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Elephant Baba

Ten Rupees

by Samora Chapman / 16.07.2012

Last week, three Durban photographers Kevin Goss-Ross, Caitlin Smith and Gareth Bright inspired, curated and self-funded a joint exhibition of their photographs of India, in a coffee shop in Umbilo. The Mahala faithful should recognise the name Kevin Goss-Ross, he is no stranger to the site or the print mag. In the words of the young photographic maestro himself: “All we wanted was to share our work and our love for India with Durban.”

MAHALA: Tell us about the holy man with elephantiasis and the picture of Ganesha…

Kevin Goss-Ross: That dude is known as the Elephant Baba, and he is considered to be a reincarnation of Ganesha by some – obviously a lot of people are sceptical. He keeps the image there along with the mice because Ganesha uses mice as transportation. You have to take your shoes off around him and people pay him a lot of money for blessings. They also bring him food/beer/weed all day, every day. If he was born looking like that anywhere else in the world he’d be a freak, but in India he is a God!

How was the exhibition conceived?

Gareth called it the fruition of a series of brain farts. He contacted Caitlin and myself about an exhibition around March because he realised that we had all been in India over the space of eight months. He put me in contact with Caitlin, we sent each other samples of our work and realised that we really enjoyed it as a mixed collection. Caitlin already had all her prints done from shows she had in Jozi and Cape Town, but Gareth printed mine and his in Bangkok, where he lives. The cost of printing there is a fraction of the cost of printing in South Africa (even with the shipping), which is why we could sell the images for so little. The exhibition worked because our styles are so different. We are three very different people with very different styles and perceptions and that made for a fascinating body of work. The location was a no brainer. The first time I walked into The Factory in Umbilo. I saw the potential of a massive suspended exhibition, but I never thought that they’d be as accommodating as they were, or that I’d ever be able to afford to print that much work, even with two other photographers. Kyle and everyone who works there are young and keen for new things and were incredibly helpful and lenient to our ridiculous ideas. They did draw the line at having a cow in the venue though. Something about shit and coffee being a bad idea.

Kevin Goss-Ross – Monkeyman

How would you describe Caitlin and Gareth’s different styles?

Caitlin is a hippy. She is caring and kind and gentle and it comes through in her photographs. It is usually a bit of a cliché when a photographer tells you they love ‘capturing moments’ but she really does and she does it well. She only had 18 prints up but it worked in her favour since she didn’t water her collection down at all. Her work was from around the whole if India, whereas Gareth and I focussed more on Varanasi.

Gareth is a bit more aggressive. He’s a documentary photographer so he shows what is there. He’s done a lot of conflict photography so it was only natural that he’d include the more savage elements of India in his work. It’s such a beautiful mix of life and death, and a wonderful account of a magical city and he’s got this knack for capturing people when they aren’t looking. A lot of the shots have odd focus shifts: where someone else would’ve focussed on a subject closer to the lens; Gareth will have a tiny but beautiful detail in focus, which I would’ve missed. He’ll find something as arbitrary as a handprint on a wall and come back to it countless times, waiting for something to happen around it.

Varanasi – Gareth Bright

What’s hardest thing about shooting in India? Especially being a white middle-class cat photographing impoverished environments, which is something I always battle with.

When it comes to photographing some of the less pleasant aspects of India, the ethics can be a bit tricky. I took some photographs of beggars and every time I did I’d give them some money but you still walk away feeling dirty. You know what I mean, you wrote a four part article about it. The images I took in India were all lit with a small white shoot through umbrella and a speedlight which was hand held by various members of my family, so I had to engage with everyone I shot, more than you would as a documentary photographer. Which is great, but in India every photo is a business transaction unless you steal it. Especially for a white foreigner. I originally wanted to call the exhibition 10 Rupees, which is what I paid most of the people I shot. I walked around with a wad of 10 rupee notes in my pocket because it is the smallest denomination of paper money in India, and the minimum amount people were happy with. Rs10 works out to about R1.50, so I was happy enough to pay it. I shot some natural light stuff too, but when you whip out an umbrella and a flash people become suspicious and immediately just see dollar signs. I think that Gareth and Caitlin probably had very different experiences to what I had.

How long were you in India… and what was the highlight of your journey? India is often a place people go for spiritual enlightenment. Was there a spiritual element for you?

It was actually a family thing. We’ve been doing a crazy trip every two years. Last time we travelled around Australia in a campervan. We slept on the side of the road and cooked food in parking lots like proper white trash. This three-week trip was probably the hardest trip for us but by far the most rewarding. India isn’t an easy place to travel or even to just exist. My folks and my brother held the umbrella and flash for me. I didn’t think I’d produce so much work because it was a family thing. A day before we left, as a bit of an afterthought, I asked Tyler Dolan for a small shoot through umbrella because mine were too big to open in small spaces. I only shot one or two portraits in the first week, then did most of the rest in the five or so days we spent in Varanasi. I wasn’t going to make a family bonding session a work trip. I’ll go back there one day and get myself in the right frame of mind to just shoot.

Varanasi was most definitely the highlight for me and it is the place the majority of Gareth and my work was shot. Situated on the banks of the river Ganges, its population is around the same as Durban, so it is actually a pretty small city by Indian standards. Hindus believe that the city was started by Lord Shiva, so it’s a holy place for them. Buddhism was also started in Varanasi and the Jains consider it a holy city, so many religions encourage pilgrimages to the place. There is an energy there that I have never felt anywhere else. People bathe in the holy river every morning, they do washing there, they throw their dead into it. But at the same time the river is their source of water.

Kevin Goss-Ross – The Ferryman

People bring their dead to Varanasi to burn them on the side of the Ganga, and it’s all out in the open. The bodies are carried – uncovered – through the narrow streets of the old city with the grieving male family members chanting: “Ram nam satya hai”. Two hundred people are burned on the side of the river every day! The fires are made with sandal or mango wood. Usually these types of wood mask the smell of burning bodies but don’t burn hot or long enough. So with men the remains of chests and with women the hips are then thrown into the river. Babies and pregnant mothers are considered without sin, so they don’t need to be burnt. They are tied to rocks and thrown into the river. As are lepers, holy men and anyone killed by the bite of a cobra, since Lord Shiva has a cobra around her neck, like a necklace. This means that there are entire bodies washing up further down the river. Gareth photographed the corpses but I didn’t have the stomach for it. Varanasi is an incredible place. There is so much teeming life but also an incredible amount of death, and the Indian people are far more at peace with it than we’ll ever be.

I was hoping to find a religion that was still sincere in India, but everywhere I looked I saw what I see in all religions: money. I had hoped that Hinduism – ancient a religion as it is – would be more pure than the kiddy fiddling and money hungry catholic faith, but I was disappointed.

Was there a photograph you couldn’t take? When I was in India, there was a teenage girl who had trained her toddler to beg. We were on a train and she trawled up and down while the toddler climbed on people’s laps shaking a moneybag. I couldn’t take the pic… but I’ll remember that moment forever.

There were so many times that I couldn’t take photographs. I blame it on my B.Tech. I had to write a research paper that dealt with the ethics of taking photographs of the less savoury and illegal activities that happen around live music. What goes on in India made those activities seem trivial. Unbelievable poverty causes parents to cripple their children at birth because crippled beggars get more money. There are so many beggars who are wildly disfigured… and many of them have the exact same deformities, which makes you realise that they have actually been mutilated. I saw a lot of unfortunates who had their legs broken in such a way that they ended up behind their head. It is terrible to see and I couldn’t bring myself to shoot it because I feel that it would only encourage the practise. My brother was shameless in what he photographed and I was constantly envious of him. He’s a lot more free, less neurotic and more confident with people than I am.

Do you have a favourite shot of the exhibition? Or maybe a shot from each artist?

My favourite image was Gareth Bright’s photograph of two cows in Varanasi. It speaks volumes of his ability to see in black and white. (He shoots black and white on film). He didn’t have a print of it hanging, but he did have it in his handmade book. I used it for most of the posters and flyers.

Cows – Gareth Bright

My favourite image of Caitlin’s was ‘To the Magic Shop’. When she sent me the digital file I wasn’t convinced but when I saw it printed I was stunned. Some images only work when they are bigger. It is really to her credit that she could see that it would work at the larger A1 size. In my opinion a good photograph is like a good song. If you don’t like it at first, but it grows on you later… you’ll love it forever. Pop music is made to be catchy the first time but you get sick of it quickly.

To the Magic Shop – Caitlin Smith

My favourite from my collection is ‘Holy Man’. He was the only holy man who didn’t want money to be photographed. There is something about the light that just works for me. I’m also a big fan of compositions where the subject doesn’t have space to look into. Conventional ballie photographers would have a heart attack, but the subject doesn’t always have to be looking into frame.

Kevin Goss-Ross – Holy Man

Lastly, was the exhibition a success, and of course, did you sell?

As an artist I don’t think it could’ve gone better. A businessman would think otherwise. Exhibitions are never about money and you’re lucky if you break even most of the time. We threw a lot of money into hanging 85 additional globes in what is normally a very dark space, but we could do that because we saved money elsewhere. All we wanted was to share our work and our love for India with Durban, so if you look at the initial goals it was a massive success. We would’ve loved for a bigger slice of the Indian community to attend but they weren’t too interested. We tried. The Temple of Understanding in Chatsworth were kind enough to send some of their devotees to come chant and play music for us, so our time in Chatsworth wasn’t wasted. We all pulled a lot of favours to make this happen but it was completely worth it.

I need to say a massive thank you to our good friend Jody who installed the lights for us over two days, using hundreds of meters of ripcord; The Factory Cafe for their patience with us and for the amazing coffee we drank over the four days it took us to hang that thing; to Matt Wilson who sang us some songs; to my parents and brother for helping out in hanging and installing the exhibition; to Flipswitch events for doing the sound and to all the media people who helped us advertise this monster of an exhibition. Durban is Yours, Between 10 and 5, Bren at the KZNSA, BFam, Independent Newspapers, It’s What I’m Into, Working Class and anyone else I’ve missed. And obviously a massive thank you to Durban for supporting three starving artists so spectacularly. We are humbled and fucking overjoyed.

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