“What I’m interested in is not only the personal belief, it’s what people do in the name of God — sometimes the great things, and sometimes the stupid and violent things they do in his name.”
The French-Iranian photographer Abbas has spent the last two decades making a name for himself as a documentarian of major religions all over the world. In 2011, he was to begin a three year long project travelling across India, Bali, Sri Lanka and Nepal, photographing the ancient ceremonies and contemporary realities of religion in the region. Published in 2016, Gods I’ve Seen: Travels Among Hindus presents a collection of Abbas’ photographs from this journey along with snippets from his travel diaries.
“My reading induced in me a certain feeling of goodwill towards Hinduism, this religion of 330 million gods and goddesses who change name, nature and sex, who marry, divorce and ask for alimony, who are strangely familiar to us in their doubts and weaknesses and so are, all in all, very human gods. These gods do not have the loftiness or the arrogance of the monotheistic gods; like us, they are capable of the best and the worst.”
In as much a study of the people who worship the million gods of the Hindu pantheon, as the religion itself, Gods I’ve Seen is an interesting exploration of the intersections between faith, nation, history and identity – partially considered in Abbas’ passing observations in his text, still more in the contradictions he highlights, and palpably present in the photographic narrative.
Abbas is famously known for having referred to himself as a photographer who ‘writes with light’, noting that there are two approaches to photography: “one is writing with light, and the other is drawing with light. The school of Henri Cartier-Bresson, they draw with light, they sketch with light. The single picture is paramount for them. For me, that was never the point. My pictures are always part of a series, an essay. Each picture should be good enough to stand on its own but its value is a part of something larger.”
With such an approach, the sequencing of his images has always been of paramount importance to Abbas, as is reflected in Gods I’ve Seen. Here, the photographs are ordered by sections themed around social and ritual elements: water, wind, fire, earth, sanyasis, minorities, ‘emerging India’ and animism, among others. The book’s design provides a brief introduction to each section by Abbas that draws from the longer text. This text, extracted from his diary entries, forms a separate segment at the end – placing the photographs centre stage and encouraging the reader to take the time and space to observe and reflect on their virtual journey, before delving further into Abbas’ experiences.
The photographs in Gods I’ve Seen echo an an observation Abbas makes while detailing his visit to Kalighat: “I don’t try to decipher, only gaze.” The accompanying captions provide information in a matter-of-fact tone and refrain from imposing any judgement, while the photographs themselves present a range of ritually and geographically diverse practices—from prayer in solitude to more extreme rites—subtly interrogating the relationship between image, religion and symbol.
“Abrahamic religions try to suppress the dark side of mankind by encouraging the struggle towards its annihilation. Hinduism recognizes evil and its dark sides, which are in all of us, but urges their coexistence with the good and the light, in order to reach a personal harmony.”
Through his narrative, Abbas builds a complex picture of contemporary India, attempting to interrogate its contradictions and paradoxes: the coexistence of poverty and excess, tradition and modernity, spirituality and sensuality, order and chaos, squalor and beauty. Early into his journey, Abbas writes: “Is one’s first impressions of a country wrong? Will I adopt a less harsh view of this country in the course of my journey? The India I capture is inevitably my India, a subjective view. Why then persevere with representing beauty, when everything around me appears squalid?”
In some ways, Gods I’ve Seen presents a throwback to the colonial traveller’s diary: with its glorification of ancient India and their creations and (often) dismissive or inimical attitude towards modern Indian society, as well as its constructed distinction between India and Indians. Having said that, while such recurring observations by Abbas are grounded in the privileged experience of a ‘European’ in India, his reflections on similarities and differences between the rituals he encounters within India to those he has encountered elsewhere, his interrogation of his own impressions, and the occasional glimpses of a healthy salty sense of humour attempt to provide a more balanced perspective. Further, without any didactic preaching, Abbas constructs a journey that leads readers to ask questions—and draw their own conclusions of what the photographs reveal—of the thin line between pride and intolerance, the complex relationship between individual faith and collective religion, and the ensuing overlapping labyrinth of urban and religious, personal and political identities.
Abbas’ famed ability to manipulate light and shadow to great effect is consistently on display in the photographs in this book. Several images, in his inimitable style, are rendered memorable less by the capturing of a ‘decisive moment’ and more by the deliberate composed moment: whether figurative, abstract or graphic in nature. However, what makes Gods I’ve Seen truly unique is the addition of a few colour photographs: a special and rare departure in a photographer renowned for his black and white photography, who strongly and often articulated his belief that a monochromatic lens helped him transcend reality and the limitations of the camera frame, but “…in India, [found that] colour became a temptation I could not resist.” These photographs however, are defined less by their subjects and more by colour as the foremost element.
Finally and ultimately though, Gods I’ve Seen is a book for the thoughtful reader. At a time when religion, in particular Hinduism, is becoming ever more conformist and intolerant, the heterogeneous and syncretic world of the subcontinent that Abbas presents in his photographs allow us to journey through the lanes of a hidden-yet-ever-present world of diverse sects and practices that continue to survive despite the odds.
Gods I’ve Seen can be purchased online at the Phaidon store here.