Rich-Joseph Facun is a favorite of mine. His essays come from unexpected angles and work subtly until they punch you in the gut. There’s always an undeniable energy to his work, but the quiet poetry shines through. Though we’ve never met in person, we’ve got a little bit of shared photo history in NYC and Chicagoland. After a few years shooting for the Virginian-Pilot, he picked up stakes and moved to Abu Dhabi as a staff photographer for the startup publication, The National. He’s been doing great work there, some of which can be seen on his website and blog. I was excited when he sent an email telling us here at dvafoto about a new project on the streets of Varansai, India, and the conversation grew to include Facun’s thoughts about the importance of personal work.
When he first let us know about the project, the email started out: “I just returned from India and it was an amazing experience. Initially I went for a recharge but also to look into an idea I had for a book project. I ended up in Varanasi which is known as the Holy City to the Hindus. Each year millions of pilgrims travel from around India to bathe in the sacred river Ganga. Some travel to die in Varanasi in order to attain “moksha” which is essentially to be liberated from the cycle of reincarnation. It is believed by the Hindus that by being cremated at one of the burning ghats along the river will help them achieve this right. It was truly fascinating and beautiful…the trip has inspired me to work on an essay that will eventually take me from the birth of the river Ganga in the Himalayans 1500 miles south to the Bay of Bengal where the great river comes to rest. ”
dvafoto: Was this work done on assignment for the National or any other publication?
RJF: The work done in India was not done on assignment for The National or another publication. As I mentioned previously, this is a personal project. Working in the United Arab Emirates is very challenging for many reasons ranging from access to cultural differences. To say the least, it can deflate your passion and drive very quickly. Fortunately for me, my wife and muse Jasmine encouraged me to pick a country and go work on something personal. Rather than approach the work as a photojournalist she suggested that I get out and have fun by simply pursuing my first love with the camera, street photography.
India seemed like the obvious choice as it is only a three hour flight from Abu Dhabi and I could visit it regularly if I found something that interested me. After some very minor research I decided to visit Varanasi. It seemed like a perfect fit. I’ve always had a fascination with religious studies and Varanasi being recognized by Hindus as their Holy City felt right. Not to mention the Ganges is also considered a sacred river and is worshipped by the Hindus as the goddess Ganga. It was a no brainer. As soon as I landed in Varansai it was only a matter of minutes that I knew I made the right choice.
How was access during the shooting you’ve done so far? Easy to interact with people, get into their homes, the burning ghats, etc.?
Most of the people I met in Varanasi spoke some level of English and those who didn’t, well I got the feeling that we both shared an equal interests in each other so we made do with the small amount of communication we could share. I’m heavily tattooed so quite often the pilgrims visiting Varanasi came from small villages in India and were always curious about my stained skin. It was often an icebreaker. Others often asked me if I was Indian and when I replied no, they reacted with surprise and would comment that some of my facial features looked Indian. Sometimes, while sitting alone on one of the many ghats, groups of people would approach me to ask about my tattoos and where I was from. This opened up a few doors for some images to be made in a more photo-j approach rather than street photography.
The one place that I did face challenges was at the Manikarnika Ghat where cremations take place along the Ganga. You’re not allowed to take pictures at the burning ghats, it’s not unheard of, if you’re wiling to pay about 150-300 rupees a frame, roughly 3-6 USD a photograph. However, I found a local who introduced me to one of the untouchables who worked with the dead bodies and families at the ghat. Eventually I was allowed to take three photos but from a distance and at no charge. I could have shot more for a price but it just seemed forced and unnatural. This is something I’ll work on more when I return.
Do you plan on shooting more with the project?
I definitely plan on returning to India to further my work on this project, tentatively called Darshana Ganga. Roughly translated, “Darshana” comes from a verb meaning “to see,” and it conveys the understanding that any philosophy is one way of seeing a truth that can be viewed from different angles. “Ganga” is the Hindi word for the Ganges, the river, associated in myth and reality with the land and people of India. I hope that my work, when completed, will convey this title to some degree both literally and conceptually.
In January I’m planning to head to Kolkata where the Ganga breaks into several deltas before it finds rests in the Bay of Bengal. In March I hope to trek north to the Himalayans where the river is born. At that point I will have shot the locations that are considered the beginning, middle and end of the rivers flow. Afterwards, I’ll determine where to head next along the banks of the Ganga. Ideally I’ll end up in an another area that offers diversity in subject matter. Currently, I have a few towns and rural villages in mind. I’m in no rush to finish, I’m only in a hurry to get back to India to start shooting more on this body of work.
Why shoot this project now?
I’m shooting this project now because I can. When else will I live close enough to India that I can fly there so frequently for such a fair price? I never know what opportunity is going to come knocking on my door next so I want to make sure that I take full advantage of what is available to me today. As I mentioned earlier, shooting in the Emirates is very challenging. Photography is something I don’t choose to do, it’s something I have to do or else I get extremely manic. Ask my wife. But in doing photography I have to be shooting something that moves me. Something I feel connected to. But to get down to it, I’ve fallen in love again and her name is India. Don’t tell the misses, she might get jealous.
Any idea what the final project will look like?
This project started very much in the same manner as a previous body of work of mine entitled “Rollin’ Revival.” In the beginning I was shooting the resurgence of roller derby as an outlet outside of my daily photojournalism work. Later my wife and a friend suggested I consider investing more time with the topic in order to produce a book.
Well, three or four years later and I am finally working with the amazing former White House and National Geographic editor Mike Davis to finalize a selection of images for the book-in-progress. Point being, I didn’t know where I was going with the derby work, I didn’t have a purpose in the start, but in the end it is all coming together. I prefer the dynamics of this type of workflow.
All things aside, I hope the final outcome of my India work will ideally become a book. It’s really way too early to tell. It’s like proposing after going out on the first date (wait…I did that with my wife), it’s really too soon to logically know. In the end, I think it’ll simply be a love story.