Documentary Photography from Geoffrey Billett: Kumbh Mela, India

Geoffrey Billett spent most of his career as a Community Psychiatric Nurse for a Health and Social Care Trust. He retired in 2012 and decided to pursue his passion for photography. After turning down an offer to begin a Masters in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Newport in 2013, Geoffrey decided that practicing photography more frequently was necessary before immersing himself in academics. Having the time to establish a working method can inform the style and vision of work, the artistic process of which is important to experience on a more full-time basis.

With this vision in mind, Geoffrey decided to travel to India to undertake a series of projects that took years to complete, all of which take place along the Ganges. Historically, the Ganges is a source of heavy religious superstition, and, as the Hindu religion dictates, it is the goddess Ganga, whose purity can cleanse the soul of sins, as well as liberate it from the cycles of life and death, or Moksha.

Aside from the religious implications that inform Hinduism, the Ganges is the source of a variety of different cultures, religious or secular. Geoffrey, in his attempt to capture the sheer scope of the Ganges, documents a variety of cultures over many years. The result is a series of stunningly balanced, bright and sharp photos that are as realistic and human as they are magical and spiritual.

Part 1: Kumbh Mela Allahabad 2013

My intention at the Mela was to focus on Sanyassis (Sadhus), dawn puja in the Ganges and documenting portraits of the interesting looking people throughout the festival.  Me and some friends I made there, managed to spend the night before Mauni Amavasya (the main snag) in the tents of the Juna Akhara Sanyassi. Here, I obtained several pleasing images of Sanyassis waking, having their first chillum and preparing for the snag by smearing vibhuti ash, and adorning themselves with garlands of flowers.

Eventually, we were firmly asked to leave by a fierce looking Sadhu with a drawn sword.  Despite the privilege of this event, the most satisfying part of the trip was to watch thousands of Hindu worshippers preparing and making their pujas on the Ganges river bank before dawn, the only light was artificial in the form of sodium lights, which created strange colour casts. I was also pleased with some of the portraits I made whilst walking around, especially during the fringes of the day when the dawn or evening light created magical compositions.

I was aware of the concepts of Moksha and Samadhi and the notion of the freedom from Samsara, and I felt absolutely staggered at the devotion Hindu worshippers demonstrated and length to which Sanyassis would go with physical deprivation and self-inflicted pain in order to achieve their spiritual goals. The all-enveloping belief systems within the Hindu faith also beguiled and confused me; the colour, incense and perfume of pujas and rituals, and the ubiquitous temples enthralled me.