hard question. Well, I don’t know. I don’t think I have the complete and utterly honest answer to this. But I can tell you that there is nothing else I want to do more than this.
Q- There is a saying that a picture speaks thousand words, do you agree ?
- It depends what kind of photography you do but every picture has something to reflect or to say needing sometime from the onlooker to understand.
Q- You have theme for your photographs ‘Faith and Worship’ what’s the secret of choosing this?
- I don’t have a complete answer to this too, as I said I am not religious myself but I find other people’s believes fascinating. Like none of us know what happens when we die, but I have always thought that these big religions are the kind of way for people to lead their lives. So if you follow a religion it gives you a possible asssurance that something good will happen to you when you die. I don’t believe but I feel so, I find that belief very interesting to construct.
Q- Constantly visiting India, has there been any experience which has turned you around internally ?
- I think there are a lot of western travelers who go to India to find themselves or in search of some mystic experience. And I have met saints and sadhus and lots of other religious believers. I do have a lot of discussions with them. I have not had any big revelations but what has happened is with such profound interactions with wide variety of people I have become very understanding.
Q- Do you yourself feel any spiritual alignment ?
- I am quite interested in Buddhism , but not in any organised way. For me be nice to others you meet and expect the same from others. For me meeting people from the other corners of the world with language barriers, but still in the moment we all share the feelings and emotions which means a lot.
Q- From the western’s perspective all these sadhus, monks, ascetics seem insane, with their make-up and rhetoric’s, what message do you want to portray through your lens ?
- They do seem extreme, you are absolutely right. But unlike other photographers who are interested in their theatrics and un-usualness I am more interested in their everydayness of their religious pilgrimage as to why the father has brought his entire family from hundreds of kilometers for the occasion. I do get suspicious at times with these sadhus with big cars in fleets and big compounds and walls.
Q- Your most fascinating experience till date in India ?
- There are many but I guess still the most fascinating is to get accepted by people in some weird ways. The pictures you see from Varanasi, where people are dying and their families are with them, just the fact that they let me in to click those photos. And they don’t think that it’s necessarily strange especially when they see me in shorts and with camera. And they let me in and shoot where their mother, father or any of the family members is dying or dead. That acceptance and openness for me is something surreal.
Q- What are your most loved photos in the gallery and why ?
- The one I recently took in India in which the family members are taking the photographs from their cell phones of their dying parent or relative is kind of ultimate to me I suppose. Others which are not dramatic but quiet moments captured in Kumbh mela, which is so loud, noisy and enormous.
Q- Why do you think India is different from most other countries in the world ?
- It is a fascinating place. So many religions, customs, traditions. There is a kind of openness to each other and foreigners as well. And just when you think you understand it, something happens that takes you completely off guard. And as is said, it is the land of extremes. All these things can happen to you within 5 minutes. One moment someone can kill you with kindness and the other moment something very unexpected can happen. But since 2007, I am observing India is becoming too modern too quickly. Cell phones TV’s, western clothing everywhere.
Q- You have shot major congregations and gatherings in India, what made you do it ?
- I guess I have always seen them as the kind of the ultimate version of things. I have planned to photograph other big places in the world , time and finance permitting, but the Kumbh is still the ultimate. It’s the biggest congregation of the people in the world. The size and the amount of belief by the people is incredible, 40 million people turn up at one place on one day for a holy dip.
Q- Have you ever felt anything divine or out of the ordinary while shooting these events or even when you are shooting someone dying?
- Sometimes, something seems to be going on, but I don’t know. There is always a kind of a tangible feeling that something is sort of happening. But I am not entirely sure that’s it’s our own construct. You see the person you know they are dying. I felt things at times differently but I am not sure.
Q- Who are the people you are getting support from ?
- For a collection of work like this, where the fist images are from 1999, to have an exhibition like this , is quite a lot of work. The gallery director James ‘s support is huge as even though he knows he will not make money selling these images as no one wants to put them on their walls at home. The Asia NZ foundation has helped for putting this together and so as my partner.
Q- Tell us about the exhibition and the response you are getting in here ?
- Its all good and shining, lots of people are coming and appreciating, other photographer friends have come in and said they liked it and have never seen anything like this before.
Q- Are these pictures for sale ?
- Yes they are, we haven’t put the prices on the wall but if someone is interested in buying any, they can discuss it with James.
Q- Any message for the community?
- It would be really interesting to get the feedback particularly from the Indian people. And would love them to come and see it. From my perspective I have tried to shoot what these events look like as is, without having agenda or any point to prove, so any feedback from the Indian or other communities would be highly appreciated.
Q- So is this love with India going to continue?
- Quite probably ya, trying to make a trip in every couple of years usually, trying to think what might be next. I have met lots of westerners travelling in India and have been to India, it seems to be a common perception that you either love it or hate it. It’s a great country, it is so big, so complex almost too much for a western mind to comprehend but it’s a fascinating place.