Arriving with dance and music, draped in orange and pink flowers, the dead keep constant company in Varanasi, India, where cremations happen by the hundred each day on the Ganges River. Whole industries support the last rites, including photographers who for a small price will take a portrait of the deceased before their pyre is lit and ashes are consigned to the water’s flow.
“Death Photographers” produced by filmmaker Varun M. Nayar was released on Seeker Stories, a new documentary digital network debuted last month by Discovery Digital Networks (of Discovery channel, among others). The short film profiles a few of these photographers as they roam with digital cameras amongst the sweltering flames and stench of decomposition. However, as the narrator explains, “death is not something looked down upon here, it is not creepy, it is celebrated.”
Some are amateurs without any photography training like Natte Jha, supporting his family while juggling between two inexpensive broken cameras: one to take the photograph and the other to show it to the family before it’s printed. Deepak Kumar, on the other hand, is a professional photographer who picks up the extra work during “lean times.” In the poorer areas of India where cameras aren’t often affordable, the images are like the old postmortem Victorian shots in that they’re preserving a final memory of a loved one, maybe the first and last time their portrait will be taken. A farmer, Manohar Jha, adds that there are other reasons: “They are used to prove the person is dead for inheritance or in government records. Sometimes, family members and children who could not attend would like to see a final photo. Some offer daily prayers to the photos.” As “Death Photographers” emphasizes through filmmaker Nayar’s interviews and vibrant footage of the Ganges riverbank, the photographers are a small part of the life that happens here even at death, creating quiet images of the beautifully adorned deceased, the last time those faces will be photographed before the flames.