Photographing a Hindu Sea Procession at an Iconic British Seaside Town

Each year around the world Hindu communities join together in a 10-day celebration of one of their mainstream deities, Ganesha. This celebration takes place in either August or September (Bhadra is the 6th month of the Hindu calendar, which combines lunar and solar considerations for the cycle), and festivities take many forms across the Hindu diaspora.

One practice shared by many is the act of Visarjan (immersion) of a murthi (depiction/statue) of Ganesha, which occurs on the final day of celebration indicating his departure, and with him the departure of obstacles those who are immersing him are facing.

While some choose to immerse and dissolve their clay Ganesha at home in a bucket, barrel, or even bath (the aftermath of which is often spread in a garden or used in other rituals) the iconic community practice of immersion will take place at a larger body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean. This event supposedly sees over 150,000 murthis carried into the sea in Mumbai alone.

On the last weekend of September 2023, Sagar Kharecha and I joined to document one instance of this celebration at the beach of Clacton-on-Sea. Arranged by a temple in Walthamstow the congregation was mainly Southern Indian, Tamil, from East London communities in Walthamstow and East Ham, but also from West London such as Ealing, and including families and individuals who traveled even further from around the UK to be here.

Sagar and I often collaborate as part of a collective effort with the rest of New Exit Group and are building a body of work which documents over years and hopefully decades a reflection of British Hinduism. Sagar traveled to Wales to photograph a similar immersion ceremony earlier in the year, so he had some experience with what to expect.

Iconic events like this are cornerstones for our project, as they see gatherings of community far beyond what you can expect to see on an average day at a Mandir. We are able to make new connections and network while photographing, which eventually leads to greater trust and access, meaning we can work on our project in more intimate settings, for more personal and private documentation of people’s homes, families, and daily lives.

We had a 5 a.m. start in order to catch a train from Stratford that would get us into Clacton just after 9 a.m., allowing us time to have a quick breakfast and photograph while the beach was still quiet as devotees began to arrive.

Once quite a crowd had formed, around midday, the large plinths holding the two central Ganesha which were to be immersed were unloaded from a truck and brought down to the beach, where an Arti ceremony was performed. After this Sagar and I rushed down to the sea edge, where we knew the circumstance we had mainly planned on photographing were about to unfold.

There were some unique challenges posed by this culmination of the celebration, as two towering idols and a multitude of smaller ones were carried out far into the ocean. The first was entirely psychological and the easiest to overcome: the temperature of the late September seawater.

The second was the landscape of the water as we walked deeper and deeper along with the procession, meaning we needed to make severe compromises about when to put the cameras to our eyes.

I was using a fixed 35mm focal length waterproof camera loaded with Ilford Delta 400 and my Nikon F4 with a 90ish mm lens and Ilford FP4. I didn’t mind the waterproof camera hanging from my neck and being totally submerged at times, but wanted to avoid anything worse than splashes on my F4, I held it high at all times to prevent it from being saturated under the waves.

Sagar had a Nikon FM2 and F301 at 28mm and 50mm, both with HP5. Neither of these has weather sealing against water, so he used the strap of his chest-mounted GoPro to hold one camera secure at his collarbone allowing him to use the other and switch between them without either getting too wet.

We did our best to time our reloads so that we would be entering the water with fresh rolls of film, giving us 72 images each across two cameras before we’d need to reload again, something we didn’t especially want to do in the water. Sagar ended up needing to reload his F301, but only when he was waist deep, luckily not when he was further out. He had his rolls safely in a shoulder pocket of his shirt, which kept them relatively dry.

I went in until my tolerance was reached as the waves approached chest height, while Sagar went much further still. Next year I intend to use only my waterproof camera and to travel out the full distance if not slightly further.

Familiarity with the community meant we recognized many faces and, more importantly, were recognized by them. This made it easy to pause people for portraits, and work without having to negotiate unfamiliar boundaries and conventions.

I often wanted to position myself quite low in the water so that it occupied a bit less of my frame and so that the horizon wouldn’t be in the dead center, but the waves were unpredictable and would overwhelm me when I thought I’d timed it right to bend down. I realized that with my front element wet I wouldn’t be able to clean it as I didn’t have a dry cloth at that point, but through the viewfinder, I could only see a slight loss of contrast, nothing major.

You can see on a few of the images that there are sort of smudges and areas with less contrast and flair, but I quite like the imperfection and don’t think it detracts from the image at all. My photographs were developed in Rodinal, and Sagar’s in Ilfotec HC.

Aside from myself and Sagar and a few members of the community who live streamed or took snapshots on their phones I didn’t see any other photographers out amongst the waves. When you look at “press” style images from these events, they are often long lenses looking out to sea, distant observers of the event as a whole, abstract, rarely specifics and up close documentation. Each style of work has its place of course, but I think the difference really highlights the intention behind the images and what’s actually required to make the work we are trying to achieve vs the effect we are trying to avoid.

After we left the ocean, Sagar and I approached a few people for portraits, as we realized that portraiture is a bit of a gap in the project so far, as we are usually so engrossed in documenting “happenings” which includes environmental and candid portraiture, but rarely the breathing room necessary to work on dedicated portrait moments.

Some of the photographs in the ocean are detached from context, just ambiguous waves, subject, and sky, which don’t situate these images in a project specifically about British Hinduism. Incorporating the pier, which is iconically British, as well as other clues like fashion means that we can fuse the concepts of English seaside town with ancient Eastern practices more effectively than if we were to do so via a complimentary diptych across two pages.

Please follow our collective @newexitgroup, which showcases our range of contemporary British documentary photography projects from our four members. Our debut zine, BARDO: Summer of ’20, is still available in limited numbers.

About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.

Image credits: Photographs by Simon King