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How saying yes to chaos and privation led to an unprecedented collaboration and an extraordinary photobook.

I STRUGGLE WITH INDIA. While there, I’m disgusted by the poverty, sickened by reality, angry at the absurdity of it all. Inside my head are dueling desires: leaving vs. staying. It helps to laugh, to let yourself go a bit, to not think and instead try to accept it for what it is: India.

India is often described as extreme. Extreme poverty and disease side by side with extreme wealth and opulence. And most extreme, perhaps, are the feelings inside a traveler’s head while trying to come to terms with it all.

This is what makes India like a drug. For some personalities, it’s addicting. You swear off it when you’re there, but once off it you desire more.

We made our first visit in 2004. One of my closest friends, Jonathan Kingston, was teaching at a photography institute and continually trying to get a group of friends to come visit. Together with Jonathan and Paul Liebhardt, a professor from our own photography school, we decided to cover India’s Thaipusam Festival.

Travel is glamorous only in retrospect. — Paul Theroux

During previous travels, Paul had stumbled onto this festival in a remote southern village. It was not in any guidebook. In other words, it would potentially be our own to experience. We made the journey, spent a month photographing Indian life, and in the end had experienced something sublime.

But when it was all over, I was pretty sure I would never return. India had worn me out.

A few years later, with the same people, we began to hatch a new plan. This time it was the opposite idea. Every savvy traveler has heard of the Pushkar Camel Fair. It’s crowded with travel groups and photo workshops, hardly the experience we’d had on our first trip. But based on photos we’d seen, along with tales of all kinds of mayhem, we were sure India would put on a show like only India can.

Joining our little gang was a group of Jonathan’s former photo students, all Indian, all now working professionals. With such a motivated posse of talent, we thought: “let’s do a book.”

Photo by Jonathan Kingston, www.kingstonimages.com.

Pushkar is a remote village in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan. Each November, it becomes the venue for a massive gathering of camel traders, nomads, gypsies, Hindu holy men and tourists. And being India, it’s a spectacle.

Not only do western tourists arrive en masse, so too holidaying Indians. There’s entertainment for all: a carnival, contests (best mustache!), balloon rides, food sampling, and so on. For a photographer, the stage is set.

En route to the dry, hot, dusty village of Pushkar, we saw endless caravans of camels, nomadic groups and barefoot holy men. Upon arrival, the usually sleepy town was buzzing with anticipation for its two weeks of glory, two weeks where all the year’s rupees need to be made.

We’d arranged lodging on the edge of town in what we’d hoped would be a quiet complex of tiny individual bungalows. Of some concern, upon checking in, were the workmen rigging loudspeakers on the power poles behind the property.

Yes it is a country, a destination, a place. But much more than these India is a state of mind. — Paul Liebhardt

Outside our gates, the pilgrims settled on any available square inch of street, where they would sell things, beg, pray, sleep and eat for ten days. Through them we would thread our way to the mayhem each dawn.

For a travel photographer in India, dawn is the key period. India coming to life is India at its most beautiful. It’s a time to be alone, observing, ready to make images.

In Pushkar it’s not so difficult to wake for a pre-dawn stroll. The low-quality loudspeakers outside our bungalows had been installed in order to broadcast — at full volume, static and distortion — a nearby Yogi’s endless praying and chanting. We didn’t sleep.

RAM RAM RAM, RAAAAAAAMM. RAM RAM RAM.

One night Jonathan and I resolved to cut the power line to the poles, but were ultimately thwarted by our own fear of electrocution. So each morning we rose at 4:30, bleary eyed and sleepless, and headed for the streets.

Making good photos in a group is not possible. In a group, you’re distracted, not focused on the task at hand. You’re intimidating to the subjects. So immediately upon departing our little compound, we’d split up, each with a separate idea for what he or she wanted to document.

My usual destination, after first stopping at a tea stall, were the nomads’ camps. On the outskirts of the village are the sand dunes where the camels are kept. Here, I would stroll the cool sands observing women gathering camel dung for fires, men making tea, the gypsy camps coming alive. I would study life as it happened and make my images as I saw them.

PatitucciPhoto, www.patitucciphoto.com

Toward late morning, as the light grew harsh, our gang would come together at a tea stall in the middle of the dunes. Here we would share our morning’s experiences, debriefing each other, discharging overburdened senses.

Back home, the images we make appear on our computer screens, full of color, life, and emotion. Those who’ve been to India know that these images are everywhere. There’s little new to say about India. One way or another, it’s all been said — and has probably all been photographed.

Still, it’s left to each traveler to ask himself the question, “Have I seen and felt these things?”

What’s new in India — what will always be new — is in the unique experience of the individual. And it starts by saying yes — yes to going, yes to the experience.


To see the full photobook online, as designed by Janine Patitucci, click here.

About The Author

Daniel Patitucci

With his wife Janine, Dan makes up one half of the prolific duo, PatitucciPhoto, whose work has appeared in countless magazines and ad campaigns for the likes of National Geographic, The North Face, REI, Patagonia, Clif Bar, Jack Wolfskin, Gore-Tex, Smartwool, Mountain Hardware, Nature’s Path, and many more. What little time they have at home they split between the Italian Dolomites and California's wild Eastern Sierra.

  • http://miller-david.com david miller

    thanks for these notes and thoughts daniel.

  • TimR

    Great story and pictures. Especially the last two sentences. A lot of travel writing seems to be about finding that latest great undiscovered gem that you can have all to yourself. But I haven’t even been to many of the discovered places yet, so they’re all potentially undiscovered gems as far as I’m concerned. That’s why I’m heading to Pushkar for the fair this year and other places around Rajasthan. I have to see and experience it all myself.

  • http://www.patitucciphoto.com Dan Patitucci

    Hey Tim,
    Thanks for the nice words. Have a great time in Pushkar, it is endless fun.
    If you have any questions feel free to ask.
    Enjoy!
    Take care, and take some earplugs,
    Dan

  • Dijana

    Sukriya, for sharing this wonderful story, India, truly is amazing country, cant wait to visit her again. I’ve been in Rajasthan last year, and but unfortunately I missed all the festivals , always bad timing…….but no time to be sad I’m sure there will be second chance to experience, just India’s festivals..they are really something special and unique.

  • http://www.sierrasurvey.com David Page

    Gorgeous work, Dan, Janine et al. The book is truly stunning. Must hit that event for ourselves one day. But I think we’ll leave the photo-making to you guys!

  • http://www.monicaprelle.com Monica Prele

    Daniel and Janine, Thank you for sharing your experience. Your photography truly is stunning…enjoyed the words too. Seriously, wow.

  • http://backpakker.blogspot.com lakshmi

    Being a travel writer fm India, I am always fascinated by the various perspectives of India..great post

  • http://www.greenygrey.co.uk Marc Latham

    Great article and photos, cheers.

  • http://deleted G.B.S.N.P.Varma

    Nice. Thanks for posting.

    One problem with India is it is full of Indians.

    It contains multitudes, to quote Walt Whitman.

When I get together with other photographers, we speak another language.
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