At some point during 2013 it dawned on me that I hadn’t had an adventure for a number of years. Bored with my job and in the need of a change, I began looking at voluntary positions in India. A year later I boarded a flight to Delhi with high hopes of adventure, new experiences and great photo opportunities. Luckily, all of these wishes were granted.
6 weeks of my time were spent volunteering in a small village called Nagwa, just outside the intense city of Varanasi. My job was to teach young people from the local area how to use cameras. The students of the charity (named ‘Fairmail’) then take photos which are in turn made into greeting cards, and sold throughout the world. The students receive money from sales, which pays for their education/health/housing costs etc.
During my time teaching there, I became good friends with the students. One student had previously mentioned that his brother takes part in Kushti, an ancient tradition of Indian wrestling which still thrives in Varanasi.
He told me that we could go to the the temple where they train to meet and possibly photograph the wrestlers. I was super excited at this prospect as if it happened, it would allow me a glimpse into the mostly unseen world of Kushti wrestling.
We arrived to the temple a little before 7am and were met with some suspicious eyes from the wrestlers (foreigners are not normally allowed into the training grounds, especially those with cameras). My student spoke to the wrestlers while myself and a few other students (each with their cameras) held back. I was nervous and felt out of place, especially as I had brought a small lighting kit with me (which I imagined made the wrestlers think I was shooting for professional/commercial reasons). After a few minutes one of the wrestlers came over and my student introduced us; he told us that it was ok for us to take photos and I was incredibly relieved. I felt like a National Geographic photographer on his first assignment, with feelings of intimidation and self doubt. Was I ready for this? What if I screwed it up?
The training grounds were basic, but very serene. The ring reminded me of a temple, and there was a beautiful tree in the middle of the grounds. The various weights and equipment were made in traditional, and primitive, ways. Examples included solid wooden bats which are swung around your head, and a 50kg circular weight which you wear around your neck.
The training began with the wrestlers entering the ring to pray. I couldn’t understand the words, but the feeling transcended language barriers. As with many other moments in Varanasi, there was a momentary sense of peace. These moments always took me by surprise, as Varanasi is the most chaotic place I have ever experienced. It was refreshing to see religion and tradition still deeply rooted in a land that often idealises the West.
My work began slowly, taking a more documentary style approach, allowing the wrestlers to get used to me being there. I kept a distance and began documenting their training and their gym. After a while (and after I put down my camera and began training with the wrestlers), they welcomed me to come closer to photograph them.
Despite my initial intimidation, the wrestlers were very friendly, and after they had warmed up to the camera, I felt like they began to show off. At times I had different wrestlers asking me to take photos of them as them attempted heavier weights and more difficult exercises. You could tell that they were proud to be continuing the Kushti tradition, and wanted it to be recorded.
There are two things that I think helped me in this situation – firstly, I was a volunteer, working with the local youth, so they knew my intentions were pure. Secondly, I had been growing an awesome Indian style moustache that they all found hilarious (this actually helped me out in many situations during my travel!).
The highlight for me was when the wrestling began. Usually witnessing a fight makes me feel uneasy, but when I watched Kushti, I could appreciate the skill and dedication of their art. Perhaps it was the beauty of the surroundings, or the inner peace that seemed to radiate from the wrestlers, but I sensed absolutely no aggression on a personal level between the wrestlers. They seemed like a band of brothers.
Towards the end of the training when I was taking group shots, they insisted that I was included in the photos. The also insisted that I took my top off so that we were all the same. I felt like they had accepted me; somebody who has lead a completely different, and completely privileged life in comparison to theirs, but at that moment when we shirtless, bare footed and stripped of our normal identity, we were equal.
In total I was lucky enough to spend 2 mornings with the wrestlers, and I felt extremely privileged to have seen this beautiful art form in action.
Upon leaving Varanasi, I regrettably didn’t have time to visit the wrestlers to say good bye, but I left my student with prints which they gave to the wrestlers. Apparently they loved them.
ALL IMAGES SHOT ON THE FUJIFILM X100S
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To see more of Danny’s work, please visit his website at www.dannyfernandez.co.uk or follow him on Instagram at @dannyfernandez1984