The Coal Haulers of Varanasi, India & the Fuji GFX

The face of a coal hauler from Bihar, India. (Click to view larger)

(Note: All these photos are taken with the Fujifilm X-T2, NOT the GFX.)

Late last month, Piet Van Den Eynde asked if I could help him produce a video. Piet was one of 20 photographers in the world who was invited to use the new, as yet unreleased, Fujifilm GFX medium format camera in their workflow. Piet, Serge Van Cauwenbergh, Alou and I snuck off to India to film him using this amazing camera in the wilds of India. As you will see, Piet certainly put the GFX through its paces, using it in places and on occasions where you would never think of bringing a medium format camera. It was all hush, hush till today. As you can see, Fujifilm has released our video to the world, so now we can talk about it. In fact, we will be doing a lot of talking about it in the weeks to come.

We needed some very special images for this video, and I believe we got them. One of the most interesting places we visited was this train yard. Piet made some amazing images, which you will see in the video and later on his blog. Our time there was very short, yet the scene we uncovered really deserved more than just a few images for the video. So I moved quickly to capture these images. I hope you can get a feel of the intensity of the work these men do on a daily basis.

Varanasi, like most cities in India, runs on both electricity and coal. The coal arrives from the mines by freight trains. Car after car of coal arrives in a half mile long train filled with raw coal. Each car needs to be unloaded and then loaded back into lorries for delivery. The problem is this process of transferring a ton or more of coal from a train car to a lorry is all done by hand, literally. Five to six men are assigned to each train car. It takes an average of 8 to 10 hours for the men to remove all the coal from the car. It is dumped next to the car ready to be reloaded into the lorry the next day by the same men. Then the whole process starts over again. The men wear flip flops or even go barefooted throughout the day. The coal dust is everywhere, including their lungs. Each man makes an average of 300 Rupees or $5 USD a day. I asked them if any of them get sick or have a cough. None of them seemed to want to answer me. I think they were suspicious. Frankly, they need the work. Most of them were from the next state over, Bihar. All their earnings go home to their family. A family that they may never get to see again.

After visiting these men and photographing them, we felt that our workshops need to me more than about taking amazing photos. We need to get involved with the places we photograph. As such, Piet and I are researching organizations that we might donate a percentage of our profit. We are in search of organizations that help people like these men and others we photograph to rise above their circumstances to a better life. If you know of an organization like this let us know.

Note: If you want to join Piet and me on our next workshop to Varanasi, India in late 2017, be sure to sign up for our newsletter to be notified when the registration goes live. We announce open registration first to our newsletter subscribers. This is one of the perks of subscribing to the newsletter. Then only after 24 hours will we make registration public. The last workshop sold out in 1 hour.  When you subscribe, be sure to check your email for confirmation.

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A laborer has to break up the larger pieces of coal so they can be loaded by hand into the lorries.





After unloading the coal from the train, they workers have to clear it from under the car it arrived in. No coal can be wasted.


Roll after roll of lorries wait to be loaded up with coal for delivery into the city.


This and the photo below are of drivers waiting for the coal to be loaded into their lorries.




Announcing the 2nd Location Portraiture & Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India

banner Masterclass


I am pleased to announce the second Location Portraiture and Lighting Masterclass in Varanasi, India. Well, ok it’s really the second time we’ve run the class, but the first time we’ve used this name. I am teaming up again with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Guru and Wizard of Light Piet Van den Eynde. We will be releasing full details in the days to come. But let me assure you this will be an amazing class! Piet and I have been working all winter hammering out the details to make this class one that will be both highly educational, exciting, challenging and memorable and I think we have succeeded. We will be covering techniques and skills that are often skipped over on other workshops of this price or length. We will be covering the broad topics of: Continue reading

Lumen Dei Trophies: Examples of SoundSlides by our Students

You still have till the end of the day here in Malaysia to enter the SoundSlides Plus giveaway. I will stop taking entries at midnight my time (GMT +8). It’s been fun. Honestly, I’m humbled and somewhat amazed by all the selfless and creative ideas that have been submitted. I guess with my background in humanitarian photography, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are so many of my readers that have humanitarian interests and connections with NGOs.
Continue reading

Multimedia: Wasim The Varanasi Sari Maker

One of the assignments we gave our last Lumen Dei workshop participants was to create a short, two minute multimedia photo essay on anything or anyone as long as it was in Varanasi. They were to use Soundslides, but we would provide the audio bed for them. The assignment was to be shot the two days we spent in Varanasi. Gavin and I will be posting some of the participant’s shows in the future. All of them did very well. Continue reading

Back Home… for 48 hours

The team left for our respective homes on April 17th. Alou and I returned to Penang and to our daughter Jessie. But almost as quick as I got back I will leave again for America and some meetings. Alou will stay home and spend time with Jessie; I envy her.  I always get little side comments in emails from people that say how exciting the travel must be. It is – but not without it’s toll. Like this past week when Alou and I were in Varanasi and Peanut, our family cat for the past two years, was killed in the road in front of our house. We were not home to comfort Jessie at this loss. Travel is exciting, but comes with a cost. This is the part that few people ever write about. The fun part about this trip was I was able to minimize this “distance”, at least to a point, by traveling with my wife. Alou handled the logistics, finances and also acted as a translator for the team. This team was made up of primarily women and so it was especially nice for the women to feel they were being heard by leadership. Alou proved invaluable, I would work with her again in a heartbeat.

Alou looking at images with participant Paula Bulancea in Old Delhi.

This was also the first time Gavin Gough and I worked together on an extended workshop. Not only is Gavin a great photographer, as you all ready know, he is also a really talented instructor and very easy to work with as a co-leader. Hopefully this will not be the last time we work together.

Gavin Gough and Lesley Fisher in the busy streets of Haridwar.

Lumen Dei: Varanasi

All my dreams of posting daily are proven to be just that; dreams. The net was intolerably slow in New Delhi, non-exsitant in Varanasi and once we arrived to Haridwar and the Kumbh Mela we found that the government internet connection at the hotel has been blocked for security reasons. I am now posting this after my return to New Delhi  (at that intolerably slow connection). For me, the days in Varanasi were a paradox. The colors I found in Delhi where amplified many times over in Varanasi. The city is, of course considered a holy city by Hindus. Many elderly people come to the city to live out their last days and be cremated on the banks of the once beautiful Ganga or Ganges. The faces of the masses are as diverse as India herself. It is a photographers dream. But it is not what I expected.

The placid, but mighty Ganges is now blackish brown and it’s banks are littered with plastic bags and the bones of the devoted. The ghats are painted with hoardings that advertise places like the Elvis Guest House. Hippies graffiti the ancient walls with advertisements for local eats and yoga classes. But don’t get me wrong, in all of this, you can find the authentic. Like any place that attracts millions of tourist a year, you have two choices. The first is to focus. Put “blinders” on. Look past the graffitied walls and see what is below or beside it. The other option is to get off the beaten path and go look for “real” life, away from the plastic pin wheels and postcards. Go into the back alleys and you will be rewarded with people living their life away from the chaos of tourism. But to be honest, either way Varanasi if full of images and will never fail to reward the photographer with rich colorful photographs.

Lumen Dei: Kumbh Mela Day 3

A woman resting at the Qtub Minar.

Well, it has been really frustrating trying to post just a few words and a fewer  images. The net at the hotel we are staying at is almost non-existent. It has taken me two days of fighting with the net to post just three images. At the moment the broadband is actually a working for once, so I am hoping to post this before it go down again. So I will be brief.

Yesterday seemed to be about color. We had a wounderful day of shooting at the Qtub Minar and Nizamuddin Shrine today. The team is a fun mix of personalities. Today we visit Old Delhi in the morning and then in the evening take an overnight train to Varanasi. Here are a few sample shot from today’s outing.

OK – that is the day in brief. Now lets see if there is a working internet connection. Remember, you can click on the images to view them larger.

Living under the strict rules of purdah, but still wanting her photo made, this women in green poses for me at the Nizamuddin Shrine.

Shopkeepers sell items for worship along the alleyways leading into the Nizamuddin Shrine.

A Muslim man stands proudly as a woman look into the Allah-u-din mosque.