Photographers' Blog

Waiting to die

Varanasi, India
By Danish Siddiqui

The River Ganges is sacred in Hinduism, and the city of Varanasi, which lies on its banks, is one of the oldest and holiest sites for Hindu pilgrims from all over the world.

Devotees believe that you can wash away your sins by taking a dip in the Ganges at Varanasi. What’s more, dying and having your ashes scattered here is a sacred thing for Hindus who believe that it brings “moksha,” or freedom for the soul from the constant cycle of death and rebirth. To attain this salvation, many travel to Varanasi to die.

A woman stands in a street outside the Mukti Bhawan (Salvation Home) at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

“Mukti Bhavan,” or “Salvation House,” is a charity-run hostel for people who wish to pass away in the city. It has 12 rooms, a temple and small quarters for its priests. Lodging there comes with certain conditions: guests have two weeks to die or they are gently asked to move on.

Sometimes, Bhairav Nath Shukla, the hostel manager, extends his guests’ stays by a few days if he thinks the person is about to die. Eerily enough, Shukla can often predict roughly when it will happen.

Bhairav Nath Shukla, manager of Mukti Bhavan (Salvation Home) looks out of a window while praying inside his office at Varanasi, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

The 61-year-old has been taking in the dying and performing prayers for their salvation for the last 44 years and when I started covering this story, hostel records showed that 14,577 people had checked in to date. Most of them have attained moksha. Many of those who couldn’t die left disheartened with their relatives.

Uighurs of Shanghai

Shanghai, China
By Aly Song

The traditional home of China’s Muslim Uighur community is the far western state of Xinjiang, a region that has been plagued by violence in recent years.

The government blames a series of attacks on Islamist militants and Uighur separatists, who it says want to set up an independent state called East Turkestan. But human rights activists say that government policies – including restrictions on Islam – have stirred up the unrest, although the government strongly denies this.

Uighur men visit the Bund in Shanghai, April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Aly Song

Some members of the Uighur community have chosen to move elsewhere around the country and Shanghai, the city where I am currently based, had 5,254 Uighur residents as of 2010, according to a government website.

Daily life in Shi’ite Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq

By Ahmed Jadallah

When people mention Sunnis and Shi’ites, the topic is often sectarian violence.

This is certainly true in Iraq. The country’s former ruler Saddam Hussain came from the Iraq’s Sunni minority, but since he was overthrown, Shi’ites have dominated Iraqi politics. Now, over the past year, Sunni insurgents who target Shi’ites have been gaining ground and violence has spiraled.

With the government battling Sunni rebels, I wanted to take a step back and show the human face of the divided communities. So in Baghdad I went to photograph daily life inside some of its poor, Shi’ite neighbourhoods.

Keeping the faith

Manila, Philippines

By Bobby Ranoco

Covering the grand procession of the Jesus of the Black Nazarene is not easy, even though I do it annually. Every year on January 9, millions of devotees crowd the streets as a life-sized, dark, wooden sculpture of Jesus Christ carrying the cross is brought through Manila’s old city.

I began to prepare days before the procession and sought permission to get a vantage point on the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand at Luneta Park, where the procession begins, and on top of other buildings surrounding the route, to produce photographs from a bird’s eye view. It was my first time photographing from the rooftop of the Quirino Grandstand. I had to do my research on how my photographs would turn out at such an angle.

As I did all this, I was praying hard for guidance from the Jesus of the Black Nazarene that all my requests would be approved. He heeded my prayers: everything was approved and ran smoothly with time to spare.

The search for a mosque in Athens

Athens, Greece

By Yorgos Karahalis

Some say that to come in contact with “God” is a spiritual matter that has nothing to do with the particular spot or place where such contact takes place. Well, if it were that simple then there would be no need to build churches or mosques.

In the Greek capital Athens, where almost half the country’s 11 million people live, there is a 500,000-strong Muslim community, mostly immigrants from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Many of those are faithful and want to express their faith by praying in an appropriate place. Well, there is no such place – there isn’t a single “official” mosque in the wider area of the Greek capital.

Instead, they have to rent flats, basements, old garages and all kinds of warehouses and transform them into makeshift mosques to cover their need for a place to hold religious ceremonies. There are lots of these types of “mosques” around town but they’re not easy to spot and whenever I arrived at one of those addresses I had to double-check it was correct as there was no way to identify these flats or warehouses from the outside. I could not say that they’re miserable places but I could better describe them as hidden places, places that do not want to get noticed. During most of my visits people have been very welcoming and very keen to express their concerns about the lack of a recognizable place of worship as well as their fears about the threats they get from some locals.

The man with the coconut and the GoPro

Lalitpur, Nepal

By Navesh Chitrakar

Rato Machhindranath is the god of rain, so huge crowds gather in Lalitpur around a 32-meter (104 foot) high tower mounted on a chariot during the chariot festival in an effort to ensure good rains and prevent drought.

The highlight of the day is when someone climbs to the top of the chariot and throws a coconut to devotees below. This is an ancient ritual thought to guarantee the catcher of the coconut the birth of a son. Few people believe this nowadays and I think participation is more about enjoying and preserving the tradition.

Every year I saw the same man climb atop the chariot. Every year he threw the coconut down towards the devotees. I really wanted to show in pictures what the perspective of this man looked like.

Reality of a grand Hasidic wedding

Jerusalem

By Ronen Zvulun

Coming back home at 5am sunrise, I was just beginning to digest the grand event I was lucky to witness and cover: the wedding of the grandson of one of the most influential spiritual leaders in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community.

GALLERY: ULTRA-ORTHODOX WEDDING EXTRAVAGANZA

The wedding, attended by some 25,000 people, was a massive event that was conducted like a military operation.

How do you take care of thousands of people, feed them, accommodate them, seat them and provide safety for the huge crowd? There was a 20-story stand that needed to hold thousands of dancing Hasidic men.

Voodoo alive and well

Souvenance, Haiti

By Marie Arago

There is much beauty in Haiti. There are mountains, the countryside, the sea and beaches, but what I find most beautiful is the culture of this country. There are many elements that contribute to Haiti’s rich culture and Voodoo (also spelled Vodou and Voudou) is definitely one of them.

This past week I spent three days documenting the annual Voodoo festival at Souvenance, a small village outside of Gonaives. Souvenance was formed by escaped and freed slaves from Dahomey (present day Benin) about two hundred years ago. During this week at Souvenance all of the Rada Iwa, or Voodoo spirits of Dahomey origin, are honored through different ceremonies, song and dance.

The first day begins with a ceremony that leads into a dance for the lwa, or spirit, named Legba. The dancing is led by three drums and the song lyrics are a mix of the Kreyol and Dahomey languages. These songs and dances have been passed on for generations and, judging by all of the children who were singing along, the traditions are not in danger of being lost.

New Mexico’s Holy Week

New Mexico

By Brian Snyder

The high desert of northern New Mexico, with Taos as its unofficial capital, is a confluence of cultures and eras.  Native American, Spanish, Mexican and American cultures co-exist and show themselves in both modern and old ways. Holy Week in this area is celebrated in a very public manner within the safety of the region, beyond the notice of much of the rest of the United States. The rites and customs are very much of the place and cultures found there.

On Holy Thursday a youth group re-enacted the Stations of the Cross at the Sanctuario de Chimayo. The Sanctuary is a church built over a source of sacred dirt that is believed to have healing powers. It is also the destination for thousands of pilgrims from all over during Holy Week. The youth group from Our Lady of Sorrows church in nearby Bernalillo has been doing the performance for years, with new teenagers replacing the previous year’s every year or two. The whips hitting the man playing the role of Jesus are real (though the blood is make-up) and the teens are convincing in their roles as Mary, the women of Jerusalem, Veronica and Roman soldiers.

If the pilgrimage at Chimayo is well-known and better publicized, the pilgrimage in Ranchos de Taos and Talpa on Good Friday is a very local, traditional and communal activity. The several mile walk begins at the famous San Francisco de Asis church in Ranchos and from there the Stations of the Cross are marked in various fields, front yards, moradas, and capillas along the route. Four men carry a large cross and lead the procession, with several hundred believers following behind. In many ways Good Friday is the apex of Holy Week. Worshipers, including many young people, pray out loud, sing, and even chat and laugh with one another as they make their way through the countryside.

Church, faith and rock’n'roll

Saltillo, Mexico

By Daniel Becerril

When I first heard of Adolfo Huerta, or Father Gofo as everybody calls him, I thought it was a joke. I thought he just liked to drive a motorcycle and to wear his hear long and that he wasn’t even a priest, just a guy who liked to pretend to be one.

He was packing his things the day I met him as he was moving to another parish. They were sending him off to a neighborhood with social problems, or a “hot” area as it’s generally called. I looked around Adolfo’s room while chatting with him – it looked more like the room of a teenager. I saw heavy metal and alternative rock CDs, books piled high on different topics, all had his nickname “Gofo” written on them. A poster of Che Guevara adorned the wall, another of the latest Batman movie and a double-spread picture of a lovely young lady showing her assets “au naturel”.

FULL FOCUS GALLERY: ROCK’N'ROLL PRIEST

Adolfo discovered God and the priesthood while studying philosophy at the Pontifical University of Mexico City, and working with HIV-positive patients and sex workers as an activist for social causes. But he seems to break the mold of a Catholic priest, he likes rock music, dyes the ends of his hair red, dresses in black, and likes to ride his motorcycle. He is a member of a motorcycle club called the “Black Wings”, he goes to bars, drinks beer, smokes, swears and tells jokes while officiating mass. He likes pictures of naked women. Although his female friends complain about the posters, he says he is an admirer of the female body, its beauty and its ability to give birth. No filthy or profane thoughts behind it, he said, in order to live a chaste life.

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