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Himanshu Khagta has a unique worldview. Born and raised in the Himalayas, he has access to rural communities throughout India, many of which he documents with his camera. His work takes him to peaks over 18,000 feet high and rivers deep in dense forests. And he is still so fascinated with exploring India that he hasn’t yet taken his camera outside of the country.
We caught up with the photographer, whose clients include The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, and Outlook Traveller, to hear about his adventures and his photographic philosophy.
What was your childhood like? Was travel part of your upbringing?
I was born in Rohru, a small town in the Indian Himalayas. I was raised in Shimla and that’s where I spent my childhood. There was hardly any traveling in my childhood. We just used to visit my grandparents at my native place and spend time at the apple orchards my family owns. I was privileged to be born in the Himalayas.
How did you get into travel and editorial photography?
It happened accidentally. While I was still in high school, I used to take pictures of my hometown, a famous hill station in India, and upload them on social media. I started getting calls from travel magazines and that’s when I knew that I needed to travel more to get more work from these people.
How often are you on the road for your work?
I can’t stay at one place for long. I am home for around four months, and eight months I must be traveling. I just come back to work on the images and enjoy the luxuries of the cities, like good restaurants and high-speed Internet. India is the only country I have shot in as yet. It is so diverse and culturally rich. I like traveling in the rural areas that are not on the tourist circuit.
Even after having spent 25 years in the Himalayas, I still am finding new places that people living in the remotest of locations talk about — deeper in the already remote Himalayas. I wonder if I would ever be able to reach those in one lifetime? I wish to travel the world and experience different cultures. I wish I will always be on the move.
Have you had an close calls while on assignment? Or extremely inspiring stories you’d like to share?
So many. It becomes adventure when you get out unharmed from those situations. Once, I dislocated my shoulder while covering the longest Himalayan journey on a farm tractor in the middle of the Himalayas. After that we completed 3,600 km worth of an extra slow and bumpy ride on the world’s highest roads. The highest being at 18,300 feet. I only had my left hand working and I could not use my camera. So I used my iPhone instead.
Once we travelled all the way to the easternmost border of India, in a remote tribal village, deep in one of the densest forests of India, in the least populated district of India, to cover a team of water sport experts who would raft down Dibang River, a river that has never been rafted on before. They would add another raft for us. After many delays and logistics issues, we were dropped off in the middle of the night in a tribal village deep in the forest, five hours away from a nearby town. There was no network connection and we couldn’t contact the team who was staying somewhere nearby. Even after reaching the village on the back of a pickup truck in the freezing winter we could not find them and we had to head back in disappointment. After days, when we heard from the team, we got to know that all the rafts capsized on the very first rapid and all the equipment was lost in the river and they managed to somehow survive for a few days before reaching a civilization. “It was good that you could not reach us,” they said. We celebrated with ice cream after hearing this news.
Once, I was blinded while covering the Braj Holi in rural villages in Uttar Pradesh. That is probably the most colorful Holi celebration in the world — people throwing colored powder and creating clouds of different colors and dancing in joy. I happened to be overwhelmed by the first sight of what was happening in front of me, when suddenly some idiot threw a handful of colored powder in my eyes. I was literally blinded as I could not move my eyelids. My eyes were full of color. I then had to make my way across the temple to a location where I had seen a tap while entering the temple.
How do you go about approaching people/cultures you are unfamiliar with?
I want to take natural-looking pictures where people are not conscious about being shot, and having a huge camera pointed on them makes it even more difficult. So, even after researching a lot, the first thing I do is talk to people and ask questions. I am really bad at it but sometimes it helps to even act like a fool. When they are comfortable with you around them, the pictures will be a lot more personal and natural. Also, you get to learn a lot more about them and the community. The things that are not mentioned in any books. For this you have to have a lot of time.
What projects are you working on now?
For the past eight months I have been purely focusing on my own personal project, “Life in Spiti.” Spiti is a remote region in the Indian Himalayas which remains cut off from the outside world in the winters and is only accessible by road in the summers. The temperate hardly exceeds 30, even on the hottest day of summer, and it remains below the freezing point for most of the year, going down to -30 degrees Celsius (-22 F) in the coldest winter months. I went there to explore it in the summers and fell in love with the place and its people. I found very little material on the place when I later searched for it. Also, there was hardly any mention about the difficulties faced by the people in the winter months in the news.
So, I decided to spend one full winter there and experience the life without electricity and flowing water and proper infrastructure and document the life of its people through pictures. Despite all these facilities we call essential these days, these people were happier than an average person living in a city with access to the latest technology. They live like their ancestors and don’t even complain about the lack of infrastructure. I made a website that was being updated through satellite Internet, and a Twitter account gave regular updates about the condition of the lifestyle. I am still working on covering each and every aspect of their lifestyle.
Are you self-taught as a photographer?
I am a self-taught photographer. I graduated in political science instead. Internet is my teacher and I learned everything from photography to lighting to software and website design from there. I love technology and keep up with it. I have also learned a lot from amazing friends in the field.
From who and what do you derive inspiration for your art?
There are many great photographers and the Internet gives me a chance to explore their work. I keep looking for images just to make sure I don’t shoot what has already been shot before. It gives me a challenge and I like it. What’s the point of re-shooting things? That’s easy. Creating new and unique pictures is difficult. It makes me explore new places at the weirdest of times possible. I follow photojournalistic blogs like the NYTimes‘ Lens Blog and Big Picture and similar blogs. I love what the photojournalists do — creating amazing pictures everyday. That’s a special talent and I really appreciate them.
How would you describe your photographic philosophy?
My philosophy is to capture the moment as it is. People are something else when you point your camera on them. I don’t want that. I start taking pictures when they start ignoring me and doing what they were doing. I like do capture the beauty of nature as it happened. I never use filters and extra tones just to make the image look pretty. I try my best to make it as I saw it from my own eyes. I have a photojournalistic approach toward photography and I try to create a neat frame with everything beautifully arranged.
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