Religion Through a Lens: Magnum Photographer Abbas on Hinduism

Devotees drown a statue of Durga, the Bengali avatar of goddess Kali,in the river Hoogly, Kolkata, India. Magnum Photos/Abbas

Magnum photographer Abbas has been fascinated by world religions ever since he documented the Iranian Revolution from 1978 to 1980. An Iranian himself (he was born there in 1944), Abbas says he "could see that the wave of religious passion [that was] raised in Iran would not stop at the borders of the country."

Abbas went into voluntary exile in 1980, returning to Tehran only 17 years later—years he spent photographing cultures and religions around the world. After joining Magnum Photos, he spent seven years photographing the practice of Islam and went on to similar projects on Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism, covering what he calls "God and what people take as his many manifestations."

In his latest book, Gods I've Seen: Travels Among Hindus (Phaidon; October 2016), Abbas turns his lens on India, but also where Hinduism is practiced in Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bali. Hinduism is inherently different to the Abrahamic religions; it has 330 million different gods. "The Hindu gods do not have the loftiness or the arrogance of the monotheistic gods," says Abbas. "Like us, they are capable of the best and the worst."

Unlike the other dominant world religions, Abbas says, Hinduism does not attempt to suppress the dark side of mankind, instead urging its followers to recognize the good and evil that coexist within all of us in an effort "to reach a personal harmony." In Gods I've Seen, Abbas presents this duality by showing how something non-rational like faith continues to exist side-by-side with the science and technology of India's fast-growing economy. This is captured by Abbas in his photos of Hindu devotees across the country's many urban environments.

Unlike the followers of other religions that he has studied, Abbas found most Hindus very open to being photographed. Abbas says that his favored technique of shooting in black and white helped him avoid exoticizing or stereotyping India as a colorful and vibrant place. "Black and white," he says, "does not show reality but transcends it," providing the reader with the freedom to interpret the multiple layers of meaning. Nevertheless, there are 10 color photos at the end of the book. "In India, color was a challenge I could not ignore," Abbas tells Newsweek . "But these photos are not part of the discourse, color is the main character."

The final pages of the book are devoted to Abbas's diaries from his travels of the Hindu world. He writes that he is "not the first nor the last traveler…to have been irritated, if not exasperated by the Indians—and enthralled by India." Despite his attempts to provide distance between the subject and the reality of his photos, Abbas notes that, "The India I capture is inevitably my India, a subjective view. Why then persevere with representing beauty, when everything around me appears squalid?" It is up to viewers to decide whether that is what the camera reveals.

Varkala, India
Sixteen days after cremation, ashes and three bones from the deceased are thrown into the sea, Varkala, India. Magnum Photos/Abbas
Pushkar, India
At dawn, a devotee prays at an altar by the lake, Pushkar, India. Magnum Photos/Abbas
Batur temple, Kinmantan
Students from the Indonesia Institute of Arts dress up for a rejong traditional dance in the Batur temple, Kinmantan, Bali. Magnum Photos/Abbas
188-9 Tiruchirapalli
At the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple, an elephant blesses a pilgrim with its trunk after receiving a cash donation. The pilgrim has offered her hair to a resident deity, and her shaved head is covered with tumeric paste for protection; Tiruchirapalli (Trichy), India. Magnum Photos/Abbas