I received a commission to photograph Rajasthan for a publisher of coffee table books in Germany. I had wanted to go to India for a while as it sounded like one big photo opportunity. I had met Indians while traveling in Africa and in the Middle East. The people I met were educated, gregarious and fun.
“So what could possibly go wrong traveling the country itself?” I asked myself.
Most Americans looked at me in horror when I mentioned my plan of going to India. Warnings came flooding in from people who had experienced car accidents, stomach problems or muggings. Nobody had any desire to go back to India.
So my wife and I went anyway and my German photographer friend, Bernd, came along. Bernd is a very German photographer. He always likes to join my exotic trips because, as he said, “My dad was a boring bookkeeper who never traveled”. Bernd wanted to be different. Little did he know at the time, that the older we get, the more we resemble our parents.
Rajasthan turned out to be everything I expected from India. It was chaotic, filthy, loud, colourful and a street photographers dream. India felt to me like walking through a Salman Rushdie novel with a camera.
Bernd hated everything about India. “The food” he said, “smells like dirty socks.” He would ask for spaghetti while we enjoyed Aloo Gobi and Palak Paner with fresh Naan bread. He would check the price of Naan at every restaurant to determine if it was overpriced. 10 rupees difference in the price of Naan would set him off on a rant and he would refuse to order it.
I was in photographic heaven loving the fact that you could photograph the extraordinary diversity of people without having to ask permission. Nobody cares if you take pictures in India. People just stare at you – and they stare even more at your pretty wife. We had to watch out for groups of men crowding her. At times, we had to leave, because a situation got too scary. Fortunately, our guide, a middle-aged man from Ladakh, knew how to read these situations, and steered us away. He also liked to clean his ears with his car key which drove Bernd crazy.
The more agitated Bernd became, the less I cared. It was almost like my German friend carried all the burden of travel on his shoulders for us.
In the city of Karauli, we were invited to visit the Royal Family at their Bhanwar Vilas Palace. It felt like wandering into Rudyard Kipling’s India with tiger rugs on the floor and colonial Raj splendour. Out in the city, we were spontaneously invited to join wedding parties, each a riot of colour and noise. The people all over India were the sweetest humans we ever met.
My favourite location was Udaipur, a dreamlike city along the shores of Lake Pichola. Udaipur has all the qualities photographic dreams are made of: ornate palaces with secluded courtyards; roof terraces with vistas across the lake; and the magical Lake Palace which appears to float on the water. By first light I was out taking photos of sacred cows wandering through the streets and local people washing and praying on the lake shore. In the evening we photographed two young Indian models dressed in saris and heavy make-up. Bernd seemed happy and kept clicking away.
There were many highlights: The blue painted streets of Jodhpur; a trek by elephant up to the Amber Fort in Jaipur; the first rays of sunshine hitting the minarets of the Taj Mahal at dawn. India bombards your senses. Brilliant colours, exotic smells, noise, the bustle of millions of people, it is easy to go into sensory overload.
By the end of our 6 week journey, we were in the fabled desert city of Jaisalmer. Such is the intensity of travelling in India that we were beginning to feel jaded, tired of the constant assault on our nerves and bodies.
After a hard day of photography we checked in at a palace hotel which looked very grand but was really just a spruced up motel. I was resting near a little fountain, taking a breath before getting ready to wash off the dirt from the road.
I saw a short Indian bellhop walk through the courtyard followed by a tall and erect European male. The diminutive Indian, was carrying a big suitcase as he led the way through an arched doorway. Before I could yell out a warning, Bernd followed him and smacked his head straight into the header of the doorway. I watched the scene unfold and heard Bernd’s muttered curses and the bang of his flying door key when it hit the floor. I registered the shocked face of the bellhop and I saw the angry red face of Bernd, the hurt and pain. I knew it was high time to go home.
Disclaimer: This is a true story. As a Swiss I have to say that I do not hold any negative bias toward the German people. A large part of my photographic career has been possible only through the good will of the many Germans who gave me jobs and befriended me. I have great respect for the German people.
About the photographer: Christian Heeb is a Swiss/American photographer based in Bend, Oregon. A lover of big open spaces, Christian is best known for his images of Native American people and the landscapes in which they live. He has published over 200 coffee table books of his photography, countless calendars and numerous magazine articles. When not photographing on commission he leads photography tours and workshops worldwide. www.ccophoto.com