There is Strength in Their Faces

There is Strength in Their Faces
The Matriarch

At 86 years old, this Gujjar Bakarwal woman still walks over 100 miles twice a year between the peaks of the Indian Himalaya to the lowland plains.  Her stories can be read in the lines in her face. To me, this photograph epitomizes the strength and beauty of the Gujjar women. Unlike the other photos in this series that were photographed wooden huts, this image was made in the canvas tent where she was cooking over an open fire.



Today I did something I never do, I entered a contest. I have been getting these emails from PDN about this contest they run every year. It is called Faces. As the name suggests, it’s a portrait contest. From environmental portraits to studio portraits–from animals to people it doesn’t matter; if it’s a photo of a face it can be entered. Several people have been encouraging me to enter contests. My wife is always saying, “You’re so good, why don’t you enter contests?” But she is my wife. She has to say nice things like that.  Then I started hearing it from Ami Vitale. Ami often judges contests and has told me over and over that I should enter. Ok … enough already, I have entered.

The contest entered is in the Personal Project Series category. As I looked through old projects I remembered how Mitchell Kanashkevich often commenting about how much he liked my older shots of Gujjars: the shepherds of Kashmir. As I culled and dug through old images I found several that I felt carried a theme of strength. These people are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. How many 86-year-old great grandmothers do you know that still hike the mountains, and for over a hundred miles? There was also a stylistic theme that came through as well. Each portrait was taken in a doorway of either a hut or a tent. This gave a studio feel to the image with soft light wrapping their faces and a background where the light dropped off. If you would like to vote for one of these images on PDN feel free. Just click the button below it and it will take you to that image. I hope you enjoy these.


Mother Daughter

A Bakarwal Gujjar shepherd young mother and daughter in Kashmir, India. The Bakarwal are a nomadic tribe that live in the highlands of Kashmir in the summer and migrate to the lowlands during the winter. I found this small extended family of Bakarwal as I was trekking in this region.


The Daughter

This young Bakarwal Gujjar shepherdess was sitting in her doorway shyly waiting to have me take her photo. Her mother was unsure about me till I asked about their life using my little bit of Urdu. This seemed to break the ice. The Barawal women are strong and proud and possess a wonderful sense of humor. The intense mountain light reflects off the bright granite stones around this girl’s house to give a wonderfully soft light on her face.


The Neighbour

While sitting and having Noon Chai or Salt Tea with a Gujjar family in Kashmir, this young woman kept staring at me. It was hard not to stare back as she had the most amazing green eyes and to my delight her duputta or scarf seemed to match them. I shot this image as she sat and appraised this stranger drinking tea with their family.


The Aunt

I call this photo the “The Aunt”, because everywhere I visited, this woman seemed to be in the background. Making salt tea, chapatis, rice or just stoking the fire, she always seemed  involved in life in this tight knit community. Personally, I love how this photograph shows the intricate braided hair that the women wear and the embroidered hats that are unique to the Gujjar women.


The Sister

This young 16 year old Gujjar shepherdess was the big sister to many of the children in this small community. Whether she was actually their sister or not I’m not sure. Like many of the Gujjar women I have encountered over the years, she seemed to possess the maturity and self-assurance that seems to come with living the hard and difficult life of a nomadic shepherdess in the Himalaya. I think this photograph shows this strength.

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About The Author

Matt Brandon

Matt is a Malaysia based humanitarian and travel photographer. Well known as a photographer and international workshop instructor, Matt’s images have been used by business and organizations around the globe. Matt also on the design board for Think Tank Photo, a camera bag manufacturer. In 2013 Matt founded the On Field Media Project to train the staff of non-profits to use appropriate technology to produce timely as well as quality images.


  1. Ian Mylam

    These are all beautiful portraits, Matt. The little girl in the second portrait is my favourite. I love her expression, the soft light on her face is beautiful, the background is dark and uncluttered … altogether a stunning photograph. Voted. Good luck in the competition.

    • Matt

      Thanks Ian. And thanks for commenting on the blog besides Facebook. You must be aware of my pet peeve – people leaving comments to blog posts on Facebook.

  2. Cathy

    Matt, these are beautiful. Number 1 is my favourite, and has my vote. The reason? I feel so connected with her. And I wasn’t there…you were. That connection you forged is palpable.

  3. Cathy

    It’s a shame that the PDN page doesn’t link back to your image as it looks on this page. As a way of helping us to engage with the images in the competition, it’s a bit poor. The strength in your portraiture is always in the eyes, and it’s hard to see that in small format. Still…keeps the playing field level, I guess.

    • Matt

      Cathy, thank you for your kind words. I agree, the PDN site really limits the viewer. But what can we do? As you said, maybe it levels the field. You’ll be happy to know that the judges have 1000 pixel (long side) images to view.

  4. Salim

    Hi Matt,

    your portraits are superb just like your wife and the people said. Could you some information about your lighting style? 1st photo is very powerful and has proper color trasition. How did you accomplish that? Do you use reflector, flash etc. ?

    Good luck in contest.

    • Matt

      Not much to it. Just as I stated in the photo’s caption, Put the subject just inside the door. Out of the direct light. Then you get really soft wrap-around light and it drops off fast. These places I shoot have very little light inside so it stays dark. The brighter and sunnier the day the better. Buy the way, do you see the catchlight in each photo? That is a wonderful by product of this technique.

  5. Bill S

    Wow, that first image hit me like a velvet sledgehammer. Beautiful balance of color, form and emotion. Poetry!

    • Matt

      Thanks Bill. A “velvet sledgehammer” I’ll have to remember that one.

  6. Andy Wilson

    All excellent Matt, I voted for the little girl with the smile, having a daughter probably tipped it from the lady in shot one, who has my admiration. If I can climb a flight of stairs at 86 I’d be pleased 🙂

    • Matt

      Me too!

  7. Jeff

    So I was just up in a Gujjar village in the North of Pakistan and had a ton of fun taking photos of the people there. But my question is how on earth did you get to shoot the women? The entire time I was there the ladies were stashed away in a back room. The only time I saw them was from a distance and as soon as we got to their house they were inside. (your photos, by the way, are great!)

    • Matt

      Odd, I answered this comment on the 27th, but the answer seemed to vanish. I can only image that the Purdah is far less among the ladies in India than in Pakistan. I have only been around Gujjars in Pakistan once and that was back in the early 90’s, so I have not comparison.

  8. Thomas Schmidt

    All of these are beautifully made portraits, and they truly convey a sense of strength and integrity, and all of the blink with a certain air of wisdom, yet a twinkle of humor in their eyes, just as you described them. I felt that all of this is strongest in the top portrait and voted for it. I would love to see it win!

    • Matt

      Thanks Thomas for your vote.

  9. Matt

    FYI here is the list of the 2012 winners. Clearly, I didn’t shoot the kind of images they were looking for. I think this is one of the frustrating things about competitions is you really don’t know what the judges are looking for until is all over. There were some remarkable entries and some I question how they were allowed in not to mention how they won. But, never the less, congratulations to the winners… all of them.



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