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New “Holy Men” Photo Series: Varanasi, India

May 18, 2012 //  How To Back to posts

Click image to enlarge: Ascetic priest Baba Vijay Nund rows a boat along the Ganges River. Varanasi, India

I went to India for the third time last March, 2011. I spent a month in Varanasi with my good friends Cale Glendening and Ryan McCarney working on the latest image series for my “Holy Men” image collection. I am slowly building the collection into a unified volume of work that features religious ascetics from around the world.

I’ve been working with some of the same subjects from Varanasi since I was 16 years old, and knowing these people has truly been a life changing experience. When a rare outside viewpoint gives context to your own life, you can’t help but feel the mold within you bend and twist into something new.

Cale shot a documentary about the whole trip, which he is currently color grading and will release soon. For now, I’d like to give a preface to the photo series. This particular blog post is not about gear, and it’s not about lighting… I’ll save all that is for specific future articles.

The images on this blog are quite small. To view the larger complete gallery in my portfolio, click here.

Click image to enlarge: Vijay Nund performing morning rituals in the Ganges River, the most sacred river in Hinduism.

Varanasi is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world; it’s thought that people may have lived in Varanasi for about 3,000 years or longer. It’s the epicenter of Hindu faith, similar to Jerusalem for Christians and Mecca for Muslims. Every time I’ve been to Varanasi, I’ve photographed the city and never quite been happy with the results. Finally, I’ve got something I’m content with (but naturally, will no doubt begin to find things wrong with them very soon.)

Click image to enlarge: Aghori sadhus cover themselves with human ash, which is the last rite of the material body.

I began the Holy Men collection with a photo series from the North of Ethiopia focusing on Coptic Christianity. In this new series, Sadhus and religious students are the featured subjects. Although Coptic Christian monks and Sadhus live in different corners of the world, the connection all these subjects have to each other is profound. Almost every major religion breeds ascetics; wandering monks who have renounced all earthly possessions, dedicating their lives to the pursuit of spiritual liberation. Their reality is dictated only by the mind, not material objects. Even death is not a fearsome concept, but a passing from the world of illusion.

There is a large focus on Aghori, an intense sect of Sadhu infamous for overcoming all things taboo. They may meditate on corpses, eat human flesh as part of a sacred ritual, or keep a skull as a reminder of the impermanence of life.

The Aghori have a profound connection with the dead. 

Click image to enlarge: Aghori sadhus inside a sunken Shiva temple at Scindia Ghat, on the banks of the River Ganges. 

Baba Mooni conducting Aghori Puja

Aghori Puja II

Aghori Puja III

Click image to enlarge: Ram Das beside boat wreckage in Varanasi, India.

Portrait of Ram Das

These sadhus live a very different life from most of us blog readers. In Western experiences, the most similar lifestyle might be that of a monk. A sadhu renounces his earthly life, all his worldly attachments, leaves home and family, and takes on the lifestyle of an ascetic. As part of this renunciation, they also leave behind their clothes, food and shelter, and live on the generosity of others. Another part of renouncing your former life is to attend your own funeral and die to yourself, and be reborn into your new life as a sadhu. To many Hindus, Sadhus serve as an earthly reminder of the divine, and may take on the role of a healer as someone who can help to rid others of negative energies. As a part of their daily routines, sadhus will arise before sunrise and bathe in cold water, before starting their daily prayers.

When he was young, Lal Baba’s parents arranged a marriage for him. Uncertain about his future, he ran away from home in Bihar Siwan and took up the lifelong task of becoming a sadhu.

Lal Baba has dreadlocks several meters long, which have been growing for over 40 years. To sadhus, dreadlocks are a sign of renunciation and a life dedicated to spirituality.

Lal Baba’s life is to travel. Even at 85 years old, he will continue to travel from holy place to holy place in India and Nepal. 

Click image to enlarge: Magesh Nalla left a well paid job as an IT computer consultant to pursue to path of Aghora. After years of practice, he finds no temptation to return to his old life. 

Portrait of Magesh Nalla

Portrait of Baba Nondo Somendrah

Saurav Kumar Pandey, Batuk Student.

The Ganges River is also an important subject in my photo series, creeping into the background, giving the holy men a sense of environment. In the Hindu faith and Indian society, the Ganges River holds a prominent, special, and sacred place. Hindus feel that the Ganges is divine, in part, because it flows from the heavens. This is understandable when you realize that the Ganges is primarily composed of Himalayan meltwater, which falls from the heavens as snow. One of the sacred aspects of the Ganges is that Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges reduces a person’s sins and increases the chances for liberating the person from the cycle of life, death and rebirth.

Amit Byasi, Batuk Student.

Click image to enlarge: Amit Byasi & Banmi Shri Ra, Batuk Students.

Banmi Shri Ra, Batuk Student.

Although considered extremely polluted with feces, garbage and industrial waste, the Ganges is considered sacred, some believe there’s nothing that can be done to diminish its holiness. The Ganges has been the spiritual and physical lifeblood of northern India for ages.

Click image to enlarge: Baba Vijay Nund on the steps of Chet Singh Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River.

Baba Vijay Nund outside his ashram

Portrait of Shiv Ji Tiwari

Click image to enlarge: Sunken temple in Varanasi, India

I look forward to expanding the collection even further in the future, and exploring the other venues around the world that contain these unique perspectives that challenge the way we interpret the world around us. There are so many places to explore and people to photograph, it keeps me up at night.

Ashok, Cale, Magesh and I

This collection is currently on display at Open Shutter Gallery in Durango, Colorado until June 7th, 2012.


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Wayne Simpson // May 18, 2012 22:56

Wow! These have such great mood and emotion about them! Very stirring images Joey, another amazing series!

Amanda // May 19, 2012 06:43


EJAZ MEHEDI // May 19, 2012 09:17

Sensational series of portraits Joey,truly unique piece of work. I've seen few moving frames from the Varanasi documentary on Cale Glendening's video "Reel". Breathtaking stuff!

kyle // May 19, 2012 12:49

these are some of the most moving images ive ever seen....really amazing stuff.thank you

Eduan Kitching // May 19, 2012 15:47

Amazing work Joey! Wish I could get that big print to South Africa.

Sundeep Singh // May 30, 2012 12:11

Hi Joey l this one is the best series of photographs of sadhus ever captured in history, do you have any plans for India in near future?

Jeffrey Castillo // June 15, 2012 03:20

You always come through with your work!! You motivate me to become better. Thanks for sharing.

Jeffrey Castillo // June 15, 2012 03:21

BTW>. How Do i buy one of your prints?

José Andres Bentolila // June 20, 2012 20:07

Impresionante trabajo amigo. Hace tiempo que no veo un reportaje con esta calidad.
Dan ganas de tirar mis cámaras y dedicarme a otra cosa.
Felicitaciones 1000.

Leon // June 21, 2012 03:11

Hi Joey , by any chance you're be in a gallery in NY. We're from the same Brooklyn. Hehehe.

Kieran Drake // June 24, 2012 17:25

This is amazing, it is rare for real Aghoris to trust outsiders so much. I will treasure looking at these photographs. The sunken Shiva temple is amazing, can you remember which Ghat it was near to? Once again congratulations on the photographs.

Robert // June 29, 2012 23:09

Awesome images as always. Thank you. As holy as Varanasi is, it is not the epicenter of Hindu faith like Mecca or Jerusalem. Best wishes. rm

Kunal Bhatia // July 02, 2012 22:47

This is an absolutely amazing series. There is something about the images that draws the eye, and makes me contemplate. Also, the kind of clean expansive backgrounds, is refreshing for portraiture within India.

little pink cakes // July 03, 2012 12:28

This is incredible! The Portraits are so stunning and intriguing - it really looks as if they are to step out of the picture in the next moment!

I bow to this work!

Mary Healy // July 20, 2012 03:58

Completely mesmerized by this work and of these men's lives Joey.

Lila // July 22, 2012 22:40

wow! ooo...

Lila // July 22, 2012 22:43


ANKIT VIKRAM SINGH // July 27, 2012 09:05

Its superb to look after the photographs of yours. I have been seeing your photography since 2years..But this is it!!!.....The mursi tribes....tour of ethiopia...the india these are few memorable pics which I cant forget. The narration of the journey is feels that We are travelling along with you....I love to travel..

Juzz Be happy and god bless you with a lot of grace & blessings.

DBarbados // August 16, 2012 17:12

These are beautiful images. Both educational and inspirational.

Shaun // August 30, 2012 02:00

What an amazing body of work you have created.
Thanks for sharing.

54654 // September 28, 2012 21:12

test test 123 123

nodelor // September 28, 2012 21:13

wow!! very nice (:

garth johnstone // October 29, 2012 19:20

Just returned from two weeks in India ... it was not enough. Spent four nights in Varanasi but felt we were just scraping the surface there. Congratulations on a stunning set of pictures.

La Viajera Morena // December 02, 2012 19:14

These photographs are absolutely stunning!

Heather // December 04, 2012 22:42

Wonderful Images!

Joey L: Holy Men, 2012 | GRJ // December 19, 2012 02:34

[...] összes indiai fotó itt látható, Joey L. oldalán. A képek természetesen kattintásra nagyobbak [...]

Jason Felmingham // December 19, 2012 02:37

Awesome work, well done.

Retratos de monges ascetas por Joel L. | La Vida en Fotografía // December 19, 2012 06:00

[...] sua última viagem à Índia, Joel L. fotografou monges ascetas da cidade de Varanasi para compor um série de retratos chamada Holy [...]

Holy Men: A Quest To Capture Human Connection | The Lightstyle Network // December 20, 2012 16:10

[...] post caught my eye because it was centered around a series focusing on ‘Holy Men’ around the world, including portraits of wandering Ascetic Monks, a topic that I felt would [...]

ramesh // December 26, 2012 19:50

keep it up guys....superlike

Céline // December 31, 2012 18:38

Simply breathtaking!

Lacie Hansen // January 02, 2013 19:39

These photographs are truly amazing! So very powerful!
Beautiful Job !!!!!

a coffee break you’ll never forget… photographer joey l » rachel illingworth photography // January 28, 2013 19:47

[...] Joey L – Website [...]

Gyan prakash // March 04, 2013 01:47


dimas lakada // March 20, 2013 14:37

you're my inspiration joey !!

Joey L: Holy Men, 2012 « // March 29, 2013 20:18

[...] teljes sorozat itt látható, Joey L. oldalán. A képek természetesen kattintásra nagyobbak [...]

Todd // April 04, 2013 15:02

Amazing work!

Have watched the video you made about this shoot about 4 times now.

I hope to one day find a project to inspire me as this one clearly has to you!

stella // April 12, 2013 13:54

OMG this is the most tremendous collection of India sadhus I ever seen, lots respect

brenda // April 26, 2013 06:15

Brilliant work like this has to come from great trust. Makes me want to delete all my recent shots of Varanasi. What a place it is.

Abhinav // May 04, 2013 12:12

This is fresh alive and the eyes speak all .The yogis are really brilliant and the long hair is evident of their single pointed devotion and hard head - white skull jai ho mahakaal

satiam // May 20, 2013 18:41

India is a world in itself

Tali // June 06, 2013 04:56

I just watched the documentary video, wow, the whole experience must have been life changing. The images are beautiful.

susana // June 09, 2013 12:35

Good work..Ill be doing my PHd on is close to my heart

Joe Carrier // July 13, 2013 21:07

Wonderful photos of Sadhus in Benares. I last visited there in the fall of 1953 and spent time with an American Sadhu named Jon Plott. I am now 85 and though Jon is a bit older he may also still be alive. Lost contact with him many years ago. Would love to know if you ever met him. I was in India on a student Fulbright grant 1953/54.

Helen Batt // October 10, 2013 15:29

I to am going to Varanasi, fortunate enough to be attending a workshop with John Stanmeyer. At the moment I'm trying to decide on a story/ topic but to be honest the place looks bonkers and I'm struggling to choose as everything looks so interesting and different from anything I've experienced anywhere else in the world.

I see dead people - Varanasi, India | Adventurous Miriam // November 29, 2013 03:56

[...] You can see more pictures from Varanasi by one of my favorite photographers, Joey L, here. [...]

Marysia @ My Travel Affairs // November 29, 2013 15:34

Your photographies are spectacular! Really, really great! Love every singel one of them!

frederique // December 14, 2013 10:57

Wonderful pictures...We feel really the spirituality of Varanasi...Congratulations for your work..

Colorblind Production // December 30, 2013 00:39

great set of photographs.

Julia // January 24, 2014 16:06

What an amazing post and amazing pictures! Your work is truly fantastic. What penetrating eyes these men have, these eyes have always amazed me. I´ve been to Varanasi many times and I am in love with your pictures.

Honey Agrawal // July 13, 2014 13:57

A mysterious life sadhus.......incredible india awesome photography

Sadhus, India’s Holy Men | Saffron and Silk // August 04, 2014 07:34

[…] Joey L, a professional photographer who photographs the rich and famous (he did the Twilight posters) and has worked for National Geographic has been traveling to India for years, as part of a larger work focusing on holy men around the work. His photos from Varanasi, another holy city on the other end of the Ganges, are breathtaking. […]

Kirsteen // September 04, 2014 19:22

Wow, these photos are stunning. I've been to Varanasi and these photos took me right back there. Amazing!

Rachel V. Stewart // October 27, 2014 06:24

What beautiful tones of emotions and spirituality you have captured. I thank you for all of your efforts in creating such images, bringing Light to the world and for opening my eyes with your eyes. I am deeply moved by the Sadhus dedication....

Extreme Journeys Into the Heart | ET and I // November 15, 2014 09:41

[…] […]

Liz // December 21, 2014 09:10

Amazing captures! Wow!

karla // January 22, 2015 23:50

Congratulations. Breathtaking photos. It really transmits me how would sadhus feel in that moment. Not just a pretty picture, it captures and shows feelings. Love them.

Kimberley // January 29, 2015 18:23

You are simply amazing - these photos are stunning! I'm even more excited for my trip to India now. Thank you for being so inspiring :-)

Douglas Lee // May 05, 2015 01:53

Same as everyone's damn.
Each picture gives me the chills.
You're one cool guy. Can only hope to take pictures as great as these someday.

Lisa // June 09, 2015 04:13

Beautiful <3 I am a Sadhu within my own environment

Randal Person // January 12, 2016 17:07

Those pictures and captions moved my soul and stirred my spirit to repentance that I'm not more spiritual and brought me to tears!

Anthony D'Agostino // February 27, 2018 08:19

Good stuff, Joey L. You apparently do not have to hide your light in the land of the dead. I'm looking forward to the next chapter

ARMANDO CORREA RIBEIRO // November 11, 2018 06:30

Love your photographs and going again next January to Varanasi

Yan Giroud // February 01, 2019 14:17

I've been travelling in India for the last 25 years, but your photos are the best part of it I've ever seen !

Congratulations, Joey ! :)

Go back there whenever you want !

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