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Coming from four generations of photographers, Giulio Di Sturco seemed destined to accomplish great things with a camera in hand. And definitely, thanks to his hard work and talent, he’s made his mark on the world. After working as a photojournalist for several years, he decided to turn his lens into something else. The result? A ten-year-long project, the series Ganga Ma, through which he’s been able to capture the true image and essence of India by choosing one of its greatest landmarks: the Ganges river.

Following the path in various directions throughout ten years, Giulio has brought the holy river for Hindus to life. He photographed it each day at the same time in the morning, thus creating a soft color palette and lighting. But he didn’t do it because it looked pretty; instead, his aim was to show the very recognizable damage that is affecting it. Di Sturco tries to depict the environmental atrocities that are occurring and raise awareness to the harm that pollution is doing to the river as well as the planet. Now, Gost Books has published the project as a beautiful photo book. Today, we speak with the Italian photographer about his resilience, political views, stereotypes, and the new generations of photographers.

Although you are based in London, your series Ganga Ma was photographed from the Himalayas in India through Bangladesh. What gave you the idea to photograph that specific river and the location that you chose?
I’ve been based in London for two years now, but before that, I lived for almost thirteen years in Asia – between India and Thailand. I started to become a photojournalist in India, covering Kashmir, pollution, social issues, and environmental issues. At one point, I wanted to change my career somehow; I wanted to work in a different way and try to make stories and photos that were more long-term documentaries rather than short stories. I was looking for a story to do in India that could be a way for me to give something back before I left.
In the beginning, I started to work on the Ganges for some assignments and then I realized that it could be a story that could take a long time to finish, plus it could touch different issues such as climate change, industrialization, and pollution. As I started to research the story, I understood that even though there are a lot of pictures and stories done on the Ganges, a lot of them are focusing on religion, India or why the river starts from the Himalayas and goes to the Delta in Bangladesh (it’s actually split between India and Bangladesh). I thought that this was the perfect story for me to start to experience/think of photography in a different way, to slow down a little bit, and to move away from photojournalism, which is why I started to work on the Ganges in the first place.
The Ganga Ma series presents the audience with a sort of timeline of one of the rivers in India showing how it drastically changes through “the effects of pollution, industrialization, and climate change” within a decade. Did you always plan on the series taking ten years to complete? If not, how did end up being that long?
I actually had no idea that the story would take ten years because it was my first long-term project. Honestly, when I started, I didn't know where I was going. I didn't know it would become a book or something else. I wanted to try to work in a different way. For me, this was basically an experiment and I used it as a transition between being a photojournalist and being something else. In the first three years, I began taking pictures of the Ganges and working in the same way I used to work as a photojournalist. I kept going to a specific place, trying to look for stories that were connected to the news, and also the way I was taking pictures was connected with the idea of photojournalism.
The first picture I took of the Ganges was actually in black and white and then I decided that that wasn't really working for me so I changed it a little bit. Then, after three years, I sat down with a friend of mine who is a photo editor and we went through everything I had and we understood that that was not the direction I wanted to take. I was really trying to move away from photojournalism but I was still taking pictures in the same way. We then threw everything away and I started to think and decided to use a different type of camera.
So, did the change of camera, in addition to making pictures different technically speaking, also mean a symbolic shift in path/direction for your work?
I started to approach the work in a different way. And also, the time on this kind of story is completely different. Photojournalists usually have a week to work on their story, so they know when it starts and ends; they have a goal, an idea or a story to tell. They already know the structure of it and everything. For me, this way of working was completely new, so I didn't know the visual language I wanted to use, the structure I wanted to have, nor the editing I wanted to do. I just decided to go with the flow. I didn't have any specific deadline and I was a bit freer in the way I wanted to take pictures – and even the places I wanted to go.
I decided to go to a different destination, not just Varanasi or the others where all the news were coming from. Instead, I went to places where a lot of people don't usually go or that they think aren’t really interesting. I started taking pictures in the moments that photojournalists usually don't. When you feel that nothing is happening, for me, that moment is a metaphor for this type of work. If you think about the story of the river, it doesn't have a temporality. It’s in slow motion, so there are moments where it seems like there is nothing going on. These kinds of moments are charged with a lot of ideas and are visually interesting to me. After eight years shooting, I actually stopped and said, ‘now is the time to edit my work in order to see what I have’. At that point, we understood that the work was finished.

Following the river in India – two thousand five hundred miles for ten years – must have been very tough and unpredictable. What were some of the challenges you faced throughout your journey?
Well, first of all, I didn't follow the river from the top to the end. I just did it in a temporary way. I didn’t start on the glaciers and then kept going south and then further south – that’s why I’m saying now I work in a different way. I do a lot of research, so I choose the place that I think will help the story I want to tell. I went to the glacier at the end of the trip, not in the beginning, so it was a bit mixed up honestly. In Bangladesh, I started from Deccan and then I went down to the delta. I decided the story was not going to be like a travel story; it's more in the mind, as a visual story.
The biggest challenge was finding the place that I thought would help me tell the story in the way that I wanted to. It was also difficult realizing that I wanted to use the same light all the time, so I chose to shoot at the same time of the day in order to have the same mood, color, and atmosphere. If you see the pictures, they all have this cream and yellow coloring, and the lighting is really soft. This is because in India, especially in winter, when you shoot in the morning, you have haze in the air, which is usually humidity, but it could also be pollution – it’s actually a mix of both. I only chose to take pictures between six in the morning until about nine because only then does the light shine through the fog creating a luminous effect.
Yes, it’s actually something I wanted to talk about because when looking at them, it’s hard to believe that you could achieve such an homogenous look just by editing.
This result is why all the pictures in the book have the same quality and the same kind of mood/lighting. The idea behind this is that the work talks about pollution. It’s a way to create a new aesthetic of pollution, like when you see in my pictures that the light is beautiful, the color warm and intimate. However, when you look again, you understand that there is a second level. You realize that the luminosity that you once thought was beautiful is actually because of pollution. This then causes you to start to think about what pollution is doing in the world and all that.
Was it difficult carrying your equipment and traveling across the river?
No, not really. I travel really light actually. When you have an idea of what kind of picture you want to take, you don't have to bring all your stuff with you. I just went there and had an idea of the camera and format that I wanted to use and that was it.

You clearly have a very strong passion for the art of photography and a really good eye for art in nature. What inspired you to choose this career?
(laughs) Well, I come from four generations of photographers, so I honestly didn’t have a choice. It's like it was in my destiny. I grew up in a family where we used to have a lab and my father used to process all the films, print, and shoot pictures, and my mother would also print. We come from a really small town in Italy, and there, you don't have help. Also, all the family from my mother's side lived in another village. I used to go with my father when he would photograph weddings and stuff like that.
I grew up seeing all this, so when I turned 18, I decided to study art and photography because that was pretty much all I knew in life. It was super fascinating to see that you can use photography to do different things. When I was growing up, photography was used for weddings, birthday parties or communions, so when I went to study photography and art, I was introduced to documentary photography, visual art, fine art, etc. It opened up a new world for me.
Having created the series Ganga Ma based on a body of water and how it is affected by “pollution, industrialization, and climate change” shows that you must be somewhat passionate about mother nature and especially by producing this imagery that expresses the effect that people have on the environment to others in the world through an artistic perspective. Where do you stand currently when it comes to the political aspect of climate change and people denying it?
I think they are completely crazy. I don't even speak with them. You can't deny something that is happening. Especially for me because I work on this field; all my work is surrounding the environment, about how we see the future and how our species/world is evolving. When I hear someone say that climate change isn’t real, it just makes me want to laugh. A lot of the time, when we speak about it, people answer by trying to challenge you, but they don't have the base to do it so they just reply that what scientists say isn’t true. But if you ask for some facts, they don't have any.
Basically, they just hear it from somebody else, they’re just repeating, so I’ve decided that it’s a waste of time to speak to them. I think that laughing is the best way to address them. For me, the fact that I'm doing this kind of work is more important than trying to change the mind of someone who doesn’t want to listen. They will never change. I don't have any hope for them; my hope is more in the younger generations that are coming out and striking for climate change because that's the way to move forward.
Why did you choose to move from Rome to India? Did this change in scenery affect/influence your photographic vision?
After I finished university, I moved to Canada for three years because I wanted to learn English and in order to somehow start photography. After living in Toronto, a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to move to India. At the time, I didn't know anything about it so I said, why not. Originally, I was supposed to stay for six months, but then I ended up staying for five years. First, because it’s culturally really close to Italy, but visually, it's a completely different world. It was a really big change for me and, of course, Indian culture has had a big influence on my work and the way that you see the pictures.

What do you mean exactly with ‘the way you see the pictures’?
If I show these images to a Western person who’s never been to Asia or India, then s/he would not recognize them. Most Westerners see India from a stereotypical point of view – with bright colors like red, green, and yellow. However, when you see the way my pictures are taken (with the soft colors and lighting), people don’t recognize it’s India. But when people from Bangladesh or Asia see the photos, the first thing they say is that I was able to capture the country the way they see it. For someone who lives there and recognizes the atmosphere, it is a more accurate depiction of the country.
For me, this change is possible because I lived there, otherwise, I would have never been able to take these pictures. The photos I took the first three years were really attached to the idea that Western people have about India. In the beginning, my pictures were also super bright, colorful, and the light was really strong. It took me those three years to strip away all the ideas that we have along with all the preconceptions made about about the country. I believe that the only way to understand India is to live there and be influenced by its art, movies, history, and everything within the country.
Having a career in arts has always been known to be very risky because it takes a special talent and artistic eye to turn the passion into a profession. But as you said earlier, you come from a family of photographers. How has your family supported your choice of being a professional photographer?
For them, it was a normal choice. Because if you're not a photographer, then what else would you be? It's not like they pushed me to become a doctor or something else since for them photography is all their life. They have always been supportive of course and, in the beginning, the only thing they didn't grasp was why I needed to travel to take pictures. But once they started to see the story I was doing, they understood.
The pictures that are seen in the book and the square images are actually analog. They were taken by the camera that belonged to my grandfather, which is a representative of my family's support. My family collects old cameras, so whenever I need one, I just go and speak with them to decide which one is best for my current work. It is really nice that I am able to go back whenever I need advice because they know much more than me. It is very helpful.
As someone who has been thriving in the field of photography for most of your life, what advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?
It's a bit difficult to say because, right now, photography is changing a lot. You need to study and then fail – that’s really important. You need to be insecure because that is the moment when your creativity is bubbling the most. But right now, everyone is afraid of being insecure or of failing. If you start new work, a job or a story and you're insecure, then you’re on the right path; if you're really secure about what you’re doing, then it means that you’re doing something wrong. Of course, you also need to be open to other kinds of arts because, right now, photography is changing really fast and it's being influenced by other art forms.

So how do you feel the current generation’s view of photography differs from older photographers?
I also do a lot of masterclass workshops, so I deal with many younger people that are studying photography to become photographers. I’m seeing a pattern, and it’s that they think everything has to come to them immediately. For example, if you do something, then the day after you have to have a response or you need to be famous or whatever. They don't understand that there is a path you need to take and you need to work hard.
Everything is mixing up right now and influencing one another, so if you want to be a photographer, then you need to know about contemporary art, movies, etc. If you close your mind and say, ‘ok, I’m a photojournalist, I’ll just look at photojournalism and that’s all’, then you won’t give yourself the opportunity of being open to other art forms, and I believe that’s really important.
Some of your pictures show people in the Ganges. However, in the press release it is mentioned that the water is extremely toxic. Why is it that people get in the water? Do they know about the repercussions?
You need to understand that the Ganges is like Saint Peter for the Christians; it’s a holy river. They have this idea that it cleans itself, which was kind of true before because inside the water of the Ganges there were a bacteria that used to clean the water. However, right now, you’ll find pollution and chemicals. People still have this idea that the Ganges is a holy river, so in Indian culture, you go to Varanasi to bathe yourself and it’s like washing your sins. So it’s not about pollution for them, it’s about religion. They know it’s polluted but they don't really know how much it is, of course.
For example, I had a fixer with me when I was working in this city called Kanpur, which has one of the most polluted rivers in the most polluted city. Near the river is a place where they have a lot of tanning factories. They use loads of chemicals and then throw them into the Ganges, and you can actually see the black water that goes from the factories into the river because they don’t mix. I went there – to the tanneries – with a guy who studied environmental biology and had a PhD and an environmental NGO. And it was really, really polluted – we hadn’t realized that it was that much.
What did you do then?
When we went back to Varanasi, I asked him if he was still entering the Ganges despite what he had seen before. And he said, ‘for me, it’s a part of my religion, so even though I know it’s polluted, I can’t avoid washing my sins in the river’. But that’s the Indian side; in Bangladesh, for example, the Ganges isn’t a holy river. They are Muslim so it’s a bit different, they use the river in a different way. But also, they aren’t really aware of how polluted it is.

Anahita Jafary
Rob Becker

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