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On Location: Mark Katzman's "Read and Raw" Trip through Northern India

By Wonderful Machine   Tuesday May 4, 2021


This article originally appeared here. Text by Stephanie Avilés


St. Louis, Missouri-based photographer Mark Katzman met Jagdeesh Rao Puppala, the Executive Director for Foundation for Ecological Security (FES) while working in India on a book for Washington University about energy poverty. They quickly became friends, and soon enough, Mark would be asked to return to India to capture images for their fundraising efforts.

While Mark had been to India on previous occasions, this trip proved to be a truly unique experience that allowed him access to remote villages in the Himalayas and Rajasthan in Northern India. The resulting images are hauntingly beautiful depictions of people and places that not many get to see.

The journey was not without challenges, but Mark and his travel companions, including his wife Hilary, who produced the project, maintained a positive attitude – whether they were accessing a camp via rope and pulley system or being thrown off while attempting to ride a Camel for the first time.

India is a photographer’s dream and a photographer’s nightmare. It is real and raw, making it easy to capture authentic images – you just have to stay well enough to do it.

On the first day of the shoot, the crew was driving to their camp when Mark saw a woman working in the field. The sun was setting and she was beautifully back-lit. Mark signaled the driver to stop, grabbed his camera, and began running to the scene.  The path leading down to the field turned out to be steeper than he thought, and he lost control. Within minutes, Mark, his camera, and his long lens went airborne.

I could have easily hit my head on the rocks, and we were hours from any medical facility, but by some grace of Shiva, I was just banged up. However, my camera was toast, and it was dented as if it was hit by a sledgehammer.

The camera incident didn’t stop him, but it did slow him down a little — in a good way. With his Leica in hand, Mark pressed on, but his approach was now more calculated and precise. A fitting and familiar process for a photographer who advocates for the ‘slow photography movement.’

All I had for the next six days was my Leica. It worked out, though – I just needed to work slower and more methodically.

Mark and his travel companions didn’t know exactly where they would be going in India, so they were excited to learn that the first half of the trip would be in the Himalayas. The villages they would be visiting were off the beaten path, so it would be an adventure in and of itself to get there. However, this meant they would get an opportunity to capture daily life in a part of India rarely experienced by travelers.

I had never been anywhere so beautiful and remote; several of the villages were only accessible on foot. FES provides the villagers with support and access to services, so they were very welcoming.

Never a dull moment on this trip, when traveling to their next destination, they arrived at an area in the Himalayas they would be staying for the night. Upon arrival, they discovered that the camp was only accessible via a rope and pull harness.  

We got there in the dark and were “pulley’d” over a raging river that we could hear but not see.  The dinner waiting on the other side was well worth the drama.

Photographers Paul Nordmann and Nico Therin met the crew after their stint in the Himalayas and joined them in Rajasthan to capture additional photos for FES. True to the shoot’s raw and authentic nature, the post-production was minimal, with only some color adjustments made by Mark before sharing the images with the client. The organization used the photographs captured on this trip for their annual report and promotional banners as part of their fundraising efforts.

While the trip itself was a photographer’s dream, working with FES, who focuses on the conservation of nature and natural resources through local communities, was a gratifying and humbling experience for Mark.

What I learned is that happiness seems much less evasive if you live a simple life high up in the Himalayas. Everyone was so gracious and seemed so happy – yet they lived on very little. For example, they make their own clothes from yarn they spin themselves.

One of Mark’s striking images from this trip featuring a pensive man overlooking the Himalayan mountains was published on the cover of Workbook Magazine, a photography industry favorite. The Editor reached out to Mark directly before they chose the image from his online gallery.

They needed an image that reflected the tone of the times – serious but hopeful.

See more of Mark’s work at markkatzman.com.

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