The last portrait
Photographing the dead is his job. Niraja, 20 year old, runs one of the photo-studios in the busiest streets of Varanasi, the oldest living city in the world. Niraja waits for the families during the procession that lead to the crematorium. If he’s lucky enough, he’ll get a few rupees from the clients who want a pictures of their loved ones. The Kashi Manikarnika Ghat, by the banks of the river Ganges, is the main cremation in the city. As it symbolizes both creation and destruction, it is the most sacred according to the Hindu mythology. It is believed, that being burned on the land of Varanasi, provides an immediate liberation from the cycle of births and rebirths.
The smoke load with the smells of burned wood and skin is so thick that it penetrates your clothes and the odor stays there for days. The only sound in the air is the chant that echoes between the mud walls accompanying the body in its final journey:
“Raam Naam SatyaHai” (the name of Ram is true)
The ghat itself is open 24 hours and more than hundreds cremation ceremonies happen daily every day of the year. Bodies arrive day and night without stopping. This place never sleeps and all the services allied to the cremation ceremony remain continuously available without any break.
For many people around the Ghat, death is a form of livelihood. Woodsellers, barbers, Antyeshti (the priests performing rites and prayers), flowerssellers and groups of outcast sifting through the mud at the bottom of the Ganges, searching for rings and jewelry remained among the ashes of the bodies, thrown into the river. And there are also a few photographers. Naraja is one of them and has been a death photographer now, for more than five years carrying on a tradition that has been handed down for generations in his family.
He has two cameras, both broken. With one he’s able to get the shots but not to visualize the photos because of the damaged lcd screen. To see the images, then, he needs to transfer the memory card on the other camera that, instead, has a broken lens. Photographing a person on the death bed may seem awkward to most of us, but for the death photographers of Varanasi, it is just another way to earn a livelihood. And if somebody wonders why people would want pictures of the dead body, there are many explanations. Families want them for different needs. For family members who cannot attend and would like to see the final moments and show it to the coming generations. Or to prove that the person is dead for government records and inheritance. At this crematorium, families don’t get death certificates, so the photographs work as a proof. With the date and time printed on the photograph, people use them to claim their share in the deceased’s property.
When Niraja is done with the shooting and the family is satisfied with thephotographs, the cremation ceremony can begin. The work of Niraja, however, is not finished yet. The wood starts to flame and it takes almost three hours for the body to rise up in ashes. This is the only time Niraja has to run as fast as he can to be able to reach the lab right outside the city, to develop the pictures and come back.Supposing he will miss the family and leave without the pictures there will be no profit for him. This is the onlytime Niraja has to develop and deliver the pictures. Supposing he will miss thefamily and leave without the pictures there will be no profit for him. He needs to run as fast as he can to be able to reach the lab right outside the city, to develop the pictures and come back.
“Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.I love taking pictures, I love this job and I feel honored to do what I do”.
While I observe him I can feel his struggle to try, with the maximum of his strength, to get the shots. I admire the elegance and humility, he has, in capturing images that are incredibly able to celebrate life and death. Two things that, as in no other place, are inseparable.
A real honor for those people whose dream is, in their last years, to be brought here and cremated along the banks of the Mother Ganga.