CNN Photos

India’s most sacred river: Water for the soul

To people who have never seen the Ganges River in India, it calls to mind images of thousands of devout Hindus wading into its waters during religious rituals.

But photographer Mustafah Abdulaziz wanted to get to know the Ganges as a character and capture the stories it had to tell along its 1,200-mile narrative.

It was his first time visiting India. He says that when he moved from Brooklyn to Berlin, the focus of his photography shifted from how people interact with one another to global issues that affect everyone.

“I wanted to make myself useful with my photographs, rather than make them just for myself, and take photos that could play a role,” he said.

Like other collections in his “Water” series, Abdulaziz hopes his work from the Ganges River provides another angle of insight into how we interact with water and the ways we value it.

He previously documented Sierra Leone in the aftermath of a cholera outbreak, where “water is life and death.” Exploring the length of India’s holiest river presented a chain of new challenges.

“India is a visually rich place, and here I was shooting analog film – a slow process in a place that is very chaotic, with vibrancy in every aspect,” he said. “You have to follow that thread and keep yourself open to the river’s impressions, as well as taking images that make sense and fit together.”

Trekking the Ganges is not a typical river journey. Abdulaziz had to lay aside his  “Huckleberry Finn” expectations as he traveled by car, boat, train, truck and any other means necessary.

Venturing the river alone took two-and-a-half weeks, not counting days spent driving from one place to another.

He was struck by the different ways to talk about water in his photographs, from the river’s sheer scale and awe-inspiring bridges to social interactions and symbols of change and transformation.

“I wanted to make photos channeling the sensations of ‘this is how it feels to be next to the river,’ ” he said. “The river is the main character and everyone interacts with it differently. You have to recognize what’s in front of and how to be lyrical about the way you’re photographing it.”

While following his fascination with the bridges as connectors between towns, he began to notice life along the structures themselves.

Early one morning, Abdulaziz came across a man burning the body of his dead brother as a small group of fellow mourners placed wreaths around him. He was unsure of how to approach them and convey his respect, but his presence slowly earned their trust.

Through a translator, the man told him that he felt Abdulaziz was meant to be there to capture the meaning of his brother’s life, as it should be recorded.

The surreal experience made a deep impact on Abdulaziz, something he carries with him as he looks toward projects in Somalia and Pakistan.

Remembering the purpose of his work as he goes from country to country helps him make images that turn universal issues into personal portraits. He hopes to make people realize that water is a force of life that connects us all, and we need to take care of it.

“There is so much that rivers can offer us,” he said. “It’s something of beauty and we’re attracted to them for the serenity, the experience, to swim, for food, for life. I want people to think of water in that way – it can be something for your soul as well as your body.”

- Ashley Strickland, CNN