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Ganges River

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The northern Indian city of Varanasi, perched on the banks of the Ganges river, is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, a site that has drawn pilgrims literally for millennia. It’s famed for its burning ghats—the sloped-approaches to the waterfront where for centuries devotees have brought their deceased loved ones for cremation, then floating the ashes into the mighty, holy Ganges. Some Hindus still believe it’s auspicious to pass away on these steps. In Varanasi’s morning fogs and along its shrine-lined streets, visitors can feel an ancient, intangible power, a sense of place that is defined more by ritual and time than geography.

Varanasi’s burning grounds drew critically-acclaimed photographer Fazal Sheikh, whose latest project, Ether, on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20, is the product of his own nocturnal wanderings in the old town. New York-born Sheikh’s two earlier India-based projects—Moksha (2005), of a community of widows, and Ladli (2007), portraits of young women in orphanages, hospitals, brothels—had a decidedly engaged, political edge. Ether is less so. “Other documentary pieces of mine are much clearer in the pointed nature of what I wanted to say,” says Sheikh, who first came to prominence with his work from refugee camps in Kenya. “This project is a bit more open and broad. It’s an exploration of a mood.”

Sheikh’s vigil would begin at nightfall and end at dawn. “Ether” itself is that mysterious, unfathomable fifth element of the universe—the others being water, air, fire and earth—and is a property Sheikh attempts to articulate in his work. He makes elemental gestures throughout: The embers of a fire glow with an almost cosmic intensity. The stars wink and gleam in a night sky. Four dun-colored city strays curl into the trammeled earth.

Sheikh describes working in Varanasi as “a sort of nurturing experience. The whole place was calming; there was a kind of quiet.” In Ether, there is a dreamy, contemplative quality to the pictures, but it rarely feels overly sentimental. Departing from Sheikh’s earlier portraiture, many of Ether’s images are of bodies—both those of sleepers and the dead—who don’t directly engage the camera. The inability of a photograph to fully penetrate its subject fascinates Sheikh: “There are some things that a person holds for themselves, some things that will remain inaccessible.” But if there are visions of a world beyond our world, its traces are in the ether.

Fazal Sheikh is a photographer based in Zurich, New York City and Kenya. His latest project Ether, is on display on exhibit at Pace/MacGill gallery in New York City till Oct. 20.

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A man rides a horse through a bonfire in San Bartolome de Pinares, Spain, Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in honor of Saint Anthony, the patron saint of animals. On the eve of Saint Anthony’s Day, hundreds ride their horses trough the narrow cobblestone streets of the small village of San Bartolome during the “Luminarias,” a [...]

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SHIPSHAPE
SHIPSHAPE: Workmen painted and repaired the Royal Yacht Britannia in a dry dock at Forth Ports on Friday in Edinburgh, Scotland. The yacht has been power washed to remove barnacles and is currently getting three coats of paint that will protect it for years to come. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

DEVOTION
DEVOTION: Hindu pilgrims took a dip at the confluence of the Ganges River and the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, on Friday. Hindu monks and pilgrims are making an annual trip to Sagar Island for the one-day festival of Makar Sankranti. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

AWAITING EVICTION
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POLIO FREE
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READY TO RIDE
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MOURNING A STATESMAN
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HELP ON THE WAY
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SONEPUR, INDIA — An Indian mahout watches as seven-year old female elephant Laxmi reaches with her trunk to touch her daughter 13-month old baby elephant Rani at the Sonepur Fair, in Sonepur, Bihar, near Patna, India. The Sonepur Mela cattle fair, held annually in the Indian state of Bihar, has its origins during ancient times, [...]

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GUARDING THE PRESIDENT
GUARDING THE PRESIDENT: Police officers guarded pro-Western President Boris Tadic’s office from protesters in Belgrade, Serbia, Monday. About 200 demonstrators chanted slogans and burned a NATO flag in protest against an upcoming NATO conference there. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

COUCH PROTESTER
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DAY IN COURT
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HOLDING ON
HOLDING ON: A man held onto chains hanging from a bridge as he bathed in rapidly moving waters of the Ganges River in Haridwar, India, Monday. (Vivek Prakash/Reuters)

IN THE MIDDLE
IN THE MIDDLE: Schoolgirls waited in line for their midday meal at a government-run school on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India, Monday. (Noah Seelam/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

RAIN RUBBLE
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FOUL FISH
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