A motorbike is a strange addition to a photographer’s apparatus. And yet, for Idris Ahmed, it is almost as important as his camera lens. For this environment activist-turned-schoolteacher-turned-professional photographer, his bike has remained a constant, taking him, at times, as high as 13,000ft to photograph ethereal landscapes, monasteries and the people who inhabit these spaces.
After graduation, Ahmed, 35, started working with the environmental advocacy group Earth First! His job entailed travelling and giving lessons in environmental sciences to schoolchildren, providing him with an opportunity to experiment with the viewfinder.
Ahmed’s black and white images capture the stunning landscape, the people and the spirit of the Spiti Valley
Five years ago, a serendipitous detour while biking through the Kunzum La pass in Himachal Pradesh took him to Spiti Valley for the first time. So moved by the stunning landscape was he that he has since journeyed to the valley every year, staying for a month each time.
Ahmed says the high-velocity winds, the challenge of biking through boulder-strewn roads and dry river beds are a small price to pay for the magnificent vistas he has captured through his lens. In Spiti—the desert mountain valley in the Himalayas in the north-eastern part of Himachal Pradesh—he found his visual opium.
In Tibetan, “Spiti” means “The Middle Land”, referring to the land between Tibet and India. Even though it has lately grown in popularity as a tourist destination, few would know that Spiti is as much a seabed as it is a mountain. Ahmed discovered this on one of his trips when a child pointed out stones that had fossils of sea animals. Millions of years ago, Spiti lay submerged under the Tethys Sea. Remnants of this geological past are evident in the unique landscape.
It is for this reason that Ahmed has titled his first solo photography show, the work of over four years, Spiti: Daughter of the Sea. Ten limited-edition prints of each of his 37 images will be available for Rs40-50,000. The large 2x3ft prints (the panoramas are 1.5 x4ft) will be on exhibit at the Alliance Française de Delhi from 5-10 February.
Ahmed’s photographs are in stark black and white. The high-contrast prints seem to glow with strange luminescence. The debutant exhibitor says he always intended his first show to be black and white. “Drained of colour, they’re always more startling because it’s not the way the human eye sees the world,” reasons Ahmed.
Even more special than the raw beauty of the overpowering landscape, Ahmed confesses to being overwhelmed by the warmth and friendliness of the people he met. “Complete strangers turned friends over cups of buttery, salted tea,” he says, recalling homestays with locals. One of his most stunning images is of the Ki Monastery, one of the highest (at 13,503ft) and oldest monasteries in Spiti.
Ahmed is working on putting these images and travel notes together for a book in the near future. The ardent reader of Ghalib is poetic in his declarations. The show, he says, is as much a journey of self-discovery as a loving tribute to the spirit of Spiti—she who rose from the depths of the sea floor to claim her place on the roof of the world.
Spiti: Daughter of the Sea will be on exhibit at Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi, Lodhi Estate, New Delhi, from 5-10 February. Click here for details.