Documentary photographer Sephi Bergerson is drawn to the unusual happenings at Indian weddings and chats with Varsha Naik about depicting them through images
Last week in Goa amongst friends and fans, award-winning photographer Sephi Bergerson introduced Behind the Indian Veil, a book on Indian weddings traditions. Sephi, who grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel, uses his experience as a documentary photographer as the lens through which he captures weddings across India. The result is an assortment of images of sacred traditions, complex practices and elaborate ceremonies that reflect the likeness and the diversities in weddings rituals in different regions of the country.
On completing three years in the paratroops regiment of the Israeli army, at age of 21, Sephi, whose family hails from Poland, moved to New York City to pursue his interest in photography. He returned two years later to study photography at the Hadassah Institute of Technology in Jerusalem. “No place kept our imagination like India,” he says about how after having lived in Paris and San Francisco as well, in 2002 he moved with his family to India.
It was in 2007, after the completion of his book Street Food of India, a friend asked him to photograph her sister’s wedding, despite the fact that he had never covered weddings in the past. This Tamilian Brahmin wedding was his first and was one of the longest and most elaborate weddings he has attended. Sephi recalls how unusual the experience was. “The priests were chanting and pouring stuff into the fire and saying swaha, and I didn’t know if this is most important part of the ceremony. So, from 5 am for four hours I shoot like it’s war, like this is the frame of all frames – thousands of pictures without knowing any better. In the meantime, people go have breakfast and come back while it’s just me with the couple, the priests and the fire,” he recalls.
Sephi explains the rationale behind the book that captures 16 wedding traditions. “For someone like me who was ignorant of the culture, a foreigner with just an imagination of what Indian weddings really are, every wedding there were new things I had never seen before. And while trying to give a few examples of what an Indian wedding really is, it became a journey of trying to understand what the term means,” he adds. Most images are from weddings where both groom and bride have the same cultural background. While shooting, he shows the wedding through his eyes with all the filters that come with him. However, commercial assignments call for a different kind of service, and the focus there is on the happiness of the family.
The book’s layout is such that it has a full page on one side and a framed page on the other. A sequence of images with no captions is followed by a page with text; the pages are not cluttered and this creates a back and forth between images and their stories. “I’ve noticed that the book often serves as a conversation starter, reminding people about weddings and celebrations they’ve been a part of,” Sephi says.
After he had covered about eight weddings, a friend called Sephi about a mass nikah in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community in Mumbai. After trying to get permission and no concrete response, he decided to show up and shoot anyway, since the procession was out in the street. As the grooms headed over to the mosque, he walked amongst them documenting the scene around him – the groom’s procession and noisy band, people in windows watching and women of the families with their children. “Though I’m a non-practitioner, I was essentially a Jewish photographer with no real permission to be there, standing outside the mosque at the beginning of a religious ceremony.” He entered anyway and was welcomed by the living spiritual leader who conducted this mass wedding for 318 couples to photograph the happenings.
By far the most enjoyable wedding that Sephi has attended and documented was a Ladakhi Buddhist wedding that broke all stereotypes, “It was nothing that you expect to see. The couple had been together for 10 years with two children already. The wedding was more of a social affair without a priest or lama to solemnise it.” A simple pandal was set up where the villagers gathered for salt tea and lunch, while the couple’s parents greeted their friends. The bride and groom meet each guest who put a scarf around them giving their blessings.
Wedding gifts for the couple consisted mostly of necessary commodities like wool, blankets, carpets, furniture and most surprisingly – 500-gram packs of butter. “The idea behind it is that the community lends the couple a first fortune to start their life. Throughout their life when invited to weddings, they slowly pay it back with interest as a bigger gift,” Sephi clarifies. He notes that there was no photographer and doesn’t foresee a market for wedding photography here. “Perhaps as Buddhists they live in the now and don’t care about pictures,” he adds.
To see a traditional Kashmiri Pandit wedding, Sephi waited two years and celebration was surprising and an excellent subject for commentary. The wedding starts with a musical evening with professional musicians and a male dancer dressed as a woman, called the bacha, who dances and entertains everyone all night. Sephi also photographed a unique ceremony where the bride’s upper ear cartilage is pierced enabling her to wear special jewellery reserved for married Kashmiri Pandit women.
Inspiring and Educating
The only way to be a good photographer is to stay immersed in the field, Sephi says. He outlines three ways for learning – experience, inference and knowledge sources. “It’s crucial to discern who are the right knowledge sources, because there are a lot of charlatans out there who only tell you want to want to hear, not what you need to hear,” he emphasises. He believes that we must all be in service to improve things we can – to do seva in some form. For him, it is in the field he has some influence over, to improve the photography industry. “If someone wants to learn from me, there’ no limit – I share everything I have.”
In 2012, Sephi launched the SILK PHOTOS website with some fellow photographers, initially meant to facilitate easy reference of spill over assignments between an elite group of photographers. This boutique photo agency is now a platform for reputed wedding photographers, and even has a mentorship programme called RAW SILK for photographers they believe are the most promising talent in the industry. Under the banner of SILK INSPIRE, in 2016 they held India’s first wedding photography festival with 220 attendees and 8 photographers. “This first festival was about inspiration, to expose Indian photographers to what’s been done and how foreign photographers think, who they’d never had the opportunity to meet. It was like lightening in the middle of a summer day – it changed the industry,” Sephi states.
Last year was about diversity of techniques and pushing photographers to go beyond the basics, to explore and experiment. This year, the festival will take place in Bengaluru from October 3-7 and will highlight two main topics – running a successful business and the essence of documentary photography. It is to encourage Indian photographers to develop and streamline their own technique, which will lead them to find their unique voice as storytellers. Another aspect the festival will focus on is closing the gender gap in the Indian wedding photography industry. Sephi gives the example of 23-year-old South African photographer Tshepiso Mazibuko, introduced to photography through an NGO and uses the medium to document the lives of people in her town. He hopes that such stories will inspire more women in India to pursue this field.
“I want to teach these young photographers how to become artists, to hone their craft and be able to express themselves,” Sephi asserts. “Everyone experiences weddings differently – it’s about finding a story within the wedding, locking on to that thread and telling that story through photographs.”
Sephi is currently working on a long-term personal project regarding religious dogma and sexuality, a series of black and white images that he hopes will make a bold statement but with subtle finesse. “The idea is not to consciously offend or create outrage by attacking someone’s beliefs,” he says, “It’s to make you uncomfortable and face the mirror, face your own fears and question your own perceptions.” Shot in graveyards and abandoned structures, the images challenge and interplay religious symbology, drawing attention to the taboos of religious organisation.