“I think ritual is necessary,” Abbas says, as he pages through his new book, Gods I’ve Seen, a collection of photography from his travels among the Hindus of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bali. “Even if I don’t condone it, if I would never do it myself, I understand why people need it, why they need all these activities. It helps their faith.”
Abbas is perhaps remembering the animal sacrifices he saw in Nepal, during the Newari peoples’ Dewali celebrations, calling the sacrifices an “orgy of killing” where “anything that is alive and moving” is slaughtered, with candles mounted on severed goat heads and made as offerings and entrails draped on altars over which devotees make their prayers. Or maybe it’s the Sri Lankan boy hanging by hooks pierced through the skin of his back, paraded through the streets, as a thanksgiving for the fulfilment of a wish. And it could be the mass of naked ascetics running to a confluence of rivers for a ritual bath.
The legendary Magnum photographer – whose breakthrough work covered the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran – has spent 40 years looking at the world’s great religions. His work on Hinduism, published by Phaidon, is the first since his 2011 book on Buddhism, Les Enfants du Lotus, and he has previously explored militant Islam beyond Iran, Catholicism in Mexico and Christianity elsewhere, and even animism. His next project will explore Judaism around the world.
Iran’s Revolution started him on this path. Abbas credits this work with a key episode in the forming of his own identity. “I really became Iranian during the Revolution,” he says. His family had emigrated to Algeria when he was a child; as an adult, when he first returned to Iran, he began a long-term project on the country. But the Revolution changed his focus.
“The passion I saw in Iran during the Revolution affected me. People ask me: why are you spending so many years on various religions, on God? What sustains you? The reason is Khomeini,” he says.
But Abbas sensed that the fall of Mohammad Reza Shah, and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini as the founder of Iran’s Revolution and the first Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic, was not just an Iranian event.
“At the end of covering Iran for two years and nothing else,” Abbas says, “I could see that the waves of passion, religious passion, raised by Islam and Shiism, were not going to stop at the borders of Iran. It was going to extend.” Abbas also felt that, much as the revolution heralded a “resurgence of Islam”, his own work could not be limited to one religion.
“I decided to stay with God,” he explains, “but change prophets. I’m not interested in religion. I’m interested in God, in what people do in the name of God.”
And so to India. “Hinduism is from a different planet,” Abbas says. “I know the monotheists: Jews, Muslims, Christians; it’s one world. Buddhism is already different. But suddenly, in Hinduism, you have three million gods, and the gods are very human. They get married, they get divorced, they ask for alimony, they change name, they change sex!”
Abbas is clear that, as a photographer and an outsider, his work captures the “external envelope” of the faith. “You can only show it on the faces, the bodies. You can only suggest the spiritual.” Pausing at a photograph of two feet at rest, the cracks and dents on their soles vividly drawn in black and white, he calls them “the feet of a pilgrim.”
“Some people believe,” he says, that “in order to cover the other, you have to become the other. This is something I don’t believe. You can only pretend to become the other. So I always keep my distance.”
Landscapes and the lives of individuals help Abbas to bridge that distance – to some extent – and to see and make visible the immaterial faith that drives his work.
“Without the rivers of India,” he says, “there would be no Hindus.” His book is filled with portraits of believers in the River Ganges and at the shores of the sea; one couple stands knee-deep in the water, at prayer, the woman’s sari touchingly knotted to her husband’s dhoti to symbolise their union; and elsewhere, a man stands in the surf to throw the ashes and bones of the deceased into the sea.
Abbas is careful to also capture the “homely” quality of Hinduism and Hindu faith – as expressed in the daily lives of its believers. “You don’t just photograph the faith itself,” he says, “but also the culture it grows upon”. One image shows a group of young women in Tiruchirapalli, in India, talking and combing each other’s hair as they sit on the ground among the pillars of a temple that is centuries old.
Many of the photographs speak to Abbas’s key technique: the “suspended” moment. “I like to have many actions in my photos,” he says, “not just one. And they should be related.” His use of black and white focuses the viewer so that a harmony emerges between these many actions. The casual observer is given the chance to see what Abbas himself sees on the streets. Black and white clarifies a composition, he explains. “I see in black and white – I think color distracts. I’m not trying to show reality. I always hope to transcend reality.”
But India also forced him to acknowledge its sheer visual diversity. “Color was a challenge I could not ignore,” he says, and “a temptation I could not resist”. The last pages of Gods I’ve Seen are filled with full-color photographs “for color’s sake” – and it is true that the colors in these images distract from their subject in a way that Abbas avoids with his main black and white work.
One photo – of a woman standing under a fountain of water in Bali, the water illuminated by light – sums up not only Abbas’s technique but also his research and his core posture as a photographer.
“You have to anticipate,” he says, “before you see. In order to see, you have to be prepared to see.” Abbas explains that novels are his best form of preparing for a journey – because novelists “take you into the country.” V.S. Naipaul, Arundhati Roy and William Dalrymple are among the authors whose work helped ready him for these journeys into Hinduism. “When you see a scene, you instinctively understand the meaning of it, the importance of it, because you’ve read some books, you’re prepared to see.”
The woman in this image, Abbas explains, was not simply taking a bath. She had placed offerings around the water source and the act was a form of prayer. Knowing this – and not simply thinking the woman was bathing herself – defined Abbas’s approach. He wants the photo to suggest “with the light, the way the water flows, that there’s something beyond this … but you must be prepared to see it. You must understand that this woman is not having a shower, she’s having something else, she’s cleansing herself, she’s trying to communicate with the gods.”
And so does the artist-photojournalist have any advice for young photographers today – living as they do in a world of Instagram and commoditised photography? “Get rid of your iPhone!” he says. “I’m not against it,” he then clarifies. He mentions another Magnum photographer, Michael Brown, who was forced to cover the recent civil war in Libya with just an iPhone because his professional equipment had been destroyed. But getting “a proper camera” is an important start for an aspiring photographer. And in a possible scoop for IranWire, Abbas even mentions the make and model of his own camera, a Sony A900; usually, when asked, he insists that his camera is “my eye.”
Gods I’ve Seen features 147 photographs, largely in black and white, some in color, edited from perhaps 30,000 frames captured over several six-week visits. “Editing is always narrowing the choice,” Abbas says. And looking at the results of such a large task, with its repeated examples of devotion and religious fervor that seem to stretch beyond the edge of reason, one wonders whether the work itself shifted Abbas’s personal views on religion and faith.
“Now, after 40 years, I understand more and more the idea that people need God,” Abbas says. “But it’s not my concern. We keep a distance, a cordial distance. It’s their ritual, so I cover it. I’m not convinced about anything.”
Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus by Abbas is published by Phaidon (£49.95)