It’s deeply saddening to discover that in Mali, militants seem to have systematically destroyed much of West Africa’s Islamic heritage by ransacking and torching the libraries that hold priceless Korans and Hadiths.
Some years ago I made a story in nearby Mauritania about the wind destroying the desert cities of Chinguetti and Oudane, both significant repositories of similar ancient manuscripts. I wrote:
“Once upon a time, the Wind grew jealous of the prosperous cities and resolved to bury them beneath the sands so that the only traces were old men and dusty books. So it was that the wind crashed against the purple stone mass of the Adrar, the mountain range that crosses Mauritania in West Africa. It blew until the rocks were carved into sculptures of fearful complexity. It blew until the dunes advanced and Chinguetti and Ouadane, two once mighty cities of scholars and traders of the Sahara, began to choke under the ocean of sand. Today they are almost gone…”
As you will by now no doubt have seen (by the tsunami of images generated) humanity’s greatest gathering is taking place on the banks of the River Ganges in Allahbad, India. The Kumbh Mela, a bathing festival for Hindus that draws millions of devotees (and photographers and tourists) to bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna has just started.
This year, up to 100 million people are expected to attend. I last covered it in 2001 when there were ‘only’ 70 million in attendance. I’d also shot one in 1995 – an Ardh (or half) Kumbh so I sort of knew what I was letting myself in for. They both feel a long, long time ago. I remember that in 2001 I was working a good deal in medium format and all I took with me were two Mamiya 6s and an old Vivitar flashgun. I remember shooting the entire set on Kodak colour neg film (I used to be sponsored by Kodak). It felt like I was trying to do something different, something new.
On that trip I travelled up to Allahabad with Kalpesh Lathigra and Jason Eskanazi. I seem to remember bumping into Stephen Dupont and the late Tim Hetherington (then at Network with me). Bruce Gilden saved me from getting beaten with a lathi by an Indian policeman (a long story…) and I remember being freezing cold every day before dawn as I rose from my inadequate sleeping bag. My fondest memories are reserved however for another fellow Network photographer, Nikolai Ignatiev, who died tragically a few years later. A very talented journalist, Nikolai had a colourful life story to say the least. Sadly, few traces of his work – nor indeed of Network Photographers – remain online (but see here for an archived obituary) but good memories.
Some pictures and thoughts of absent friends.
And just because I feel nostalgic today, here are a couple of my favourite images from the Ardh Kumbh way back in 1995…
It seems that the road lobby is on the march again (or should that be driving…). A link road planned between Bexhill and Hastings has meant a whole new generation of young eco-protesters (known as the ‘Combe Haven Defenders’) have taken to the trees in order to thwart the chainsaws and the bailiffs. The road will destroy the unspoilt Combe Haven Valley damaging an ancient woodland home to protected species.
It takes me back to the mid/late 1990’s when I did a few assignments for magazines (including I remember one for the Independent on Sunday Magazine on the Land is Ours group) about the environmental protests taking place under a previous Conservative government. My abiding memory is of descending a ramshackle tunnel somewhere under Twyford and crawling on my belly for ten yards underground to photograph a young man who’s arm was secured into a concrete pillar (see below). I never realised that I was a tiny bit claustrophobic until that point and was very relieved to get the picture and retreat the way I had come.