Travel

Meet the Death Photographers of India’s Holiest City

Two photographers collaborate on a series of images of the dead in India’s holy city of Varanasi.
December 27, 2016, 7:30pm
The funeral pyres (“burning ghats”) alongside the Ganges River in the holy city of Varanasi. Images courtesy the artists

Warning: This article contains images of dead bodies.

When photographer Matteo de Mayda traveled to India to photograph the country’s best inventors, the project collapsed at the very last moment. Desperate for a subject, he stumbled upon a local video report on the photographers in the holy city of Varanasi. An hour later he booked a 30-hour third class train ride to the city, where he eventually came across a death photographer who worked along the Ganges River by the name of Indra Kumar Jha.

De Mayda, a photographer and art director who focuses on good causes through collaborations with NGOs or by making documentaries, knew he’d found his photographic story. The initial idea was to photograph Jha at work at the “burning ghats” (funeral pyres) of Varanasi. But when de Mayda saw prints on Jha’s shop wall, he quickly realized that the most interesting part of the work were his images.

Matteo de Mayda captures death photographer Indra Kumar Jha

“Indra's only archive is the SD card of the camera,” de Mayda tells The Creators Project. “When it’s full he deletes all the images because for him it doesn't matter. ”

What surprised de Mayda was the consistency of Jha’s body of work. While a professional photographer takes years to accumulate the technical and aesthetic skill and experience to pull off a great photograph, and several exhibitions and critical analysis to reach such precision, de Mayda saw in Jha’s work a preternatural talent.

Indra at work

“Indra achieved that because of necessity and without any artistic ambition or project concept,” says de Mayda. “A sort of unconscious wisdom.”

When Jha was 17 years old, he bought a small camera and began shooting without any previous photographic education. Jha, who uses a Canon IXUS 180, says he likes the job because he has no manager, and can earn anywhere between 1,500 and 2,500 rupees ($22-37) per day. Jha markets himself as a wedding and birthday photographer to avoid any social stigma.

Indra’s camera, a Canon IXUS 180

“From my side, in addition to the images of Indra at work, I decided to shoot some still lifes of the main objects used during the Hindu rituals in the crematorium,” he adds. “Each of which tells a little more about the person portrayed.”

De Mayda places Jha’s death photography in the tradition of the post-mortem photography that was common with infants and young children of Victorian Era because childhood mortality rates were extremely high. A post-mortem photograph might be the only image of a child the surviving family members would ever have. De Mayda says that the title of he and Jha’s collection is a nod to the Sleeping Beauty book series that explores this culture.

It wasn’t always easy for Jha to get de Mayda into the burning ghats to take photos of the photographer at work, as locals usually deny Westerners access. And while Jha didn’t seem to care much about the photo series, since photography is simply a job, de Mayda says his collaborator was always kind, constantly offering him hot masala chai to drink and inviting him into his tiny home where he lives with his wife and a 4-year old son.

A portrait of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ collaborators Matteo de Mayda and Indra Kumra Jha

“I love professions that arise rather from a necessity rather than from a velleity,” says de Mayda. “Besides, I was fascinated by the consistency in Indra's body of work as a photographer, and I simply thought it deserved to be shared with other people.”

“Then, what impressed me most is that way of feeling death by Hindus,” he adds. “And these portraits to me don't express the sadness or the decay of the body, nor the end of life itself, but mostly the celebration of something that deals with life and with a sort of beauty.”

Click here to see more of Matteo de Mayda’s work.

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