Austin photographer Greg Davis knows how an image’s power can capture a story in a glance or move a viewer into action. What he’s considered his challenge in a decade of professional image-taking is capturing the invisible within the visible.
That interest in, and sensitivity to, the invisible brought him on a National Geographic Creative assignment three years ago to the Hindu festival Kumbh Mela, a 55-day event that draws millions of pilgrims every 12 years to the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers and, they believe, a third mythical river called the Saraswati.
The results from Davis’ trip with cinematographer Travis Tank are contained in the 24 images of the exhibit “India’s Kumbh Mela,” which goes on display in August at the Art Center of Waco after a July 28 opening reception at McLane Stadium’s Baylor Club.
The Livingston native has shown his Kumbh Mela photos at five Texas museums during the past three years, and his Waco appearance is a homecoming of sorts: Davis is a fourth-generation Baylor University graduate, earning a marketing degree in 1992.
For the Art Center, “India’s Kumbh Mela” is its second major show of images by a National Geographic photographer. In 2007, the center mounted an enormously popular show of 47 photographs by Steve McCurry, who took the famous “Afghan girl” picture that proved one of the most striking covers of National Geographic magazine.
Davis’ ability to capture human moments in his photographs led to his Kumbh Mela assignment and a daunting challenge: find the small, meaningful moments in one of the largest assemblies of humans on the globe. Largest isn’t hyperbole: The 2013 Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, India, drew an estimated 120 million people — roughly a third of America’s population — during the course of the festival.
The masses of pilgrims come to bathe in and drink from the Ganges River, an act they believe can wash away sins and break the cycle of reincarnation if done on certain holy days.
During Davis’ 17 days at the festival, some 30 million people camped out in a 40 square mile area on one of those days, the photographer recalled.
“The tricky part for me was to dilute the visual chaos around me into intimate scenes,” recalled the 47-year-old Davis. “Each person there is to connect to something greater than themselves.”
Davis’ experience at Kumbh Mela connected him to a sense of that something greater. Three days into his shoot, he lost his main camera, limiting him and Tank to a backup still camera plus the one used to shoot their short film — little margin for error given the conditions of shooting near water and ever-present teeming crowds.
A creative block followed for three days as Davis couldn’t find the images he wanted — and needed — for the project.
Cue the invisible in what Davis terms “God winks” — moments of synchronicity in which meaning and circumstance align too neatly to be coincidence.
A God wink, or something similar, had gotten Davis into photography years earlier. In 2000, after nearly 10 years in Austin working as tech representative with Dell Computers and Hewlitt-Packard, Davis suffered an avalanche of personal setbacks. Seven family members died that year; a gang assaulted him; he suffered a major financial loss; and his girlfriend left. “It was my valley of darkness,” he recalled. “I surrendered and asked that which is greater than us. . . . It said go.”
Davis sold his possessions in 2004 to travel the world and find himself. The photos he took on the journey found an audience after he returned, leading to an award-winning career and, five years later, interest from National Geographic.
Back to 2013 and where the invisible informed the visible. “Creatively, I was struggling pretty hard,” he said of his initial days in the field. That’s when his path crossed that of an American professor from Brooklyn, New York, who just happened to be shooting photographs for the Oman royal family. He invited Davis to accompany him the next day and watch what he did.
A day after that, Davis found the shot he thought “worthy of being in a museum in Texas,” the subject of his image “The Lady in Red.”
Shortly after that, Davis happened to meet and hold the gaze of a pilgrim standing amid scores of others. “There was this look of recognition of each other. I felt called to go to this man,” he said. They greeted one another, but didn’t share a language. The American understood the pilgrim as finished with his journey, and the two parted.
A short time later, anxious to photograph someone taking the ritual plunge into the Ganges, he saw the man in the river doing exactly that. He asked his permission to take his picture, the man agreed, and Davis ended up with the “Nectar of Immortality” image in his show.
Davis returned to the United States with a greater sense of listening to the invisible. “At some point, you’ve got to let go and get ego out of the way,” he said. “I had to trust it was going to work out. I now trust my instincts more and the sense that, with the right intentions, you’ll be provided for.”
In addition to the 24 photographs that make up “India’s Kumbh Mela,” Davis and cinematographer Tank created an 11-minute short documentary, “Cloth Paper Dreams,” from their experience. That film looks at three men who come to the festival for different reasons: a pilgrim named Mohan Baba, who gives up all and comes in faith; Andre Eichman, who brings his late father’s ashes to the Ganges out of devotion; and Davis, who finds purpose.
The photographer will show “Cloth Paper Dreams” as part of the July 28 opening reception. That event will feature a meal of Indian dishes, live sitar and tabla playing, and a dance interpretation of the Kumbh Mela’s three rivers by a troupe from the Austin Dance India. Tickets are on sale for the reception, available through the Art Center of Waco and online at artcenterwaco.org.
Davis continues to travel the world for his photography, with trips to Peru and Kenya this year. He’s listening for what’s next. “I’m sure I’ll be off to some grand adventure in January,” he laughed.
“India’s Kumbh Mela”
Photography by Greg Davis
When, where: Aug. 4 to Sept. 3 at Art Center of Waco, 1300 College Drive. Opening reception, 6:30 to 9 p.m. July 28, Baylor Club at McLane Stadium.
Admission: Opening reception tickets are $85, available online at artcenterwaco.org/events/kumbh-mela and at the door. Free admission to Art Center of Waco exhibit.