Adam Marelli: Varanasi, Terracotta Tea

Two weeks ago, with a snow storm looming over New York City, I slipped out of Newark International Airport on a flight to Delhi.  This was my third trip to India, but my first trip to the North.  In December there was a bombing in Varanasi, along the Ganges, so I heard there was increased security, but no one knew what to expect.

It’s ironic that fifteen guys carrying machine guns are concerned about one guy carrying a camera.  I wanted to say, “It’s a rangefinder, not a rocket launcher.”  After a quick chat with a man wearing an AK-47 like purse, I had the restrictions ironed out and planned on returning the next day to shoot.

At 5:45 in the morning, it’s still cold from the night before.  The stockpile of soldiers outside of Kashi Vishwanath temple seem more concerned with getting a cup of tea than stopping any would-be terrorists.  But the temple does share real estate with a mosque, so it is a highly contested piece of land.  Nodding to my friend from yesterday, I skipped past security and ducked into the darkness as the rest of Varanasi was still rolling out of bed.

There are two things that are a source of constant amazement when I work in India, the colors and the filth.  Above the cobblestone gutters, sit blackened aluminum pots brewing masala tea while cows graze on last night’s garbage.  Varanasi is not a self-conscious city; everything is on display.  The sidewalks double as cafes and toilets depending on the time of day.  The cast of characters awake at this hour vary between the insane, the religiously devout and a work force looking for their morning buzz on spiced tea.  Shuffling down the compressed alleys, we all bump into each other.  These are tight quarters, but that’s how I like to work.

The best time to take the pulse of a city is while it’s waking up.  As the glassy-eyed emerge from their dens, the space between honking horns and silence is replaced with morning gossip.  Gathered around boiling pots are men who look like they walked out of “The Adventures of Marco Polo.” Their tunics and head wraps have not changed in a few thousand years.  I don’t speak Hindi, but some things are universal.  These men are busy making fun of each other, complaining about their wives and ordering each other around.

Tea is served in tiny terracotta cups.  The unused cups, arranged in spirals, look like a fossil slowly being picked apart.  The weary eyed patrons often block the entire alley forcing me to squeeze past the group.  India’s crowded conditions might be a nightmare for anyone who’s claustrophobic, but they are a photographer’s dream.  I enjoy the challenge of getting close to strangers with an Leica M9 and a 75 mm Apo-Summicron and a 28 mm Elmarit.  Sometimes I get too close (morning breath is gross in any country).

When I started with an M6 TTL years ago, I had no intention on shooting people, let alone street portraits.  But on a post-university budget, my first lens was a 50 mm Summicron, not the 21 mm which was on my wish list.  The combination of the M6 and the 50mm forced me to explore a new subjects and drastically changed the way I took pictures.  There are plenty of cameras and lenses that might have had the same effect, but Leica happened to be my trajectory.

When the M8 came out, it felt like a digital solution was almost there, but I wasn’t interested in recalculating the focal length of my lenses.  The release of the M9 was exciting because it fixed a number of the kinks of the M8 and as a full frame digital, it was an alternative to hours spent in front of a scanner with a dust brush and a blower.  The M6 and the M9 compliment each other well because they play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  For example, the M6 works when I am traveling in locations where I can’t get to a power source for a few days.  While the flexible ISO of the M9 has allowed me to take pictures that would be quite challenging with the M6.  I’m not really into the digital vs. film debate; to me they are separate mediums and I enjoy shooting them both.

I could have spent a few more weeks wandering the backstreets of Varanasi.  There were discoveries at every turn. One of the greatest parts of being a photographer is trying to distill an encounter into single image, observing and processing. It’s a cycle, no different than burning pyres on the banks of the Ganges.  Just like any relationship, it’s a constant challenge and an emotional roller coaster.  But in the end, the good days usually out number the bad.

-Adam Marelli

When he’s not being harassed by customs agents, Adam Marelli lives in New York City. He works as an artist, photographer and architectural consultant, as well as regularly contributing to the New York Times.  He originally found Leica as a tool for capturing inspiration on the road, but photography now occupies a major part of his work and documentation.  During 2011, he will be working in Southern India and Tanna, a tiny island in the South Pacific, where he is building and documenting slum redevelopment projects and an artist residency.  Packed in a small carry on, will be two Leicas to report on his findings. You can read more about Adam’s travels on his site, http://www.adammarelliphoto.com/.