Utah gets Holi, Photographer gets dirty
By Jim Urquhart
The Holi Color Festival is a yearly event in Utah that for years I have known of but never attended myself. I would be reminded of it after the fact when seeing it in images by other photojournalist friends. It is rooted in a Hindu tradition of celebrating the end of winter and beginning of Spring and takes place at the Sri Sri Radha Krishna Temple in Spanish Fork, Utah.
What makes this festival so amazing is not just the crowds of people and the color but also that it is taking place in Utah County. The same county as the LDS Church’s Brigham Young University. In my mind, Utah County is not known as a mecca of culture and was really only a melting pot of white bread, sugar and milk. I was about to have my stereotype blown away.
It has always puzzled me and in the days before the event I was asked to speak to communication students at BYU. I asked the professor of the class, who is also a good friend, why it is that so many Mormon youth and young adults attend the event. It is not part of my picture of white Utah county. He explained that the event draws the students and families from the area because not only is it an experience in another culture’s traditions but it also a safe fun outlet for them.
And with that I was off.
The night before my wife and I gathered old clothes, jackets, hats and shoes that I could feel good about getting ruined when the colors flew. The colors are a type of chalk powder in different hues. I am assuming it is a type of chalk because I remember the taste of chalk after talking back to a teacher in elementary school.
Some of my friends were bummed that the weather forecast had called for rain that day but I thought it could actually make the event more interesting. Granted, the beautiful light would be obscured but the mud and wet streams of color on people appealed to me.
I got there very early and had time to walk around the temple and get an idea of what I was about to get into, I thought. My wife and I purchased scarves we saw for sale thinking they may limit the amount of chalk we ingest and I also had enough time to cover my cameras from the powder. The scarves were completely useless.
I have some nice rain covers I used for shooting in bad conditions but I didn’t want to stain them and I figured they would be too bulky. So I opted to use disposable plastic optitech covers that you can buy a set of two for about $6. I used gaffers tape to tightly secure the plastic around the front of my lenses and tried to close up the bottoms enough that would still allow me to switch hands between cameras and limit the amount of dust that gets on the bodies.
Just before the first scheduled throw of the day I waded into the crowd of several thousand that had gathered on the muddy hill near the temple. Once there I checked my camera settings several times over and tried to memorize how many clicks of the dial would change my shutter and aperture from one setting to another knowing that once the color started flying and the crowd went crazy it would be very difficult to change settings even looking through the lens.
I positioned myself near the front of the mass of people looking at a stage where music was being played knowing that when the color went most would be facing my direction with a view of the temple in the background.
Then as the countdown ended, the sky and everybody around me were obscured in a cloud of colors. It was amazing to be jammed in with so many people, young and old, throwing colors on each other not even knowing the person they were throwing it on. I kept shooting as best I could through the lens and periodically blow off the powder that had collected on the front of the lens. Then I would raise it over my head as a reveler was passed overhead bodysurfing.
I stayed in the mix for several throws throughout the day. I had felt good from my series from just the first throw, but I couldn’t walk away knowing there were so many good photos to be so easily had. Before heading home I stripped off my newly rainbow colored clothes to change into an extra set I had brought so as not to stain my vehicle. It was then I realized I had not changed from new hiking shoes to some old sneakers before the event.
For three days after the event I was still getting color out of my ears and nose no matter how much I cleaned. And at two weeks after, when I bring my cameras up to my face I still get a taste of chalk dust blowing into my mouth, and my new hiking shoes still have splashes of pink and green.