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Guest Blog by Alyssa Minahan, with Elin Spring
Documentary photographer Brenda Bancel set out on a two-week trip to the Hindu spiritual festival in Varanasi, India for a workshop led by award-winning photojournalist John Stanmeyer with the idea of capturing meditative images. Instead, she was confronted with the harsh reality of the region – poverty, disease and death. For the first leg of her trip, these were the images, thoughts and smells that defined her experience – until something unexpected happened.
A group of children, beggars selling prayer candles, asked Bancel for a ride on the boat she had hired to take her across the Ganges River. These nine boys and girls would become her captivating subjects in a documentary project that became “Finding the Sacred on the Sacred River,” now showing at 555 Gallery through December 20th, 2014.
The exhibition captures Bancel’s spiritual quest to find light in the darkest of places. Urged by Stanmeyer to push her boundaries and photograph unsavory subjects, Bancel eschewed recording the sensational suffering of the people she encountered. Rather, she chose to focus on the transcendence and symbols of hope she discovered in the children of Varanasi. Despite daunting conditions of squalor, they were first and foremost children, reveling in treats of cotton candy, rides on a boat and swimming in the calm, clean side of the river. Their guileless expressions speak a universal language.
The show is dominated by large, colorful photographs of children running on the wide sandy shore and performing somersaults into the river below. By emptying the frame of any reference to the conditions in which the children live, Bancel creates a sense of spaciousness and serenity. Her soft palette of pastels reinforces a sense of optimism.
The vibrant pink of cotton candy or bright green sequins on a girl’s dress accent the carefree abandon. While these stand in sharp contrast to images of the same children perched in their small, cramped homes or begging on the street for rice, Bancel’s emphasis is clearly on the pure and humbling wonder of youthful spirit.
Taken together, the images in this exhibition reveal how one woman’s photographic expedition led to dual revelations: the universality of childhood hopefulness and the discovery by Bancel of her own spiritual compass. Those seeking the spirit of the season will relish this transformative journey.
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.555gallery.com/exhibitions/#/current-exhibition-finding-the-sacred-on-the-sacred-river/
To view more of Brenda Bancel’s work, go to: www.brendabancel.com
Feature Image: “Gorak Selling Candles” archival inkjet print by Brenda Bancel (courtesy of the artist and 555 Gallery, Boston)