India's Elephants

My first trip to India was with photographer Steve McCurry in 2007 where I discovered Rajasthan’s rural villages and colorful festivals. During that trip, I became fascinated with several tourist elephants that were kept in a cement garage near the Amber Fort. My first photographs captured them chained to the floor with the mahout standing attentively next to them. The lives of the elephants and their keeper moved me. Both were shackled to poverty and a lifetime of indenture yet a spiritual bond existed between them that embraced a deep sense of reverence for the elephant.

Throughout India elephants are respected as a spiritual animal, and Ganesh, the elephant-headed God, is venerated as one of the highest deities in the Hindu religion. However, there is an unusual dichotomy in the role of the elephant in Indian society, which wavers between the animal as an enlightened, spiritual being and as a beast of burden.

I returned to photograph elephants in Indian society on four separate trips between 2011 and 2013. I was compelled to capture the many facets of elephant’s lives and their interaction with humanity. I witnessed the dance between the mahout’s directions and the elephant’s natural instincts, one that reveals both the bond of beings that have spent their lives together and the animal’s unnatural place in the human world.

This collection of photographs is a cultural documentation of elephants in Indian society focusing on people and their traditions. The elephant’s role is changing as wildlife conservation and concerns for the health and safety of domesticated elephants are growing. This complex and majestic animal, with its intelligence, intricate social hierarchy, and highly evolved communication skills, is caught in a changing world between the past and the future.

Back to photos.