Delhi used to be an amalgamation of villages, ruins and deserted cities before the British decided to make it the capitol of India and built New Delhi as it is. In the process, many villages were destroyed and their inhabitants displaced. Near my house is a forest where you can find the remains of one of these villages, Malcha Mahal. There are a few walls, and ruins of houses that are all overgrown by now. The only construction that stands, is a 800 year old mosque where generations of Moslims have come to pray, and an old tomb where a Royal Family lives, but more about that later. The area is supposed to be sacred, miracles have taken place, demons driven out and every day people come to pray.
The Mosque has been guarded by generations of the members of the same family, who are believed to have special spiritual powers as well. I have visited the mosque a few times and am always welcomed in the most friendly way. For this assignment I wanted to get a photograph of the imam and his followers, to show the dedication that they have for the mosque and its leader. The imam seems like a very friendly man, with two young sons (he showed me a video in which they are dancing along with a Bollywood video) and he has taken up his God given duty to protect the mosque and shrine and offer spiritual advice. From what I could sense from the attitude of his followers, he is respected and revered and I was surprised to see their humble gestures when I asked to photograph them with the imam.
Which brings me to the element that I want to show in this photograph. Which beliefs make us revere one person over the other, why do we follow and trust spiritual leaders and on which basis? Is there a certain naivety in this following, what are the advantages of doing what an other person says based on religious ideas?
When I went out to photograph, I was more focused on getting to know the people and having a nice conversation with them, than looking at the relationships and powers at play. However, when looking at the photographs later, reading the body language and facial expressions, it becomes quite clear what the hierarchy is amongst these people. I find it difficult to select the image, because I think that there are few strong ones that show differences in character and personality. For example, the one in which we see the men interacting with each other, the imam sitting on a chair, his followers on the floor in an expectant pose, has the strongest narrative I find. It looks like the imam is giving his blessings, which his followers are receiving humbly. I recognize this dependency on the words of a spiritual leader and want to show this.
However, I do find the image in which we see the imam standing up, with one of his followers clutching his leg, and the other looking blissfully in the camera saying most about the dependency relationships that is found among spiritual leaders and their followers. It has a naive feel to it and I wonder about the mental capacities of the man on the right.
However, because I want the focus to be on the concept of what makes a person a follower; personal profit, neediness or faith in a leader’s spiritual connections/leadership, the image with the three men sitting on the tomb seems the most suitable. They all have a very different appearance and poise about them. They are drinking from the same coffee mugs, accentuating their togetherness. I think there is a striking difference in expression, which triggers questions about who they are, their position in the community and spirituality. Besides that, I love the plastic prayer caps.
I realize the balance in the image is a bit off. Maybe it would have been visually a bit better if I had photographed them with their eyes on the upper third line. Besides that, the rhythm of the three men is off, the one in the middle not sitting in the middle, the empty spot suggesting that something or somebody is missing. However, I do find that this unbalanced feel adds to tension that I want to portray. Why have these people dedicated their lives to a spiritual cause, is there a logic to be found in the first place?