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Finding the Sacred on the Sacred River

Finding the Sacred on the Sacred River
Finding the Sacred on the Sacred River
When I saw it, I knew, I had to go: A workshop during the Hindu spiritual festival on the Ganges River. Agency VII was organizing and I knew immediately, that this, I had to attend.

I registered, applied, got in, got a visa, got a flight and showed up.

I'd never been to India. And quite honestly, before leaving I worried more about my storyline, my vaccines and my fear of flying (thinking I'd be dead before I arrived).

A little background; I'm a Mom and live in a nice cushy neighborhood in Boston. Some of the work I photograph is called, "Fabulous Families" and something else is called, "In God's Studio" which is all beautiful quiet snow work. India then, was a big surprise.

I landed in Varanasi and took the two hour taxi ride to Asi Ghat. The hotel was, well... not exactly a refuge from what I was seeing outside. Which was a lot of poverty and smelled like you were trapped permanently in a bad outhouse.

The first person I saw when I arrived was John Stanmeyer, the winner of the World Press Photography award. He said, "Here's your fixer, go out and shoot." So off I went immediately to the Ganges River. My project was to be on sacred water and why the Hindus find it spiritual.

Anil, my fixer decided it would be best to give me a complete tour of the river by rowboat, so that I could get an idea of the area.

Half way down the river we came across a dead body. It was a woman who was tied to a boat. I took two photos thinking I should, but stopped, knowing this woman did not want me to take her photo in this state.

When I got back to the hotel John immediately looked at my work. He went through my files saying, "tourist, tourist, tourist," shaking his head disappointed in my photos. And then he stopped on my dead woman and toggled between my two photos. He looked at me and said, "You saw a dead body and you didn't work that idea like two dogs fucking?"

And that was my first day.

The next two days had similar results. I was witness to several cremations where the Hindus burn people before the river. It's really a disruptive site watching someone toss a leg onto a fire after it's fallen off the middle of a flame. Remember, I was used to quiet snow photos.

I would shoot mornings and evenings with the same results from John, "tourist, tourist, tourist," he would say, "get IN the water". And I'd say, "John, I know there is at least one dead body in there." And he'd throw me a, "Show me what are you made of," look which I hated. I wanted to impress him, but I didn't want to go home sick either. So I worked on getting the guts to go into that river, the sacred one.

On day three I'm photographing some women praying near the river and end up falling into a sinkhole. My camera is dangling from my neck and I'm covered in mud up to my thighs. This seemed to be funny for the Indians who clearly knew to stay clear of this little dangerous mud spot. Anil pulled me out and at that point, I figured I may as well get in the river since I was covered in mud. So there I was shooting in the river, imagining I was getting parasites or that "thing" I felt brushing against my leg was a dead hand. After awhile I got out to head back to the hotel, when I was followed by a guy with a huge ugly grey snake who thought I might pay him to take a photo. So I ended up in a sprint back to the hotel where, yes, I admit, I broke down in tears under my cold shower that came from the Ganges River. Was I getting cleaner or more dirty? I didn't know. Where was I?

Why did I think I could connect to their spirituality? Did I think they could understand my own? That I take communion by eating a wafer and then believe that the Holy Spirit, the Son of God is moving through my body? I mean that must sound really wacked out to them.

But then day three, afternoon happened. I went out and decided to get some air. I asked Anil to row me to the other side of the river to take photos of Asi Ghat as the sun set. We were getting in his boat and all these children ran up to him and begged him to come with me. He pushed us off shore, and I asked him to stop and go back. I wanted to take the children.

I then had the most brilliant day; Kids. Kids the same age as my own. They had smiles from ear to ear. Three of the nine spoke English and we learned each other's names. And when we got to the other side, they ran, screamed and laughed and it was magic.

Here, in this difficult place, was what I know and love; The complete adoration of children. They made me so happy with their laughter.

I changed my project that day and spent the next ten days getting to know each of them, their lives and their special situations.

It was a roller coaster. My initial joy was swallowed while learning that one of the girls, just eleven years old, was being raped by some of the neighbor boys. One boy had lost his father and both his mother and brother had polio, so he was the bread winner of his family at age ten. There were stories of siblings who had died. There was abuse. There was a lot going on in this community. And these young kids lived with these things while working every morning until late at night selling prayer candles to help supplement their families' incomes.

They had dreams of going to school.

They would meet me every morning at 5:00am in front of the hotel and we would go together to take pictures.

When I left, it was quite painful. I had been counting down the minutes until I left when I first arrived and now, there was a sadness about leaving these children who I had been the subject of my camera. I had made them feel special where they hadn't before. They were kids selling prayer candles in the streets. But for ten days, they were the kids with the American photographer. And I saw them. I captured their lives forever in photos. And in this process they completely endeared me to their sweet personalities.

They gave me presents the day I left. And I gave them tuition to school for as long as they would attend. At $2.00 a month, this was not hard for me.

Coming back home was hard.

I found myself conflicted on many levels. I was happy to have won the lottery of being born in the United States. I was appreciative of all we had. But I had nightmares about the kids.

I sent them kites and nail polish and copies of the photos but the packages never arrived. I felt like I had failed them.

I had more nightmares.

I wrote on my white board next to my computer, "Never Forget Them." It was so important for me to have some sort of ownership of their future. To not dip in and out of their lives. I didn't want the photos to be just photos.

One day I was putting together a montage for my daughter's tenth birthday. I was flooded with good memories. There were photos starting from her birth and all the great moments of her life in between all in one potent place. I was so grateful for her. My other lottery win was being a mother; my unexpected love affair.

And it hit me. I wanted to mother those kids. I wanted so badly to mother them and I realized, I can't mother everyone.

My own childhood was complicated. I was given away for adoption when I was a baby. And my mother who adopted me, we aren't close mainly due to her love affair with alcohol. I was incredibly optimistic when I got married that I would have another mother figure in my life, but my mother in law froze me out of that love and I was left feeling incredibly hurt.

After seeing a therapist and her understanding that I was not there for the long haul, I simply asked her for advice. And she said, "Just be the Mom you always wanted." And I've lived my life like that. Being the mother I always wanted.

These kids needed mothering. They needed a good bath, hot food, a school and protection from bad people in their neighborhood and I couldn't give it to them.

The photos I took, had taken me. Every one of them was a reflection on something inside of me I hadn't yet understood. They made me realize this need in me to mother. They helped me to understand something about how I'm built and how now, I can move forward with this knowledge.

This story isn't over for me. I believe there was a reason that I met these children. I will go back this fall with World Vision to see them. I'll have an NGO with me to help me process the things I am seeing and see if we can't offer help to not only these kids, but the many children there who are in need of basic necessities. It's brought something out in me that I want to continue. As a photographer, we take the photos. In this instance, I personally feel compelled to change the photos. Maybe all I can do is make an incredibly small change. But even if that change is small, it's change and I'm up for that. So for now; Moni, Abishay, Akash, Suni, Soni, Komal, Minerwa, Chatki and Gorak - I haven't forgotten you.

By Brenda Bancel

  Brenda Bancel
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