Billy Barraclough is a London-based photographer whose work portrays a romantic affinity between nature and humanity. His latest series, Flowers of the Dead, immerses the viewer in the hibiscus-scented golden banks of the Ganges at sunrise. His blooming portrait of the farmers of the Varanasi flower market, selling cremation flowers to mourning families, is an almost theatrical spectacle of life with death in its wings.
Varanasi is commonly regarded as the spiritual capital of India. Situated on the bank of the sacred waters of the River Ganges, it is the final resting place of many bodies cremated, according to Hindu tradition, to liberate their souls. The collective mourning of so many deaths is an overwhelming display of human emotion and a simultaneous testament to the incandescent vitality of life. It is this forever juxtaposing representation of life-in-death, which is perhaps the most fundamentally human experience of all, that Barraclough so perfectly captures in his portrait of the flower market. And he does so with a certain sanguinity. 
If the flowers are for the dead, then their farmers do not merely live with an acceptance of death but live for it, live because of it. In this series, Barraclough not only assures us that life continues on the bank of death, but it continues with an intense psychedelic beauty. Through his depiction of this beauty and humanity, we are ultimately reminded of the wonder of nature and our fortunate place in it, among others.
What led you to Varanasi? If you’d visited before, what led you back?
I was visiting India in December for a wedding. A really good friend of mine was getting married in Agra and I couldn’t skip on the opportunity to experience an Indian wedding.
It’s a long way to travel so I extended the trip for a couple of weeks and visited a few other parts of India. Varanasi was the last stop before heading back to the UK. I’d heard lots about Varanasi from friends who are from India or who had been to India. It seemed to be a place that people had really strong opinions about - either magical, surreal and mind-blowing, or alternatively intense, moving and emotional. Either way, I felt a pull to visit and observe the rituals that take place there. Located along the River Ganges, Varanasi has hosted Hindu cremations for thousands of years. Dotted along the river are the ancient Ghats – the sites where cremations take place. It’s said that the fire which they use in the cremations, The Eternal Flame Of Benares, has not been extinguished for 5000 years. The city is incredibly important to the Hindu beliefs around death and reincarnation and I felt a real curiosity to visit and see the city.
Was there anything that particularly moved you about the Varanasi people and their traditions?
Cremations in Varanasi are particularly sacred. It is believed that cremations which take place in Varanasi stop the endless cycle of reincarnation. People who have had particularly difficult lives, for example with illness, may want to end the cycle of reincarnation and therefore have the wish to be cremated in Varanasi.
Bodies are brought to Varanasi from far and wide and the families take a few days to prepare for the ceremony – special wood is ordered, silks are purchased, and flowers are bought. The cremations take place publicly by the River Ganges and the families watch on as their relative is cremated.
I think what moved me most was simply being in a space to observe another person’s mourning. It is one of the most deeply intimate processes we experience as humans and I found it incredibly moving, emotional and at times slightly overwhelming. What also affected me was the lack of visible emotion from the families, which I learnt has a very distinct purpose attached to it. It is believed that for the process of reincarnation to stop, the soul must leave the body during cremation. If the soul witnesses the love and emotion of its family members then the soul will have reason to stay with the body. Therefore, the family members who are present at the cremations are not able to show emotion and cry.
I found observing strangers go through the most intimate of human experiences a bit too much at times and found myself being drawn to other parts of the city where death was less on the surface.
Why did you choose to focus much of the portraits in this series on the Varanasi farmers? What struck you, for example, about their relationship to their work, to each other and to their customers?
As soon as I came across the flower market I was struck by the beauty of the scene – the scent and colours of the marigold, rose and hibiscus flowers; the sound and performance of the negotiations and bartering that took place; the movement and way the flowers were picked up and inspected; as well as the fashion and form of the farmers themselves.
As well as there being a beauty to the flowers. There was also a real beauty to the farmers and the way they dressed. It almost felt like their clothing mirrored the colours and tones of the flowers. There was a real sensitivity to the way they picked up the flowers, the shapes their hands took up, and their form as they rested in-between sales. I had the idea in the back of my mind about photographing the farmers almost as though they were flowers.
Despite the delicacy and sensitivity to their clothing and form, there was also a distinct toughness to their negotiations and conversations. Like with most markets, there was a real performance and volume to the proceedings. Sometimes discussions would be swift and civil, but sometimes bartering took hours as the farmer and buyers openly argued and negotiated the flowers’ best price.
What was it about the flower market scenes that inspired you to photograph it? I think the colours of the flowers are so spectacularly striking, I’m wondering what other more aesthetic elements particularly stood out to you?
I’ve mentioned the fashion of the sellers above but there was also the performance and theatrical side to the flower market that drew me in. Observing the market from above you could look down on what seemed like the stage, with the wiring above almost seeming like stage rigging. Farmers would enter the scene from the alleyway, set up shop, negotiate, and then leave the stage once they’d sold out. Buyers would enter, parade around, barter, and leave with their goods. It felt almost like the farmers and buyers were actors entering and leaving the stage. Coupled with the beauty of their clothing and the rich light that would enter the scene at different parts of the day, observing the flower market felt sometimes like watching a theatrical performance.
I think what also drew me to spend my time in the market was the overwhelming emotions around connected to death that consumed much of the city. Many of the pilgrims and people in the city are there to cremate their loved ones, many of the traditions are centred around last rites, and it felt like the flower market was somewhat a respite from the mourning.
The flower market was full of life, vibrant colours, rich smells, noise and emotion as well as a humour and love that was shared between the farmers. They attend the market every day and there was a real sense of community and familiarity that I was able to observe. This warmth and life in the market felt very much at odds with the rest of the city. So, as well as being an aesthetic pull I think there was very much an emotional pull.
Is there any specific story you want to convey or response you want to invoke in the observer?
This is a difficult one to answer. I think I’m less interested in wanting the work to convey a specific a story or message, and much more interested in the work conjuring up a feeling or emotion for the audience. I want the viewer to fill in the gaps, imagining the sound of the place, the scents of the flowers and the way the farmers interacted with one another.
I don’t want to tell them what to feel or how to fill in the gaps and that’s the power (or flaw) of photography - there is a lot left in between the images.
I want the work to have a sensory impact first of all. And then I’m interested to learn what story or meaning the work has for people who see it and how they fill in the gaps between the images.
What is the significance of the natural world in this work specifically, and in your work more generally?
Flowers hold great importance in Hindu traditions and are central to the practice of giving offerings in temples and during celebrations. They are believed to be mystical because of the transformative effects they can have on the spectator’s thoughts, minds and behaviours. Flowers are used in Indian traditions from birth to last rites. They are present in every stage of one’s life.
I think I’m fascinated by relationships between humans and the natural world that have existed for thousands of years. There is such a distinct importance and value attached to the flower in India. And I think personally and in my wider work I’m fascinated by the variety of ways we find our place in the world. Nature was once all that we had and all that we derived our understanding from. It was the source of all our knowledge and I’m interested in this ancient connection we have with it even in these most modern times.
I’m personally drawn to nature. Whether it’s a bird passing my window, a tree shooting new leaves, or flowers given to me as a gift. And I think I find value and purpose in observing how others relate to the world.
Are you more drawn to (stories of) the natural world or people as your artistic subject? Or is there always some element of both, however subtle, in all your work?
I’d say I’m drawn to both the natural world and people as my artistic subject, rather than one over the other. I try to stay away from defining my practice but I would definitely not call myself a nature photographer. What fascinates me is human stories about nature or our place in the world.
When I make portraits of people, my ideal situation would be to always photograph them in a natural landscape that is deeply important to them. A place where they have beautiful memories, feel safe, and where they have found wonder in the past. I think instantly this kind of connection allows there to be a deeper layer in a portrait.
Do you have a favourite style of photography, and why? (landscape, portraiture, documentary, etc.)
Difficult question. I don’t know if my answer is a specific category or type of photography. But what excites me is originality and when someone does something new. The work of Jack Whitefield is really exciting me at the moment for example. His work Furze has been deeply inspiring to me, in terms of visuals but mainly in terms of process. The fact he grabbed some canvas and walked through a burning field of gorse I think is just completely brilliant. It’s that playfulness and experimentation in that work is what really gets me excited.
So maybe my answer would be photography that remains playful. Rinko Kawauchi is another example. Her practice for me cannot be defined but what is consistent is a real playfulness and originality and lack of being worried to experiment. I feel the same can be said about Stephen Gill. He feels to completely switch up style, approach and aesthetic with each project. It’s that endless playfulness within their practices that excites me, and it is playful photography that I would say is my favourite style.
Did this project encourage you to reflect at all on your own life – how did it impact you personally?
Interesting question! I think being in Varanasi and shooting this project did impact me personally and make me reflect on my own life, and death. I think what impacted me most from this experience was seeing the cremations. In my own culture, death is very often hidden and we’re protected from it. I feel this contributes to my associations with the end of life being emotionally heavy and somewhat traumatic. But being in Varanasi and observing cremations and death so frankly and so face-on really began to shift this heaviness. Death in Hindu traditions is not the end, not final, and I think it just being one of the processes of life (rather than the end) made me begin to feel a new lightness about death.
The collective mourning was also something fascinating. Many families were dealing with the last rites together and at the same time at the ghats. This is distinctly different to the way I’ve experienced mourning – quietly, independently, privately. But experiencing mourning collectively, directly and openly in Varanasi made the process seem less independent, less lonely, less isolating. There can definitely be something to take from this. I also think seeing the care and love that was part of the last rites and the way the bodies are treated was also deeply beautiful and that care made me feel a lot of hope and warmth.
Observing the flower market and shooting this project had less of a transformative impact. But I think I simply just found complete joy in the process of making photographs in the flower market. I loved every second of observing that space, interacting with the farmers and making my own response to it. And despite that not making me reflect on my own life, it just confirmed to me that I feel completely fulfilled, joyous and a great sense of purpose learning about people and their place in the world through making photographs.