French photographer and filmmaker Guillaume Ziccarelli presents his first solo exhibition at Perrotin gallery in New York City from July 9th to August 14th. The exhibition, titled The Holy Third Gender: Kinnar Sadhu, includes photographs, portraits and a short documentary film, all taken when he traveled to Allahabad, India in 2019 for the Kumbh Mela festival.
Usually gathering over one million people in one place, the festival is aimed at pilgrims who travel to this event that only happens once every twelve years in hope to get rid of their sins. To do so, they participate in cleansing rituals and ceremonies while receiving blessings the holy ascetic called Sadhus. But last year’s event marked a before-and-after moment in history: they included transgender women, sadhus, who go by Kinnar Sadhu.

In today’s interview, Ziccarelli discusses how his initial interest in photographing the religious festival increased once he heard of the official acceptance of transgender women priests. One of his intentions was to capture the Kinnar Sadhu in all of their glory, and this began by creating a “connection and understanding” with them. In doing so, he reveals the struggle of authenticity faced by these women on a normal basis. In this exhibition, he presents “who these women are” stripped away from artificial elements. To help the struggling community, a percentage of profits from the exhibition will go towards the Kinnar Sadhu community in India.
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Shalu, Manisha, Rishika, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
In 2019, you traveled to Allahabad, India for the Kumbh Mela festival. Can you begin by telling us what brought you there in the first place? How did you learn about the event?
I heard about it around 2008, and at the time, the idea of one hundred million people gathering in one place for a festival was thrilling to me. And it really does create an energy that is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, particularly when you see the immense joy and celebration of the pilgrims who come to wash their sins away in the Ganges river.
But also, before I left for India, news broke that for the first time, transgender women priests were granted official acceptance to participate in the festival, giving them greater status and rights as religious leaders – they had attended a smaller Kumbh Mela in 2016, but did it on their own, in a less official capacity. When I learned that, I knew I had to go there myself and try to meet this holy third gender.
Once you arrived in India, what was your initial reaction to the environment generated from the festivities? Do you often attend/shoot festivals and already had a game plan? Or was this your first time documenting a festival that centered around worship and religion?
It was life-affirming, humbling, and emotionally intense – as the festival is meant to be. My first thought upon arrival was to build a relationship with the individuals I hoped to photograph and learn more about the trans priests (or sadhus). It’s critical to create a connection and understanding with your subject. So I didn’t have much of a plan beyond that. I knew I would eventually need to set up a place to take photographs, but that came after I got to know some of the trans sadhus, and they offered to have me stay within their camp, which is a great honor. I tend to follow where those around me are taking me to try to see their perspectives, and I take one day at a time. That sometimes means not documenting every minute with my camera as well.
This was also my first time photographing a religious festival, and definitely of this huge proportion. I knew that I would easily get overwhelmed, so I focused on individuals and one specific community and temple. Sometimes, by looking closely at something, you end up understanding important aspects of the larger picture as well, so I hoped to do that. But also, I really tend to follow my instinct and interests, and of course, everything depends on the subject and their interest in what I’m doing. In this case, the trans sadhus seemed to understand that my hope here was to show their dignity, which they are often denied in regular, daily life outside their religious roles. To me, these women are also not unlike goddesses roaming among us, here on Earth – even if, yes, they are very human. But I wanted to focus on the goddess aspect in my artwork.
I recently heard a filmmaker remark on his process of filmmaking as “always trying to make something that is a part of you but away from you.” How do you relate to this statement as a photographer and a cinematographer? In other words, how much does your autobiography play into your projects and in this project in particular?
I don’t think most of us can help ourselves from making art that is both personal in some way, and necessarily apart or distant from us, because once completed, a piece of art stands on its own and takes on its own life, meaning it signifies something else to those who view it. That’s of course part of the magic. So in my case, I don’t think I ‘try’ to maintain this balance between art that is part of me and also apart from me. I think it happens on its own, whether I like it or not. Fortunately, I do.
I’m interested in the Kinnar Sadhus because of how they struggle to stay true to themselves, to live freely despite so many cards stacked against them. I can personally relate to that quest for self-fulfillment and freedom, though in my case it is not as centered on gender identity and I don’t see myself as a member of the LGBTQIA community.
In addition, my portraits show unique individuals who are not exactly like me – thank goodness, that would get boring quickly – and yet, yes, I like to think about points of deeper connection between myself and my subject. But what matters more is how viewers connect, or don’t, to these portraits. If they are able to find a link, however thin or strong, between themselves and the individuals represented, I would feel I’d done a good day’s work.
The title for your new work is called The Holy Third Gender: Kinnar Sadhu. Can you explain to us what the title means? How does it relate to the work being exhibited?
I wanted a title that would be clear to all audiences. Kinnar Sadhu is the common name (sometimes spelled differently) that this group of trans women goes by in India. Sadhus are described as holy ascetics, even saints and priests in India, and different sadhus represent different temples and groups of people. So I tried to come up with a title that was as clear as possible, but also emphasized how these individuals are viewed as sacred within their cultural context. The word ‘holy’ doesn’t come from me; I am actually recounting how they are described within the Kumbh Mela context.
It should also be noted that in 2014, India’s third gender was granted legal recognition as a minority group, with the right to identify as a third gender on official documents, so that they could become eligible for educational and economic affirmative action measures. I don’t think that’s something many people outside of India are aware of, and it’s a fact that interested me. That doesn’t mean that LGBTQIA individuals don’t struggle for acceptance and equality today in India – they do.
Some of my favorite photographs from your project are portraits of beautifully dressed participants from the festival. When you decided to go to the Kumbh Mela festival, how much of the project was about documenting the Kinnar Sadhu vs enlightening your audience with the progressive social liberation happening in India?
I am deeply interested in how transgender individuals struggle for personal freedom because I think they can teach us all about what is ultimately a universal effort to stay true to oneself, despite social and other pressures, small or large, and what it means to do that. So my focus was more on capturing who these women are and to strip away as much artifice as possible. I am not a journalist nor do I have an Indian cultural background. I am not interested in or attempting to broadcast my judgement of India’s current political and social progress. It’s complex, so if anything, that is what I hope to show through art.
The best way for me to express that complexity is through individual portraits, voices and images that are sensitive to their subjects, and try to get to the heart of who they are. That in itself can seem simple – and when I began photographing, I thought would be! But it’s the greatest and most interesting challenge I face as a photographer. As an artist, my hope is to portray these transgender women priests as goddesses living among us. Here I use portraiture as a kind of religious iconography in a sense, and I invite viewers to make their own interpretation of the result.
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Kinnar Alter, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
As you said in the beginning, it was very important for you to know your subjects in-depth so you could portray them for who they are. Can you talk about some of the conversations they shared with you?
The first and most important aspect of any project is to sit down and talk and get to know the individuals I’m photographing. I ended up spending about two weeks with the Kinnar Sadhus I came to know. It is both not enough, and within the festival context, a lot of time. I am still in touch with them, however, and especially while working on this project, I’ve been calling them more than ever! I should add that proceeds from sales of these photographs will go to the individuals pictured, which is common courtesy.
Here are a few quotes I would like to share from them:
“We were saints as soon as we were born. Our Laxmi Maai understood Sanatan Dharma and she also taught us. Now we, too, can worship God. I know that God listens to us, and quickly. Although we have not been given many things, our gift is our worship. It finally feels like progress. I love the idea that our images are being shown outside India. It is a very proud moment for us. In a way, we are at a moment where we feel free to do anything. I am proud to be a transgender kinnar, and show foreign audiences the community and religion of Sanatan Dharam.”


“I had never had interest in me before this, I had never seen foreigners, I had never faced a camera before. It all feels new and amazing. I was already a saint before I went to Kumbh, but when I was there, it was special for me to know that there was a place for us, just as the others have always had a place. I hope that people will see our photographs and believe in us as equal beings.”
Does your connection with your subject matter influence/affect how you execute your projects?
Yes, very much so. That connection with my subject is my guide, and I follow that instinct. Without any connection, there would be no subject for me.
Being that it was a festival where some rituals can last for days, how complicated was it to shoot in location?
It could get pretty intense. I often began my day at midnight in order to be at the right spot around 3 or 4 am. And since no cars or motorcycles were allowed on important bathing days, I went on a lot of long walks in the dark, but I was not alone. I always had one other person with me who could also help carry the equipment. Sadhus would begin bathing around 5 or 6 am.
Do you embrace spontaneity while you’re shooting? 
Yes, as mentioned earlier. Sometimes you also just have to turn the camera off. Other times you have to run into the Ganges river yourself… But I do think ahead – or try to. Mainly, I try to plan ahead so that I put myself in a position where I can then capture those spontaneous moments.
What do you most like about the process of documenting, and what do you most dislike?
In documenting, I like to show that there are other ways of life or other ways of living. One difficulty I encounter with this medium can come from critics who argue that if an artist or photographer such as myself doesn’t share the cultural, religious, or gender identity of their subjects, then they have no right to make said art. I find that type of censorship to be potentially dangerous, though I understand it is coming from a long history of oppression, particularly from white men with European backgrounds (I am of European descent).
But to that I would ask: does this line of thinking imply we should censor viewpoints and modes of expression that come from outside our own cultures or groups? Must we stay within our own tribes and national borders to make art? Shouldn’t we be curious and interested in others, and express that with empathy and sensitivity, so as to better understand each other? I have deep respect and interest in an ancient culture and tradition that is willing to accept the third gender among its highest-ranking spiritual leaders, as India did at the Kumbh Mela.
The exhibition The Holy Third Gender: Kinnar Sadhu by Guillaume Ziccarelli is on view until August 14 at Perrotin gallery, 130 Orchard St, New York City.
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Shalu, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
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Prachal, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
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Rishika, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.
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Manisha, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.