The color palette of India’s cultural heritage is seen all over the country. As one of the most populous countries in the world, India is diverse and vast. In his in his own expeditions or his photo-expedition-workshops New York based photographer Tewfic El-Sawy has traveled over twenty times to India and has captured the vast diversity, colors and cultures of the country. From the city to the most remote villages his photos reveal the many layers of Indian culture. His latest visit to Rajasthan, the largest state by area in India, resulted in portraits of the rural life in Northwest India.

What makes a good photo opportunity?

Good photo opportunities differ from one place to the other, and it largely depends on the subject matter I am after. For example, rural villages in India do offer the opportunity of making natural photographs without artifices or pretenses and without manifestations of self-consciousness by the subjects I photograph.

India is such a vast and diverse country. What makes the Northwest different from the rest of the country?

Well, the North West of India includes Rajasthan, which is its largest state by area. The area was the home of the famous Indus Valley Civilization, and it is probably one of the richest Indian states in terms of culture, folk arts, music, dance and food. It’s also home to dozens of tribal minorities that have their distinct culture and characteristics. Tribal Rajasthani men and women are, in my view, the handsomest people I’ve seen in India, and their colorful dress style and color sense are truly standouts.

Yeah, the way they dress and decorate their bodies is incredibly beautiful. What’s the significance for them?

Most Rajasthani men wear turbans. The color of these turbans, their styles and how they are tied symbolize the caste and region from which the wearer belongs to. Women wear long dresses and tight fitting blouses, and their styles and cut also denote their tribal affiliation.

It seems they continue to live in very traditional ways. How’s the daily life in these villages?

By our standards, daily life in these rural villages might be pretty dreary and yet, I never witnessed anything but a sense of curiosity and contentment, at least from a superficial standpoint. As in most rural villages, days start pre-dawn and end a little after dusk. Much of the work is done by the women who cook, clean, feed, fetch water and take care of the children. The men generally are in the fields or are out with their cattle. I photographed the tiny village of Madhwa in the Kutch region where they made and sold charcoal. So the village mostly consisted of women, while the men were elsewhere either producing the charcoal or selling it.

And what is the poverty situation in rural areas in the Northwest?

It depends on the area of the Northwest. In the Rann of Kutch and the Thar Desert, poverty is quite widespread. However, I’ve seen much worse elsewhere in India like in large cities such as Delhi and Kolkata. But no matter how poor the villages were, the houses were spotless, neat and the few items of furniture and implements were always well cared for and stored neatly.

So, how do you photograph and approach poverty, if there’s any?

It’s heartbreaking. I follow Sebastiao Salgado’s philosophy and I will not take a photograph of someone unless it retains his or her nobility as a human being. Disaster photography is not my thing and I avoid photographing misery and suffering. There are many other photographers who can do that, and bring it to the attention of the world, I can’t. On my many photographic trips to India, I found that poverty doesn’t mean the loss of nobility and of loss of self-respect.

Sometimes remote villages are not exposed to cameras or tourists. How did the people in the villages welcome you?

The moment I enter the periphery of a village, children and dogs sometimes, welcome me very excited. It’s my habit to first approach the village elder or in his absence, whoever seems to have some clout and ask for permission to take pictures. Initially, I photograph the children and show them the results on my screen until their curiosity is satisfied. Once my “credentials” are established, I can photograph at will. On occasions, a few women resist being photographed, but after seeing others accepting, they join in. To date, I have never been asked to leave a village. Generally speaking, Indian people, especially those in the rural areas, are welcoming and hospitable.You’ve visited India many times. What makes it such a fascinating place?

I’ve visited India over twenty times over the past 16 years, and every time I visit I discover a new layer. Discovering India is like peeling an onion, one layer at a time reveals another layer, and there are probably millions of layers. My fascination with India is because of the diversity its cultures from one region to the next. Its colors, the scents, the sensory overload that overwhelms me when I arrive in India, the physiognomies, the beauty and grace of its people – these are the things that make it an irresistible destination to me.


Article by: Laura Rodriguez Castro