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Kerala, India Tourism Campaign

April 12, 2019 //  Commissioned Work Back to posts

Video: A behind the scenes documentary of our shoot in Kerala, India: Human by Nature.

HUMAN BY NATURE

I’m on the bow of the boat, bag over my camera, when the rain falls. We’re drifting over Alleppey’s backwaters, fed by the Arabian Sea and 38 rivers from across Kerala, southern India. 900km of waterways connect to each other, irrigating rice paddy fields and forming a natural human ecosystem built by the hands of India’s people in kinship to the surrounding landscape. It is a testament to the power of human nature— to live in accordance to the land and its diverse inhabitants.

At age 17, I saved every dollar I had, drawn to India as a beginner photographer. I’ve been back here many times since— always driven by a personal project and inspired by the people of India. Today those same people have now brought me back. This is my first commissioned work in India— a tourism campaign for Kerala. It’s an emotional milestone to everything I’ve done here before. The recognition that a local Indian advertising agency and their client- the state of Kerala itself, acknowledge my work enough to trust me with this monumental project is truly a blessing. We’re here to do more than bring Kerala’s rich reputation as a traveler’s haven back to the forefront. We’re here to help restore the residual economy back to its glory before the devastating floods of 2018. Nearly 500 people lost their lives in the flooding, and furthermore the damage inhibited much of Kerala’s economic relation to tourism and travel. I am humbled by the people’s resolve, the resiliency of nature to rebuild, and the abundance of stories that fill every corner of Kerala. From the interconnected backwaters, the forests of Wayanad, the beaches of Alleppey, the temples of Thrissur, and the streets of Kochi—Kerala is right the place with the right traditions to embody what we’ve come to know as Human by Nature.

The original sketch by the Kerala-based creative team, and the final photographic execution.

I look down at the black and white sketches that Shelton and Unni, the creative directors from Stark, prepared. “You know you’re crazy, right?” I tell them, looking at the complicated group shots they envision. There are so many subjects, so much going on in every frame, I am scared we won’t be able to pull it all off. But their confidence in the production is contagious, and we decide just to go for it. We will be photographing 5 main advertising images, each representing a unique environment in Kerala: the forest, temple, streets, sea shore, and backwaters. Beyond these main complicated images, the creative team agrees that we can work even harder and also shoot other environmental portraits of the subjects that make up each frame. 


At the heart of this photo series is the convergence of different cultures co-existing within a single place. Tourism is built around the basic lifestyle that Kerala lives in, instead of being created as its own entity. Therein lies the draw. I was not only encouraged, but also inspired by our clients (now friends) within their devotion to their homeland. In the series of group compositions, we were able to photograph people of varying walks of life true their role. The travelers are included, yet are not prominent. They are a part of the landscape, but they take a back seat and a blurry composition in conjunction to the local people who exist in this natural aesthetic as effortlessly as you or I live in our own homes. It’s an ode to what travelers are looking for in Kerala— real life. They want to observe and assimilate naturally to the rich culture and color instead of overtake it. In a place like Kerala, one does not need to construct entertainment and beauty. It’s already there, original and wild all the same.

THE FOREST

In the forests of Wayanad a blanket of fog followed us into the lush forest. Dusk broke and scattered the light between ancient tree-lines. We trekked along elephant tracks through some of the last remaining tropical evergreen rain forests high in the mountains. I was able to highlight real roles people lead in these lands. Around here several tribes make their living in and through the forest. We highlighted farmers who have migrated to these fertile lands and rangers that tend to this wildly diverse landscape. There are school children in the background taking what would be a common route to school each day. The forest is their home, education—their life. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in all of India precisely because of the economic and social developments that have afforded every demographic the opportunity to grow through education and rising equality. There is whole ecosystem of interdependent coexisting plants, animals, and people that make this land what it is.

A significant aspect of this shoot was scouting. I was given access to remote villages to first introduce ourselves before shooting. I was invited into local homes and met with those operating inside the forest walls to achieve a lay of the land before we organized the detailed compositions. We were guided by locals as to not disrupt or impede on the resident wildlife. To create the atmospheric fog we wrangled incense dispensers in place of fog machines. This involved quite a bit of running to account to the wind change, yet also mirrored the work ethic of our crew to see the vision through. The photoshoot itself became somewhat of a ceremony and that in turned made the process fun. Locals came by herding animals to catch a glimpse of what this organized madness.

Portrait of Unni and Aswathy, schoolchildren. 

Chukkan photographed in a trench which was dug to protect his tribal village from wild elephants. 

Bijisha photographed at her family's well. 

Amitha inside a handwoven basket used to collect produce grown inside the forest.

Portrait of Swati.

TEMPLE

Our crew traveled further still into the villages of Thrissur— hailed as the Cultural Capital of Kerala within its prolific history of spiritual and religious learnings. Thrissur’s many temples stand as landmarks to this cultural sanctum. At the forefront of the portrait is a Tiger man, or Pulikkali (play of the tigers). This painted tiger folk art has been preserved for centuries within the renowned Thrissur celebration Onam, the Harvest festival. Aside from the group photographs, I did a few more intimate sittings include one of the Tiger man getting painted by Francis- a local artist. I wanted to further highlight the intrinsic details that went into these shoots and the ceremonial glamour of Thrissur by honing into the individual players that make these enormous celebrations thrive throughout time. There were many moving parts in this composition. One major part was the elephant, local to the land, and largely a part of festival culture. It was important to me to respect the animal by minimizing the time and movement within the photograph. She was photographed as the only composite in the image- not in the actual rice field. We took no more than 20 minutes of her time and brought our set up to her, instead of the other way around.

Our main group shot composition for the final advertisement. 

Kerala-based artist Francis Chirayath paints Denny.

These drummers were in the background of the main advertisement composition, but it was impossible to resist photographing a portrait of them with their instruments after our main shot was completed.

Portrait of Sarojini and Sreekutty.

Portrait of Sarojini.

In the spirit of India, we were humbly invited to another Hindu celebration after wrapping the day’s shoot. The temple was adorned with candles, singing, and we got a first hand glimpse of puja— the loving offering of light, flowers, and water or food to the divine. The closeness we found within the family of our local crew and clients grew upon each experience we were afforded.

STREETS

Fort Kochi is one of those red-letter places, not stuck in time, but thriving in between multiple eras of modernism and a colorful past. Once the center of the Indian spice trade, Kochi brims with the culture of the Chinese, the Jewish, the Arabian and Syrian influence brought by trade and planted into everyday life. The markets are full of remnants of these international provinces in Kerala. The streets are busy with commerce— fresh fish grilled on the spot and a friendly disposition of the locals towards visitors far and wide. I’ve rarely encountered such a place where people are so open to my camera, spurred by a deep appreciation for the cinematic and photographic arts born out of the rich history of Bollywood. We motorbiked between street vendors and livestock—canals to our left, the sea to our right. At midday we paused for traditional southern food washed down with masala tee and lime juice. The nights fell into an unusual, yet desirable quiet— contrasted by the bustling day of intense shooting and awkward shouting from behind my camera. “Action! action! action! Someone try to get that pigeon back in the frame! Do we have any bread?!”


Our crew is now getting exhausted, but we are up before the sun and the sounds of Kochi. It’s a beautiful time in the city— the calm we share with only the earliest of the fishermen. It was important for us to get organized, before the rest of Kochi awoke and filled the empty spaces we needed to shoot. I photographed our subjects right in the center of one of these most vibrant streets. Between shots we had an elaborate, yet somewhat chaotic scheme to aid the flow of traffic. This was only possible through the locals generally appreciation for production and the cast and crew’s commitment to what we were striving for. 

Portrait of Alpha George.

Portrait of Abhinav Kafare, artist.

Continuing within the open nature of the shoot, walking through the warm streets, I came across another scene that is distinctly Kerala- a communist youth center of DYFI, tucked modestly in between residential buildings, emitted the soft red glow of a neon red hammer and sickle. I met with a group of these young communists, who were more than eager to invite us in. In fact, the elections were currently underway in Kerala with the Communist Party of India high on the ballot. Kerala is the leading state in India with such a thriving communist presence born out of the anti-colonial sentiment and class struggle.

Members of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) outside their meeting center in Fort Cochin. Left to right: Thanzeer, Mohammed Azhar, Akhil and Atlaf. 

Portrait of Akhil, DYFI and Communist Party of India (Marxist)​ member.

Portrait of Thanzeer, DYFI member.

Portrait of Akhil, DYFI and Communist Party of India (Marxist)​ member.

SEASHORE

It rained endlessly in the middle of August, Kerala 2018. Rivers flowed into the streets, into homes. Kerala, surrounded and dependent on the various channels of water, was suddenly consumed. It was then that authorities put out the local call. They needed help. And there was one demographic that rose to the occasion—the fishermen of Kerala. It is estimated that of the population that needed to be extricated from the flood, volunteer fishermen rescued a dominant 70 percent, with the remaining rescues by organized forces. This notion really elevated our photograph of the sea shore to a higher intention. The stakes were made higher by the devastation of Kerala to the monsoons.

In this image, I wanted to show the sea shore restored to pre-monsoon conditions, while also highlighting the people who would become modern heroes to Kerala. These fishermen left their villages and rescued those in the city without means of escaping the floods. There was no system in place for this. They simple acted upon necessity and bravery. This is the human by nature quality at its finest declaration. It’s the people of Kerala united across classes and pathways to ensure each other’s survival and growth. On the day of the shoot again the local people and fishermen proved their resolve. It took a convey of nearly 20 men to wrangle the boat into position for our photograph. Cast and crew chipped in to the well oiled machine needed for this composition. With a crowd of excited onlookers we accomplished this feat just as the sun set behind the horizon. In Kerala the beach-side is more of a way of life, a co-existent ecosystem of its own. It’s commerce and history, and now a monument to the local human fortitude in the wake of disaster.

BACKWATERS

I arrive to set by motor boat— moving through dark waters in nearly pitch black. We compose the photograph— carefully reconstructing the prior day’s efforts. As morning breaks, locals bathe in the canals. They clean their laundry, slipping into the water that is their front yard, hanging the colorful garments in front of equally colorful homes. Instead of cars parked out front, they have boats, which carry uniformed children to school, adults to work, and food to the water-side markets. The composition is full, meticulous in the recreation of what is the backwaters reality. Its normal life on not so normal terms. Our featured baby goat quickly became a crew favorite, with everyone taking turns feeding him when he was hungry. Our talented local art director, Gopal Ji, formed the closest bond with baby goat, and later adopted it.

At the end of the shoot day, we bathe in the water and drink fresh coconut toddy, getting slightly drunk together, commemorating a job well done. The motor boat takes us to a houseboat for the night, where I find myself on the bow watching the storm clouds collect overhead.  The sky breaks with the rain. I sit with my assistants Brian and Will, and we watch the downpour. I photograph the last light for myself, as the tropical rain stops as quickly as it comes. Boats continue down the river, lit now by warm bulbs overhead. The water stills and the musical sound of the nearby Hare Krishna encampment is projected over the water. We feel human by nature, and we fit every hippy stereotype of foreigners in India both literally and spiritually here in the magical but somehow real world of Kerala.


JL

Credits

Client, Kerala Tourism: Rani George, P Balakiran
Stark:  
Shelton Pinheiro, Sree Shanker, Unni Krishnan, Manoj I S, Prem Mathew, Vinesh Kumar, Ajith Gopinath and Anu Praveen

Production: Rafik T.M, Cilara Jacob, Gopal Ji, Giuseppe Ceroni at Sudest 57
Lighting and DIT: Brian McGuffog, Will Martinez,
Post-production: Joey L., Ryan Cleary

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ADD A COMMENT (31)

Swapnil Junjare // April 25, 2019 14:05

Oh my god Joey these are beautiful. I dont know what to say right now but I am so glad you did a campaign in India. Kudos to the entire team. Amazing work. The Backwater and Fort Kochi street shots are my favorites.

Sreejith Damodaran // April 25, 2019 17:46

Indeed these are signature pictures and very homely feeling to me as a native of Kerala. Brilliant. Thank you Joey for visiting Kerala

Naveen Kadam // April 25, 2019 17:55

Beautiful piece of artwork, Been your fan since the day you shot Varanasi sadhu portraits, Kindly let me know if you coming to India again, i would like to assist you.

Antony Devassy // April 25, 2019 18:17

Its amazing work

Joseph A. Fernando // April 25, 2019 18:46

Incredible dude! Really well photographed and planned - kudos to your team!

Tim Bishop // April 25, 2019 22:11

Joey your writing is as beautiful as your photos, I felt like I was there! What an amazing experience and such a great outcome

Husain Sultan // April 25, 2019 23:48

One of your best works, And the most beautiful thing is dealing with this number of people in one picture, great art from great artist.

Colin Miller // April 26, 2019 05:06

I really love the use of color in these images!
The scenes feel natural and portray a sense of realistic beauty

Waleed Alzuhair // April 26, 2019 05:39

Brilliant work, Joey, in all aspects.
At first glance, I thought the tiger body painting was an outfit. But as I scrolled down, my jaw dropped.

Thank you for taking us with you :)

Mila Lanfranco // April 26, 2019 22:54

Joey L, I have been following you since Varanasi India , you are such an amazing photographer, your work is pure art, I love it!!!

Jonas // April 27, 2019 00:05

Thank you for your great work, Joey. I come to realize your work have evolved to a more National Geographic looking but more refined.

Now, I am rather worried about the Communism spreading. It created more than 60 Million of death in the 20th Century, more than 30 million in China alone. Wherever this totalitarian philosophy rise, huger and human right disaster follows. I have morally objected against present this ideology in any way better than say Nazis.

Alfredo Correa // April 27, 2019 00:18

From Southern California admiring your amazing work, showing the sensibility of the local people without compromising the high technical quality what makes your work to stand out. Congratulations to the whole team for achieving such a high level of artistry.

Lew Berghoff // April 27, 2019 02:46

Mr Joey, you and your crew’s work here is so very vibrant and hopeful. Thank you for creating and sharing. The colors, composition, and gravitas of the images are reminiscent, to me, of some of my favorite impressionist paintings I have had the privilege of gazing upon many times, here in Chicago. Bravo!

Tommy Hatwell // April 27, 2019 09:19

Hey Joey,

This is a truly remarkable set of images, with such great artwork to run with you bring all of the elements to life.

Your work, books and blogs have inspired me as I move around the world. The relationships and integrity in your work is visible and is something so vital in the world today.

We were a year apart on the walls of TW in London but someday I will stand alongside and say thank you!

What’s Next...

Tommy

Othmar // April 27, 2019 10:50

Joel, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us. The Indian atmosphere in the pictures of Kerala is fantastic. It feels as if you are in the middle of it. Your photos make me want to experience this live on the spot.

TheDigitalFly // April 27, 2019 14:33

Another fantastic work. Very inspiring.

Bud Clews // April 27, 2019 15:49

Stunning. Love the BTS, the images, the story, and the message. Thank you, Joey.

SJCarter (Jimmy) // April 27, 2019 18:48

Joey, you continue to amaze. Your work is stunning and inspired - and oh so inspiring. Your images tell such incredible stories with the emotions they convey in a single moment in time. Thank you for sharing your talented eye, skills, and hard work with us and the world. I always look forward to seeing what you will do next. I still can't believe I "knew" you back when you were winning blue ribbons as a kid on DPC with a 1 MP camera! HA You've really proven yourself to be one of the greats. Congratulations on well-deserved kudos my friend. Bravo!

Tyler Baker // April 27, 2019 21:40

Well done!

Charles // April 28, 2019 14:50

Man, you really inspire us here in Brazil. Your light is amazing. Touch us. And you are a monster!

Big from one Brazil fan. Thank u.

Nelson Lizarazo // April 28, 2019 15:57

Hermoso trabajo, inspirador. Un abrazo.

Quintin Mills // April 29, 2019 14:47

Wow, wow, wow!

These are so amazing - could you please elaborate on your lighting - it looks like mainly ambient light with a subtle addition of the strobe on the talent in front - no other lighting, is that correct?

Love these shots!

Tyrel Tesch // May 02, 2019 20:04

Hit me right in the feels, dude. Thanks for giving me my blog fix.

shahnid // May 07, 2019 10:05

great works. loved it.

Mitchell Quiring // May 07, 2019 16:50

Joey, you and the team continue to blow the seals on what it means to tell an amazing story through photography. Absolutely stunning work. The images pull you in like a black hole...

Cheers on all your continued success. Thank you for sharing with us!

Mitch

John Evans // May 08, 2019 12:41

Joey you are the best at what some of us aspire to be. Your work is phenomenal! I will continue to study under your tutoring and imagery always aspiring to exceed my own vision. Thank you for your magnanimous contribution to the world of arts. Best always man.

Niteen Kasle // May 13, 2019 04:52

Great job Joey lovely composition and colours you have captured the essence of gods own country.

Yunaidi Joepoet // May 14, 2019 07:15

Creative process and final output is amazing!

Nathan Brayshaw // May 14, 2019 09:41

Ohhhhhh....mate! You nailed it. I absolutely love India...but I think that love is even greater now thanks to your beautiful images.

Randolf // May 16, 2019 10:28

fantasic

Abdou // May 18, 2019 12:57

Awesome read!!
Great Post. Keep it up

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