Helen Reeves is a freelance photographer, who travelled to India in February 2015. She took the opportunity to document the vast and varied sights she witnessed. Here, she talks exclusively to EphemeralMag about her experience.
When did you start practising photography as an art form and what inspired you?
I have always been fascinated by great photographs, but didn’t undertake formal photography training until my forties, when I undertook a City & Guilds Level 3 course in Photography and Digital Image Making. I have since come to understand that what has always inspired me is capturing the beauty and feel of a moment – everything is about ‘seeing and feeling the light”. I decided to work with photography as a medium as a way to record what I find to be beautiful, without being naturally gifted at drawing,
Do you consider formal artistic training to be important for success?
Training and education in any sphere of life can only enhance the quality of your skills and life experiences, whether it makes you more successful is difficult to say – it depends how you quantify success.
Are there any artists in particular whose work you admire?
In my view, everyone has a contribution to make… I admire any artist who works with passion, because you can feel it from their work.
What are your aspirations as an artist? Would you like to pursue a career in the arts?
I want to continue feeling that excitement every time I pick up my camera. For me that means photography being a hobby, as it is ruined for me when money becomes involved.
What inspired you to travel to India, and what did you hope to learn from your trip?
Actually, my husband booked the trip to India and we went with a mixture of fear and excitement.
In what ways were your expectations met, or not met?
Firstly, as a Westerner you can never quite prepare yourself for India….I was expecting the poverty, the smells, the heart wrenching sights, a civilisation steeped in history and spirituality, but what took me by surprise was the reality of the density of the population and the consequences of modern living….the litter mountains of plastic are knee high everywhere. Also, people living in the most basic conditions, but having mobile phones.
What did you like or dislike about each place that you visited?
We started our trip in Delhi, working our way around what is known as the northern cultural triangle and ended our trip on the beaches of South Goa and flew back from Mumbai. The density of the population in Delhi is quite overwhelming (officially 19 million people in this city alone). The hustle and bustle of Old Delhi is a complete assault on your senses – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, like you have never experienced before. The reality was that our hotel was a sanctuary. A lot of Delhi was not very pleasant, but it was unforgettable.
Varanassi is supposedly one of the most spiritual places in India. There has been civilisation here for 5000 years. I was excited and scared to be coming here, as it is where many Indians choose to die and be cremated as well as bathe in the ‘holy waters’ – although not in that order! From a Western viewpoint It is very hard to appreciate how you could clean your teeth and bathe in the now unbelievably polluted waters of the Ganges… What is mind-blowing is the strength of the faith that is held in the healing power of the waters, which at their origin in the Himalayas have 30% higher oxygen levels, than is usual. The rituals were quite amazing to see in a jaw-dropping sort of way.
In Agra we visited the iconic Taj Mahal – I cried when I saw the beauty of it, which alters with the light. It is especially beautiful in the peace of the early morning. Its grandiose scale sits uncomfortably with the surrounding poverty. When we visited Ranthambhore, our lucky stars were truly shining on us, because we experienced the TIGER, swimming across a lake and walking in front of our jeep. We also saw three of the very rare Sloth Bears…. Special memories. Jaipur is a fascinating city with the most amazing pink architecture and Amber Fort. It was kite competition season and we witnessed kites being flown all across the skies, just as described in ‘ The Kite Runner”.
Fort Bali introduced us to a taste of real India in rural Rajasthan – interaction with the beautiful children and friendly locals was a rare treat. Udaipur is a gorgeous city on a lake with amazing palace and architecture. The tropical South Goa felt a very different India to the North – hot with dense vegetation of banana and coconut trees and a beautiful long sandy beach. We found a wonderful beach shack with a gorgeous proprietor, who presented us with locally caught fish, cooked to perfection, while the sun went down. Nowhere in the world have I seen sunsets like that…the whole sky was a glowing furnace. Mumbai, in so many ways felt like a modern cosmopolitan city, trapped under a blanket of thick smog, but old and new still vie for position – modern skyscrapers juxtaposed with laundry washed in the streets, on a commercial scale.
How did the people you met while travelling shape your perception of India as a country?
The majority of people we met were, gentle, respectful, beautiful people, but corruption is rife, which feels a bit shocking in such a spiritual country – we were even told that Temples are used for money laundering. This is the most hierarchical society I have ever experienced and at the poorest end, human life is assigned no greater value than the animals on the streets.
How did India, as a different environment, affect the way you worked as a photographer?
I actually felt uncomfortable using my expensive professional camera, which is a shame as it really is one of the most fascinating places to photograph in the world.
If you were to do the trip again, would you change anything and why?
Despite the fact that many of the experiences were hard to bear, I wouldn’t change them: they have opened my eyes to a massively different culture than our own and have made a lasting impression on me. It has also given me an appreciation for all of the good things about our own country, which we take for granted. If I went again, I would be ‘prepared’ for India, would have a clearer picture of what I wanted to get out of it photographically and would be braver trying to achieve this.
(All images featured in this article are the intellectual property of Helen Reeves)