Photography: The Story Behind An Award Winning Picture

Beauty is often hidden in the most unlikely places: light refracting in a drop of rain, paint peeling off a fence, or a facial expression that speaks a thousand words…but these hidden gems can easily go unnoticed if we’re not fully present in the moment.

Gennaro Serra Varanasi India
Photo: Gennaro Serra

In this fast-paced and plugged-in world, our overactive and distracted minds find it difficult to put the brakes on and enjoy the scenery, so to speak. When there’s too much mental chatter, the view is usually clouded by thoughts about the past or future – to the point that we often miss what’s happening right in front of our eyes. I find that photography often puts everything into perspective.

I’ve come to learn that photography is all about the art of observation; as they say, it takes a lot of looking to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I find that having a camera around your neck while traveling is a great way of encouraging you to see the world around you from a new perspective.

The picture below was taken while I was backpacking around India. It isn’t by any means anything special, but it was a catalyst for a serendipitous turn of events that inspired me to fulfill a personal dream, the details of which I’ll cover in later posts.

Nat Geo Gennaro Serra
Photo: Gennaro Serra

Sunrises may be one of the biggest clichés in photography, and I may not be a morning person, but it’s generally the best time of day to get those creative juices flowing, probably because of how relaxed our minds are upon waking up.

If you were to catch your first ever sunrise, Varanasi might just be the ideal place to see it. Dubbed as older than history itself, it’s one of the most ancient continuously inhabited cities in the world, and at dawn, a veil of mysticism covers the entire place. It was a calming environment to be in, sitting by the river Ganges, gazing at a succession of tramps and holy men immersing their feet in the shallows and greeting the sun with their mesmerizing rituals.

One hundred meters upstream, a thick plume of smoke rose from the Burning Ghats, a sacred site where Hindus are cremated in order to be guaranteed spiritual freedom. Legend has it the fire has been roaring constantly for three thousand years. Children, lepers, pregnant women and monks are considered too pure to be burnt to ashes and so are sunken to the depths of the river — which must be part of the reason why the amount of bacteria found there is three thousand times over the limit suggested as ‘safe’ by the World Health Organization.

Shortly before finishing my cup of chai I had been sipping on, the grey-haired chai-wallah hobbled over to the river’s edge and, to my horror, casually refilled his water tank. Fortunately my stomach had spent long enough in India to keep any serious trouble at bay.

As I followed the river downstream to escape the wretched smell of burning corpse, a small rowing boat gently came to a stop in line with the rising sun. As the distant figures began hauling a ‘pure soul’ over the side of the boat, I started to see the picture. I moved around to find an interesting foreground: a pilgrim performing his daily rituals. With some imagination, the sun was like a soul, rising from its lifeless body. At the same time, the holy man was praying for this process of rebirth to finally come to an end – a quest he’s been on since the start of his spiritual journey.

Streets of Varanasi Gennaro Serra
Photo: Gennaro Serra

Some time afterwards the shot luckily won a National Geographic competition that would get it published on their Traveller magazine. That’s what then drew me to pursue a career in photography.

Next month I’ll be writing a bit about the following chapter living in Japanese society, and experiencing the infamous Tohoku earthquake.

Check out Gennaro’s photography here

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Gennaro Serra

As the creator of Groove House in Portugal, Gennaro is a world traveler who has even broken the Guinness World Records. He created Groove House to welcome individuals whose hearts are touched by music and who want to explore a deeper connection with it.

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