Holi – the Hindu festival of colours – is one of the toughest but most rewarding assignments I’ve had so far. It’s chaotic, your gear gets covered in powdered paint and everything tends to unfold in harsh sunlight or very dark temples. And given the wide variety of pigments being thrown around, if you’re really unlucky you could still be sporting a pink and green face for some time afterwards! But it’s also one the most photogenic and colourful festivals in the world, so that’s why I went.
I photographed Holi 2011 for a client called AkzoNobel; a multinational paints company who had launched a branding initiative called ‘Adding color to people’s lives’. Masses of people flinging colourful, powdered paint at each other seemed a perfect fit with their brand so I headed to Mathura in India for 3 days of chaos and color.
Aside from the obvious concern of keeping gear clean, I expected that it would be a tricky shoot. From what I’d read, Holi gets pretty boisterous and I was heading to Mathura, scene of biggest and most intense celebrations each year. I was also concerned about finding the right locations at the right times, so I recruited the services of a local ‘fixer’ to get me to the forefront of the action (Dinesh Dubey who I found and contacted via the Lightstalkers website).
He didn’t disappoint on that score. We met mid-afternoon in the calm of a hotel restaurant and an hour later we were right in the thick of it; a dimly light temple where magenta powder reigned down on revelers from all angles. The decision to bring Dinesh felt like a good one already; first in finding the place at all, and then when the police became insistent that I leave after only a couple of minutes. Thankfully, Dinesh managed to keep us in there and even get me access to an upstairs balcony for a better vantage point.
Next day, everything happens before noon so I spent the morning hopping from village to village trying to get the best possible shots in harsh sunlight and stifling heat. Between getting doused in paint, there was occasionally some respite and room to maneuver so I concentrated on getting portraits and group shots to compliment the crowd shots of the previous night. By now both myself and my gear were completely covered!
The final day’s ‘game’ was also pretty spectacular. All throughout the morning, thousands of people gathered in the huge square of a temple in Mathura, ready for one final dousing. Finally, around noon, water and paint rained down on a sea of people; men drench women with liquid colors and women tear off the clothes of the men.
All in all, as tricky as it was to shoot, I felt privileged to experience it all. There’s plenty I’d do differently next time but I was pretty happy with the outcome, my client took plenty of the images. And I was paint-free only a couple of days later!
See more images from this Holi festival shoot
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