Return to Gujarat

The rewards of sharing pictures

This woman struck me as one of the most beautiful that I have ever photographed—serene and elegant, and like the Madonna in her pose. When I found her again, left, I immediately saw that she was wearing a similar shawl.

At one time or another we all experience a desire to return to a special place. Maybe it is because we remember the stunning scenery, or a colorful festival celebrating a culture different from our own. Or it is because the people we met, who at first were strangers, proved so warmly hospitable and became our friends. Sometimes we just want to return to the place where we felt a sense of peace and quiet reflection.

I have been traveling for thirty years, photographing people and places that have dramatically changed over the years. When I capture a particularly satisfying image I may go back at a later date, hoping to get another one. Generally, it never works out quite that way. A return trip may prove gratifying or disappointing, depending on your expectations.

Four years ago I traveled to the state of Gujarat in western India. It is not a usual destination for tourists, which is what made it so interesting photographically. I visited many villages and found the people to be welcoming and happy to have their pictures taken.

When I took this young woman’s photograph, left, the late afternoon light highlighted her face perfectly. Four years later, when I brought her the photograph, above, I didn’t recognize her at first: she had matured and was now a mother.

Women were dressed in exquisitely colorful clothes;bangles circled their arms, rings pierced their noses,and jewelry adorned their necks and ankles. Men wore turbans, pants, and jackets in a style particular to their group of villages. Even the smallest children, tending goats or helping their mothers cook, were colorfully dressed. In one small village I even happened upon a wedding.


     When I came home and looked at the images, I knew that someday I would revisit these people.

One of the first things I noticed when I photographed the woman spinning thread, above, was her beautiful silver ankle bracelet. Four years later, below, she was no longer wearing it. She told me she no longer spins, as she had done that to help her husband, a weaver, who had since died. When he died she removed the ankle bracelet.

This past February the time was right. I traveled to Gujarat for further exploration and to distribute copies of my photographs as gifts to the villagers. I felt mine might be the only photographs they had of themselves—or at least, hopefully, better ones than any they already had. It was my way of expressing appreciation. But the journey turned out to be so much more.

I had notes about the villages I had visited, but I wasn’t certain of their exact locations. I felt like the detective you see in the movies, showing the photographs to people and asking if they knew this or that person and where he or she lived. When we drove up to a village, if I recognized the houses or an inhabitant, I knew I was in the right place. Even more thrilling was to encounter people I had photographed. They remembered me and were astonished to see that I had come back.

The mother and baby, above, sitting in the doorway of her house, stunned me with their beautiful clothing and jewelry. The mother, below, was thrilled to have this photo of herself with her baby.

Each image had its own story. The one that led to the most emotional encounter was of a man, a weaver [below left], whom I had photographed using the same kind of loom that had been used for centuries. I was directed to a woman who was his wife and handed her the photo [below right]. She touched it to her forehead, then to her heart, and grabbed my hands, saying she couldn’t believe I had returned. Through her tears she explained that her husband had died three months before. What I thought would be a gift to her of a decent image proved far more meaningful. The importance of the photo to this woman and the emotions she showed brought me to tears along with her. Returning to Gujarat connected me to these people I had photographed and to something in myself, confirming my reason for traveling to such amazing places.

To see enlargements of all the above images, click on the attachments below. To learn more about Ellen Kaplowitz and her work, visit

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