Thursday, 29 May 2014

Photography Holiday in Rajasthan with Jonathan Perugia

White robes and Orange turbans at the Pushkar Camel Fair.
Leading camels at the Pushkar Camel Fair
The dune-like humps of huddling camels shift against the faint purple bruising of the dawn sky. Primeval groans and grunts float on the chilly air, and campfires flicker into the distance on the immense undulating plain, illuminating the eyes and teeth of men who have lived long hard lives in the desert: lives entwined with those of their animals.

In the ashy blueness of the growing light, a boy stirs, stumbling sleepily to a dozing camel. He strokes its bristly hair. 

As the sky starts to glow orange, we have reached the highest point of the festival site, looking back at the animals, carts, and tents stretching into the distance, and the smoke hanging in wisps across the valley.

I’m leading a small group of photographers to choice vantage points by a small group of huts, where herds of camels will soon be driven in from the desert through the skeletal trees. 

As golden sunrise light slants through the brush, the first camels gallop and thud down the hill, cajoled and thwacked by whistling men in white robes and bright orange turbans.

Dancing camels

We spend an exhilarating hour crouching, running, shooting, and finding our own favourite spots, as group after group of camels kick and canter through the backlit dust.

By around 830 most of the groups have passed, and we head back to the main site, splitting up to gorge on the photographic feast all around us. It’s a great place for portraiture, landscapes, details, and vignettes of life. Women in immaculate vivid saris collect balls of dung for the fires; muttering groups of men inspect livestock, bargaining and striking deals; camels’ coats are groomed, shorn, and dyed. They bellow cantankerously throughout.

By 11, the light is getting harsh: and it’s hot. We head back to the cool oasis of our heritage hotel for breakfast, a dip, and a welcome nap. Later we head back out to the stadium, where earsplitting music obliterates the sounds, but not the sights of tightrope walkers, dancing camels, moustache competitions, and racing horses in an endless throng of colour and energy.

Hundreds of holy men, and pilgrims from the desert and all over India, come to Pushkar, to bathe and pray, haggle, barter, gossip and make merry. They gather outside temples, and pose patiently. Spending a little time with them allows a connection that can raise a portrait above the ordinary, and allow situations to develop around you.

As the afternoon light starts to glow golden, we head to the bathing ghats by the lake. Groups of pilgrims are silhouetted and reflected in the water, birds flit across the pink sky, and humped cows munch and snuffle their way along the steps.
Jaunty turban of the day

We walk barefoot around the sacred lake as night falls and the drumming and chanting builds and becomes more and more mesmerizing. It’s a wonderful time to shoot with high ISOs and fast lenses, or tripods, using the flare and colour casts of floodlights and the electric blue dusk. Finally we drag ourselves away, for a rickety rickshaw ride back to dinner in the comfort of the hotel.


We arrive for our two nights in Pushkar after about a week of the tour, so we’re already acclimatized, and I’ve had an opportunity to have 1 to 1 time with every photographer. This is very important, and helps me get a clear idea of their interests, style, and what they want to work on during the holiday.

We spend our first four nights in Udaipur, staying in the Maharaja’s former country retreat by a lake. His immaculate Marawari horses are stabled here, and young men play cricket on an immaculate pitch. This is the ideal place to recover from the journey.

The city immediately enchants with the classic romance of Rajasthan. The late afternoon light on the lake is sublime, silhouetting rows of hills in the misty distance, especially viewed through the carved marble windows of the exquisite palace.

Photographic highlights include a busy ancient temple, life by the lake at sunrise, a busy pungent bazaar, and a boat trip to an island where the kings used to cavort with their concubines.

Jodhpur is next, with its immense fort looming over the narrow streets of the old blue city; a sprawling, fascinating market; and a visit to a cloth dying community, where some photographers end up being invited into houses spontaneously and popping up on the roofs to shoot down at the groups of feisty kids waving and jostling below.

After Pushkar, we head for Jaipur, regional capital and an intense assault on the senses. We’re up early for the best of the light, avoiding the insane traffic, before heading to the truly astonishing Amber Fort outside the city, to shoot tawny reflections rippling in the lake, before a jeep ride up the hill to explore the opulent marbled halls, mirrored ceilings, narrow passageways, and the views of the fortifications snaking along the tops of the surrounding hills.
The priest arrives


I fell in love with photography in India in the early 90s, and have spent the subsequent twenty years fulfilling the vow I made on a starlit bus ride to Bombay: that I would travel the world making pictures, and get paid to do it.

The process of finding my creativity has changed my life. My teaching is inspired by a belief that we all benefit enormously from exploring and expressing our creative impulses; and that we all have an eye, a story to tell, and a unique take on the world.

I love photography, and people, and it’s very exciting for me to try to inspire people to experiment and enjoy their photography and to develop their own style: and to have a lot of fun doing it.

So I make time to listen to people’s wishes, before and during the holiday, and I work with every guest individually to encourage and guide them on their own path.
Smiling Jonathan!

We have some group sessions, where we study and discuss images; I offer small workshops on techniques the guests want to practice, like night photography, portraiture, and capturing movement; and I review their work as we go along.

I set lighthearted (optional) ‘competitions’ with silly prizes, and am always available to answer guests’ questions. And I generally stay on for a spell after all the guests have gone, so I do my own photography then: while the course is running. I’m focused on the guests’ photography, not my own.

I love India, and know it pretty well, and we have excellent local guides. Between us, we will unveil the delights and guide you through the challenges of this spectacular region of this wonderful country.

Join Jonathan on his next Photography Holiday to Rajasthan on 26th October 2014 - only a few places left. 12 nights, £3089 excluding flights.
This blog, written by Jonathan Perugia, was featured in the June edition of Photography Monthly magazine.
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