finding beauty and truth in india

We speak to documentary photographer Emily Garthwaite about travelling the length and breadth of India, capturing the stories and people of the country.

Rebecca Boyd-Wallis

22-year-old documentary photographer and human rights activist, Emily Garthwaite, took her grandmas ashes with her in her rucksack when she travelled to India. The plan was to scatter them in Assam, where she has family history, but protests in the city led her to another part of India that she fell in love with: Varanasi. She's spent the last 10 months travelling the length and breadth of the country, from Bihar in the east to Uttar Pradesh in the north, documenting the places and faces she met on the way, and eventually scattering her grandma's ashes in Varanasi. 

Currently studying for her Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at Westminster, Emily was recently nominated for The National Wildlife Photographer of the Year, for an image she captured of a distressed, chained up elephant in Varanasi. We met up with the photographer to talk about her about her work, Instagram, and the importance of being honest.

What is your process while you photograph?

I walk and walk and walk. I definitely don't follow the rule of the golden hours. Sometimes I see the photo before I've taken it. That's when you know you have a great image, especially in India where you can turn a corner and it's like a film set, like everything has been set up for you and bathed in this golden flowing light.

Do you develop a relationship with the people you photograph?
Nearly everyone. A lot of people I don't photograph until I feel comfortable to ask them. As sometimes I feel like I can be just using them. Sometimes I forget to photograph them. I am so lost in spending time with them that I've missed the moment.

Did you find being a Westerner made it harder to take photos?
No, I was always somewhere long enough that it didn't matter anymore. People wouldn't treat me like a tourist. If I did something wrong, like accidentally nudge one of the cows (they're holy and you're not supposed to touch them), everyone on the street would be like, "Emily Garthwaite, you naughty girl."

What do you travel with, equipment wise?
As a woman with a very simple camera and simple kit, you aren't seen as a threat in any way. Having a Prime lens, without a zoom meant I always had to approach that person. I couldn't just be hidden on the other side of the street zooming in.

Did you use your phone to shoot at all?
I use my phone every single day. I made sure to post maybe three pictures a day on Instagram, I don't know what I would do without it, it's quite sacred to me as a diary. I know that anyone can view it, but I feel like it's a space of my own. Taking quick mobile photos sometimes end up being better, because it's all about taking that instant shot. I definitely had real moments of crisis when the pictures on my Instagram were better than the work I've produced on my camera. I think that's great in some ways, it's not necessarily about the equipment, it's about capturing the moment.

What is the hashtag #boysoftheburningghat on your Instagram all about?
It's a series about 20 boys, aged from about 10 to late 20s. Some of them have families, some don't. Some of them don't have such legal jobs. I spent an intense amount of time with them, and Westerners who saw me said I was like Wendy from Peter Pan, and they were the lost boys. The reason why I was so fascinated by them and why I started Boys of the Burning Ghat, was because I was documenting them at this very specific time of growing up, in this place that feels like it's never going to change. Those connections became extraordinary, and intense, and desperate and depressing, and the most challenging time of my life, because I had to learn the biggest lesson ever, which is that you can't save anyone. I so desperately wanted all the boys to become mini yogis or get jobs, and all be wonderful, because I believed in them so much. But I couldn't change them. It didn't matter what I did, it was always going to be the same.

Was it hard knowing that although you can raise awareness, you can't actually help everyone?
The main issue for me was making too much of an impact. You don't want to make too much of an impact, because then you leave. I definitely created problems with some people. For example, the people who came out as gay to me, and began to accept their sexuality with my support, saying "this is wonderful, you're yourself." Then I leave, and they end up afraid, with no one to talk to about it. That's a responsibility I maintain via Skype. There are a lot of boys I call on a regular basis.

Are you an artist or a photojournalist?
I have been told, "you're photojournalist, not an artist." Photography is not art and art is not photography. I've had a lot of rules and regulations from an older generation of photographers. But I definitely think that it's a much more open field than that. There's no right or wrong way to do it. At the end of the day, you're telling a story. The only issue with being a photojournalist is that you can't be a photojournalist if you're a liar. That's the only thing that I think I have to stand by - am I being truthful to the situation? Because you can take three pictures of someone and go through life always picking the one that looks the most heart breaking, but I've photographed a lot of people in times of crisis who have joy in their face. You're distorting the truth in some way by choosing to make a positive image out of something depressing. I mean, am I telling the truth? It's an interesting moral dilemma. We live in a time when there's so much poverty porn, we're being drip fed all these images of starving children, but I'm with an organisation that's doing something about it, and it's important to document these stories so they're not missed. It's how you go about doing it you know. You've got to make something beautiful out of it. That's why I think photography is the thing for it.


Text Rebecca Boyd-Wallis
Photography Emily Garthwaite