During a talk at Photopia, award-winning photographer Yasser Alaa Mobarak shared his work from an experience in India capturing the different sides to the country after spending a year in Delhi teaching photography at a school there.
The 24-year-old has won several photography prizes including the Artist Distinction from the International Federation of Photographic Art (AFIAP), and other awards from international institutions such as National Geographic Traveler India and National Geographic Egypt, as well as the International Federation of Photographic Art, Photographic Society of America and Prix De La Photographie Paris.
His photographs have also been featured in many international magazines, including Digital Camera World Magazine, Amateur Photographer Magazine, Smart Photography Magazine and Silvershotz Magazine.
Mobarak refers to himself as an amateur photographer, emphasizing how this term has nothing to do with his level of skill, but only indicates that the amateur does not earn a living from photography.
Highlighting how a resident’s perspective is very different to a tourist’s view of a country, Mobarak recounted in his talk tales from India through the patient, keen eyes of a resident. While presenting a slideshow of his photographs, he walks us through the less explored side of India, revealing the untold stories behind his telling shots.
Egyptians can look very similar to Indians, and as Mobarak notes, “Some people would start treating you like a local. There are even common words between Hindi and Arabic, like Insan (human) and Moshkel (problem).” Yet he adds, “Their culture is still fascinatingly foreign to us, whether referring to cuisine and social habits or everything in between.”
Documenting a Different Side to India
India is possibly one of the most photogenic countries in the world, yet Mobarak was determined to capture its spirit from a fresh and unique angle, avoiding the redundant touristic shots.
“All the photographs of India on the internet are very similar and usually include the colorful Holi festival, the Taj Mahal and the train with someone looking out the window, which have all become clichés,” Mobarak emphasizes.
He chose to take all his photos in the city of Delhi, where tourists only go to catch their train rides, but seldom stay for sightseeing. The result is a collection of candid everyday shots, which capture the multifaceted character of the city through the faces of its residents, places off the beaten track and most of all the cultural and ethnic diversity that the country is home to.
“India is a country of 1,652 different languages [22 of which are official], and at least nine different religions, each with a different tradition, and I wanted my photos to reflect that diversity and their unique practices,” the photographer mentions.
Of these, he focused on four main ones during his stay: Sikhism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, and documented some of the practices he encountered as he learned more about them. His body of work is by no means documentary, yet it offers insight and a visual journey to his audience in Cairo, most of whom have never visited India and encountered this diversity first hand.
In one photograph, Mobarak captures a Sikhist practitioner bathing and praying in a pool of holy water.
“It was the first time for me to encounter someone praying in the water, which is very different from what I know from my own faith, so I was very intrigued and wanted to capture this,” he explains.
The man is wearing a turban and a serene expression as the water ripples around him, alone in the pool. Only one person at a time can enter the pool, and the ripples are considered a blessing from the gods.
“The turban wraps up the man’s hair, which would be very long as cutting hair is forbidden in Sikhism.”
He adds that with these rituals also comes a set of rules that foreigners are unfamiliar with, which lead to being scolded by the guards for sitting with his feet facing the water, an action considered to be disrespectful.
Mobarak also had a chance to witness a ritual by the Sunni Muslims in India during the month of Muharram, a practice usually associated with the Shia sector.
The photographer was invited by one of his students to go to the city of Karbala during Muharram, which at first he mistook for being in Iraq, before learning there was also a Karbala in India.
“I watched as a procession of masses re-enacted the burial of El-Husayn, carrying large caskets and then throwing them into large pits,” Mobarak says.
One of the photos in this series shows a girl sitting by the edge of one of the pits praying quietly amidst the busy commotion around her, while another shows a man wailing in distress on the ground, framed tightly by the crowd in the foreground.
Mobarak shared another series featuring a young Buddhist monk clad in crimson robes.
“I became very good friends with this young monk, spending a lot of time with him, and this made it difficult to say goodbye,” he mentions.
The portraits reflect this intimacy, capturing a gentle spark in the monk’s eyes looking straight at the camera. In another shot, the monk plays a game of marble with colleagues at their school, where there is a sense of trust and ease in the candid photos.
Photographic Style and Technique
Mobarak’s style includes fresh angles and a human element to make an otherwise cliché shot more dynamic. When it comes to technicalities, he leaves room for experimenting and one of the techniques he often plays with is zoom-panning; zooming in or out with the lens while taking a long exposure shot.
“It is all about trial and error until you get the right shot,” he says, showing us several different takes of the same image.
The slideshow pauses on one featuring a man bent in prayer at a pair of massive feet that belong to a statue of Lord Hanuman, a Hindu god that is a hybrid of monkey and man. The photo is visually striking, with the bright orange feet of the dense statue in contrast to the little figure beneath them.
“Most people capture the whole statue or focus on its upper half,” he says, showing us another photo that reveals the full 33 meters of the statue and its distinctive features, “But I wanted to show this contrast in scale, and reflect the interaction of the people with it.”
This is one of the photos that took Mobarak days to capture, after visiting the site many times and witnessing the ritual and the flow of people. In fact, revisiting places is one of the tips he gave to his students in India, and in turn also shared with the audience at Photopia.
On Travel Photography
To aspiring travel photographers, Mobarak advises, “Do a lot of research on where you are going to familiarize yourself with the destination, the important sites and see how they are photographed, and then try to be unique. You can try shooting from different angles, and use the lighting from the different times of the day to get different effects.”
Although he stresses preparation, Mobarak also recommends spontaneity and discovering new places off the beaten track, as well as talking to the locals and asking them for recommendations and information whenever possible.
“You do not need to travel far to become a travel photographer. Travel Photography is characterized by capturing a sense of time and place, where the goal is to make the viewer travel visually through your image.”