Photographer Caleb Cain Marcus began his 1,500-mile pilgrimage along the the Ganges River amid the snow-capped peaks of Gangotri, India, a Hindu pilgrim town where the massive river originates as an aquamarine stream “so narrow that you could almost hop across.”
He’s not particularly religious, but for Marcus, following the path of the spiritually significant Ganges, which Hindus believe is synonymous with the goddess Gaṅgā herself, was an exercise in perception—in noticing the character and the energy of the atmosphere.
“We are often so busy with our lives that we don’t pay that much attention to spaces,” he says. “I feel that the air can have a presence. If you go into a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue, there’s a change in the space. I had this idea that the space along the river was more charged, [that] there was more density. Maybe the Ganges always had this energy around it, or maybe the people who have been praying along it have changed the space.”
He’s not trying provide concrete answers to his postulations but instead to experience the energy in the air and somehow translate it into photographs.
For 44 days, Marcus followed the river—mostly by car but also on foot and by boat —through small villages that often go unnamed on a map and rarely have foreign visitors. As he progressed, the river widened, more people began to appear, industry increased (so did pollution), and the hills leveled out. He captured these subtle changes in scenery in his signature style—quiet, bright, and enveloped in fog.
Marcus also keeps his distance. The people who trickle into his images toward the end of his journey appear on an ant-like scale. He’s not interested in the individual but in how people function as a collective organism.
“It’s more about the form and the movement and the dance of the people—the color and the melody they create,” he says. “I think it also goes back to the relationship between humans and the universe. To have the scale of the people [be] small fits with my personal ideology: For me the landscape is as important as the people are, maybe more important.”
Marcus’s journey came to an end when the Ganges met the ocean at Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal, another pilgrimage site for Hindus. The boat trip there was a little scary (“You can definitely imagine the boat sinking. It’s way beyond capacity, and the boats are very old.”). But the satisfaction of arriving at the end was well worth it.
“I was happy walking along this beach and seeing the culmination of both my journey and the river’s journey,” he says. “You see this great horizon when you get to the end of the island, [which] faces the ocean. It’s just this expanse. That’s what she flows into, and maybe that’s what we flow into as well when we cease to exist on this world.”
See more of Caleb Cain Marcus’s work on his website.