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A Photographer Follows in Gandhi’s Footsteps

Decades Later, Photographer Searches for Gandhi’s Legacy

Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy is acclaimed around the world. His demands for peaceful action, equality, sustainability, and religious freedom are often quoted. But when photographer Rena Effendi was assigned to capture his abiding impact in modern-day India for the July 2015 issue of National Geographic, she needed to go beyond the history books and into the streets. Where is Gandhi’s legacy being lived out? Who continues to carry out his principles? She set out on a journey to document these traces of Gandhi.

I spoke with her picture editor, Kim Hubbard, about what it was like to work on the inspiring story of a world-changing legacy coupled with the challenge of visualizing the past and present in photographs.

[Hear Effendi reveal what it was like to follow Gandhi’s footsteps in the video above.]

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Freed from field labor, Geeta Bhen weaves a sari for a women’s cooperative inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, in Sihol, Gujarat state. All Photographs by Rena Effendi

BECKY HARLAN: Rena had to create pictures that reveal Gandhi’s historic legacy in the present day. How did she rise to that challenge?

KIM HUBBARD: Rena was just a great fit. She completely zeroed in on the mood we were looking for with the story. She and Tom O’Neill, the writer, were on the same wavelength, so they really were a wonderful team. Before Rena even started shooting she did a lot of research, read a lot of books, and tried to get into Gandhi’s mind-set. She asked herself: Where is Gandhi? Where is he present in India today? And if you look at the pictures you really can see—he’s everywhere. We were a little concerned at first—how do you shoot a story on someone who passed away a long time ago? But she did it, and she did it in such a beautiful way.

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Workers harvest salt in Dharasana, Gujarat. In May 1930, the month after Gandhi led a march to protest British restrictions on salt, activists trained in nonviolent resistance marched here and were savagely beaten, a seminal event that advanced India’s drive for independence.

BECKY: What locations were important to tell the story of Gandhi’s legacy in modern-day India? Where did Rena make sure to go?

KIM: There are tenets that Gandhi lived by, and we wanted to make sure that we covered those in the pictures: nonviolent protest, health care, education, class and gender equality, among others. Rena went all over India looking for representations of these principles. She went to Gandhi’s birthplace, she went to the beach where he renewed his wedding vows with his wife, she rode on trains, she visited maternal health clinics in rural villages, she visited schools and orphanages, and various Gandhian organizations that carry on his work. She also followed the route of Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, which was his act of civil disobedience against the British tax on salt. This took her through numerous villages until she reached the sea at Dandi Beach. She said that photographing this story was the most epic journey of her life.

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Hindu priests breathe prayers into rising smoke on a festival day in Barharwa Lakhansen, Bihar state. Raised in the Hindu faith, Gandhi incorporated passages from the Koran and the Bible into his prayers. His vision of a secular and democratic India is instilled in today’s constitution.

BECKY: Can you talk a bit about her photographic style?

KIM: Rena connected with the people; you can see that in her pictures. They are at ease around her. She photographed with film, which gives the pictures a lyrical quality. You can tell that she didn’t take thousands and thousands of pictures. Each picture is very precise and deliberate. She knew exactly what she wanted to convey. There is a quiet beauty about these images. Her subjects look dignified and proud. The picture of the woman sitting at the weaving loom is a great example. I think she looks regal, like she could be a queen. One of the things I love about the story is that it looks timeless. It looks like it could have been shot 50 years ago, or today. It’s classic.

BECKY: What do you hope people walk away with after seeing these images?

KIM: We wanted to show that Gandhi is alive and well in India today—his principles do live on. But we also wanted to show that inequality still exists and there is still work to be done.

Explore more images and stories about tracing Gandhi’s footsteps.

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