Think of India and from a photographer’s perspective, it is nothing short of a riot of colour. From festivals to the wildlife, from the clothes to the film industry, colour plays a significant role in the nation’s ethos, and makes for an interesting subject to work with for the photographer. Even as the mysterious east has been attractive for many reasons, one of the foremost that remains the subject of much attention is Death.
Death in photography in the Indian context is pretty intriguing: especially from the photographer’s point of view. And thus, a short documentary film by Seeker Stories takes eight minutes to paint a true, but obscure story about photographers of the dead. The Ganga, or the Ganges as it has come to be known, India’s holy river that snakes through Bangladesh as well, is one of the holiest rivers in Hindu mythology. Legend has it that the water of the Ganga is so pure, that drinking or bathing in it absolves one of their sins. To die in the Ganga is another “achievement”.
At the Ganges, bodies arrive by the hundreds for the final rites. On the banks of the river, funeral pyres are lit, and the bodies are ceremonially cremated. Documenting these rituals for the ones that survive the deceased, are a slew of “death photographers”. They are young lads who eke a living by shooting photographs of the final rites of the deceased in exchange for a fee. Many of them are no older than twenty, and have no formal training or good quality equipment, either. They use cheap and inexpensive cameras, and charge a fee for the photos they take – which varies based on the size of the prints they come out with. Some of them have families to support, and take to the lucrative business to provide for them. Working through terrible conditions that include the odour of death, the stench of bodies and fires, the heat, and an assortment of mourning relatives, onlookers and animals aplenty, these young men eke a difficult living. Sometimes, seasoned and professional photographers go there during lean times, to find work.
It might seem rather bizarre that one would want to have photographs of a corpse – no matter how much the live version was loved and cherished. But the fact is, most of the communities that come forth with the request do so for genuine reasons. In a nation that is composed of a segment of undocumented people, the presence of a photograph that testifies to the passing of an individual in inheritance disputes is significant. For still others, these photographs have sentimental value – in that many relatives may not have been able to attend the last rites for many reasons, and the picture is but a way to extend the experience of bidding goodbye.
Death is a taboo in pleasant times. Death is inauspicious in conversation. Talking about Death in many Indian households is almost equal to courting the Grim Reaper and inviting him in. And yet, the other end of the spectrum looks at Death as a sacred transit. Either way, it supports a bunch of families on the banks of The Ganga. To quote the narrative in the documentary:
“Death is not just sacred here, it also supports the livelihood of the living – from the wood sellers and the barbers and the death photographers.”