This is the last frame I shot before I was attacked by a group of drunken revelers who pushed my head underwater (my camera was around my neck) while I was photographing the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Bombay. Remarkably, the roll of film still had images on it despite being submersed. You can still see the water marks on it. My camera and all of my equipment was destroyed in this incident.
I was photographing this amazing event on the last evening of the festival about twenty minutes after sunset, illuminating the scene with my flash and standing in chest-deep water. Suddenly out of nowhere, a group of drunken revelers came over and started pounding me, grabbed my camera which was around my neck and pulled the camera and my head under water. I stopped worrying about my camera, and started thinking about the possibility of drowning. My assistant, who was in the water nearby, had virtually all the rest of my equipment. He was also thrown under the water and beaten up. To add to my misfortune, I had borrowed a lens from a friend, Hoshi Jal, who is a Senior Assistant Photo Editor at the Times of India and who has photographed this festival over many years. His lens was also lost.
Eventually, one man came to my rescue and helped escort me back to the beach. I felt lucky to be alive at that point. I got back to my hotel room and tried to dry off my equipment with the hair dryer and called the National Geographic technical department. They told me not to bother drying it off, just to throw it away because unlike fresh water, salt water destroys lenses and camera bodies.
I’ve always had bad luck with water, having survived a plane crash in a frigid alpine lake in Slovenia. The saving grace of all of this was that I had kept my film in those plastic canisters so all my film was safe except for the roll that was in the camera. The last frame of that roll is shown at top with the water marks still on it.
I recently spoke to Hoshi Jal who explained that one of the reasons some people get agitated out in the water at the moment they submerse the image, is that they don’t want photographs taken of those idols broken or disfigured in the sea. Many of these images are made of plaster of paris and they break apart rather quickly.
This festival is one of the most amazing events I have witnessed in India. People all over the region take part, but the most impressive place is the gathering at Chowpatty beach. Literally millions of people converge on this one small beach every year, usually between August 20th and September 15th, to honor the Hindu deity Ganesha, the half elephant, half human son of Shiva and Parvati.
One of the wonderful things about Hinduism is the amazing inconography from Ganesha to the monkey-god Hanuman to the ten-armed Durga. During the months leading up to the festival, craftsmen all over Bombay create images of Ganesha which virtually every Hindu in the city will use to take part in a ceremony in which they take the images to the sea. People sometimes walk for miles with huge 20-foot statues to eventually immerse the icons into the India Ocean. This goes on for some days culminating in the final day known as the Anant Chaturdashi. The object is to walk the idol into the sea, often on top their head, and when the water gets too deep, to lower the icon into the ocean and let it float away.
Bombay is one of the greatest cities in the world to photograph. I’ve always loved working there. In many ways, it reminds me of New York, but I think next time I’ll photograph the festival from the beach.
Addendum, August 28, 2009:
I’ve traveled to India (and entire South Asia) more than 80 times over the years. There’s no safer place on the planet to work or just walk around with or without your camera. There’s no neighborhood in Mumbai or Calcutta that I don’t feel I could go into any time during the day or night. Sadly, the same thing can’t be said for other parts of the world.