Photo By Heather Cudworth

In 2018, I had planned to go to Katmai, Alaska, for a wildlife photography trip. A few months before the trip, the organizer had to cancel, and I received a full refund. As luck would have it, within hours of the cancellation, a friend called asking if I’d be interested in a photography workshop in India the following March.

My passion has always had a focus on nature and wildlife. In fact, I typically tend to avoid photographing scenes with people in them altogether. So, when an opportunity to go to India—the second most populous country in the world—for a travel and culture photography workshop presented itself, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and expand my boundaries. After receiving the refund for the canceled trip, it was basically already paid for. How could I say no?

During the workshop, we visited eight cities in 12 days. Traveling throughout India was an incredible, all-sensory experience. Day two of our trip was spent celebrating the Holi Festival of Color. It was an absolutely overwhelmingly beautiful day and one that I hope to never forget. Holi is a celebration of spring, new beginnings, forgiving oneself for past mistakes, making new friends and so much more. I made a conscious effort to remember the lessons I learned during Holi and embrace new beginnings and new opportunities.

I had to adapt and expand my photographic style to incorporate the beauty and emotion that humans can add to photos of landscapes or ancient structures. Our group’s leader had traveled to India to lead workshops several times and often hired local patrons to model and pose for the group. Women in traditional vibrant sarees or men with long white mustaches and bright turbans were chosen at random and paid for their time to model for our group of eager photographers. On the rare occasion that I do photograph people, I prefer to capture candid moments as opposed to the posed ones, so I tended to stay on the outskirts of the group and shoot the moments between the poses.

On day seven, we visited the city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan and its largest city. We visited a few ancient stepwells throughout the trip, one of which was Panna Meena ka Kund. For centuries, this eight-story stepwell served as the primary source of water for the surrounding community before running water was available. People would descend the long series of steps to collect water from the well at the bottom. While it’s no longer used for this purpose, Panna Meena ka Kund now offers visitors a glimpse into the past. Photographing down into the stepwell from the perimeter, there’s no shortage of unique opportunities for capturing mesmerizing geometric shapes, lines and optical illusions as all four walls of the well are constructed of steps made of stone. One can easily fill their frame with seemingly infinite descending steps without a human in sight.

Like at many of the previous stops on our tour, our guide arranged for a local woman in a traditional saree to pose for us on the steps of this ancient structure. He directed her to a spot of his choosing and told her where to look to capture the pose he envisioned. I initially shied away from the posed photo session, but remembering the lesson of Holi, I decided to embrace the moment. I redirected my focus and became more intrigued by the scene our hired patron was creating. Her bright green and purple saree added a burst of color against the pale, cold background of the steps surrounding her. I snapped a few images of her posing on the steps and, while they were beautiful photos, I wasn’t satisfied. I wasn’t capturing the feeling of the scene in front of me, so I changed my perspective. While she was carefully descending to the next spot as directed by our guide, I relocated to photograph her from across the well rather than looking down at her from the side. I kept my zoom wide and turned my camera vertically to capture the vast scene of the infinite steps continuing far below her. Looking through the viewfinder, I knew this was the moment I was longing for and pressed the shutter—beautiful, vibrant and brightly shining life against a backdrop of ancient history. 

Canon EOS 70D, Tamron 16-300mm F/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD at 48mm. Exposure: 1/320 sec., ƒ/5, ISO 100.

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