Temperatures in the cold desert of Spiti Valley plummet to minus 30 degrees in the winter. Having lived out a winter documenting the remote region, photographer Himanshu Khagta is quite unperturbed when I ask him about the challenges. He gives me the equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders – “It was more like home to me – I got used to the place.”
The resilience has taken Khagta across the country on some exhilarating adventures. He has travelled across rural India documenting the Great Wash Yatra, covered over 3000 kilometers across Ladakh on a farm tractor, documented the longest tractor expedition between Chandigarh and Kanyakumari, and travelled to remote villages of North Eastern India on photography assignments. It would be useful to keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive.
Having travelled on some of the most treacherous mountain roads (the YouTube channel that documents his drives is called Himalayan Roads), Khagta lists his 2013 trip to North Eastern India as his most exciting one. Along with the New York Times correspondent, Max Bearak, Khagta went on a month-long journey across Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya documenting the cultural and environmental transformation in the region. Bearak’s article, Finding Nino, explains why Khagta considers this particular adventure to be his most exciting one.
“We were travelling from a journalistic perspective and explored some very remote areas,” he says.
Khagta’s journey as a photographer began with an interest in clicking pictures on his phone and sharing them with his friends while he grew up in Shimla. The encouragement to take photography up as a profession came when magazines requested to publish his pictures. He picked up the technical aspects through the internet and has had no professional training in photography. “Since everything is constantly changing, I keep learning even today. The internet and YouTube are my teachers,” he says.
The progression from photography to adventure and a combination of the two was a natural one for him. “Some great photographer said that to take great pictures, you have to stand in front of beautiful things. I began to travel extensively to take pictures,” he says. The fact that a few of his friends were mountain climbers got him started on treks.
Khagta’s first trip to Spiti was in 2010 when he fell in love with the vastness of the region, its clear blue skies and hospitable people. He returned a few times before he spent a winter there in 2014 at the behest of a friend from the region. Despite having packed his bags for two months, he stayed for six. “Every single day was fun,” he says. He learnt how to ski on Spiti’s mountain slopes with two friends who knew the basics. “We used to have regular practice sessions early in the morning when the ice is frozen and easy to ski on the top layer. It was really beautiful.”
“Life was really simple and nice,” Khagta says. “The food in the valley is bland, but we loved tasty food. We would begin planning ahead for dinner right after lunch and cook something new everyday. There was nothing else to do!” he laughs.
Spiti has very limited access to technology. The only network available is BSNL and internet connections are nearly impossible to obtain. “Life without technology wasn’t that tough,” says Khagta. “While I was there, there was no electricity for a month and a half. But I got used to it. We used to have access to satellite internet and work on dial up speeds to send emails.” The key to living a content life in Spiti is cutting down on the luxuries we tend to seek. “It’s important to be comfortable with anything – I found that I could pitch a tent and stay anywhere. It didn’t matter much to me,” he says.
While his experiences in Spiti have culminated in a book and a website – Life in Spiti – Khagta has also actively been documenting Shimla, his hometown. Life in Shimla is an ongoing project that captures the life and culture of various villages in the district, the most recent one being Rohru, where Khagta is currently based out of.
“The remote regions of Shimla have barely been documented,” he says. Is it difficult to find a story in your own backyard? “Since I grew up in Shimla, I’ve seen the place since childhood.
Documenting it now means I’ll have to look at it from other perspectives. It’s not particularly difficult, just a little different,” says Khagta. Since he appreciates the weather in Shimla and the misty monsoons, he hasn’t moved to the city yet.
Being from the mountains put him at an advantage with regard to the work he did in Spiti. The culture and people are similar and it gets easier to adjust to sub zero temperatures, he admits. But did he ever feel like an intruder on photography assignments elsewhere in India, considering that some of his photographs are intimate portraits that reflect a region’s lifestyle and culture? That’s where his process comes into the picture. “You will always feel like an outsider. If somebody points a camera at your face, you may not like it. So, I make sure that I talk to the people I am photographing, I interact with them for a while and ensure that they are comfortable,” he says. He emphasises the need familiarise oneself with the region and its culture. Respecting individuals and their privacy is just as integral to the process as understanding the specificities of the place being documented.
When a viewer looks at his photograph, Khagta hopes that the person is able to see it exactly the way he envisioned it. The reaction he seeks to ellicit is the feeling he experienced at the moment he clicked the photograph. “I don’t mingle with the colours too much during post processing and I don’t use too many filters,” he says. Over time, he has observed that he can now visualise a picture and then map the best way to take it. “When I started out, it was trial and error. With practice, it’s easier for the photographer to know what kind of picture they want,” he says. While he uses a Canon 5D Mark II for stills, he also uses the camera on his phone a lot.
Khagta also enjoys the fact that sometimes places and people surprise the traveller. “Returning to Delhi from Nagaland was a shock because nobody honks in Nagaland and cars very rarely overtake each other. When you experience places for yourself, you realise that they are not as they have projected in the media,” he says.