Maria Sahai is a professional photographer who specializes in sharing the stories of far-away places with “like-minded adventures,” both through her images and her work organizing photography tours. Born in the Russian Far East, she has a fascination with Earth’s remote corners that manifests itself in her photographs of the arctic regions — but that drive pushes her toward more frenetic locales, as well.
When she had a spur-of-the-moment chance to visit Jaipur, India, on a weekend trip away from her home in Norway, she took it. With no time to plan the details of her visit, she deferred to a local taxi driver’s recommendations and decided to live in the moment. The city’s eclectic imagery made it a “paradise for photography,” as she says, and though she couldn’t visit all the usual sights in those 48 hours, the beauty of that first trip to India has inspired her to return several times since.
We caught up with Maria to discuss her spontaneous trip, her photography (in the city and the wild), and the importance of keeping an open mind.
What drew you to Jaipur, and why for only 48 hours?
I’d always dreamt of going to India. My husband Karim is also a professional photographer and has been to the country over 15 times. He has shared his passion for Indian culture and food with me through his photos, and I had been waiting to experience them firsthand.
One day, we got a promotional airline email about deals on flights to India, and decided then and there to hop on a plane to Jaipur. We had no time to make any plans or reservations for the trip, but it didn’t matter. It was absolutely worth it, to spend two days in such a picturesque place — and to indulge in the local food!
What’s it like capturing a place under such time constraints?
To avoid being stressed out by the timeframe, I embraced the fact that there was no way we could cover all the must-see attractions and areas; instead, the goal was to be present in the moment. It was my first visit to India, and I was grateful to capture whatever was around me. After all, every corner of that country is a paradise for photography: everywhere you look are beautiful people wearing colorful clothing in the midst of non-stop action, against the backdrop of both ancient and modern architecture that host vibrant religious ceremonies, bustling street markets, and endless food stalls.
At times, I felt rather overwhelmed by all of the colors, aromas, and sounds. I coped by focusing on the faces of the locals and continued to ask myself: What captured their attention? What interested them? What were they focused on?
Take as an example the portrait of this man.
I spotted him from the taxi while we were stuck in a traffic jam. He stopped in the middle of the busy street, which was filled with loud passersby, honking cars and rickshaws, and street vendors trying to promote their goods. But he seemed so used to this energetic environment. He was calm and observant, just looking into the distance. Maybe he was trying to remember the next item on his grocery list, or simply figuring out where to go next. I’ll never know. The only thing I know for sure is that his serene and thoughtful expression made me feel relaxed. The moment after I took this photograph, he began walking again, slowly, blending into the colorful crowd until I lost him.
It is moments such as these that remind me that if I have the choice to stay home or go on a 12-hour trip to a place where I can spend only one day, I should choose the latter without hesitation. There are only so many hours in a day, and I try to make the most out of them.
Most of these images feature people — are people your favorite subject? If so, why?
If you open my Instagram account (@mariasahai), you will mainly see the blue hues of icebergs, or the whites of snowy landscapes and arctic wildlife. There are hardly any images of people. I spend most of my time in the Arctic leading tours with my husband, and my work has been shaped over the years by the nature of those remote areas.
So, when I visit vibrant cities like Jaipur, it’s a break from the stillness and cold of the North, and I feel that the best way to connect to the energy of cities is through their people. After being on a diet of landscapes, glaciers, and icebergs for awhile, my eyes crave human emotions, gripping stories, and splashes of color in people’s clothing.
How did the idea of shooting solely from a taxi come to you?
We didn’t want to waste our first morning in Jaipur trying to figure out what to do and where to go, so we came up with an idea. We hired a local taxi driver and asked him to take us wherever he wanted. He was so happy when we told him that we had complete trust in his advice, and that we wanted to visit the places he frequents most often — to pray, to meet his friends, and even to purchase his groceries. He was proud to show us his hometown, and we got a chance to see some places visitors don’t usually see.
Of course, another factor was the heat. It was over 104°F (40°C) that weekend, and we would have been exhausted after only a few hours on our feet in the sun. Lastly, as a tall woman with light skin and blue eyes, I attracted a fair amount of attention on the streets of India. This is not what a photographer wants when trying to capture genuine scenes of people’s daily lives. Being inside a car helped me stay unnoticed and photograph people without interrupting their rhythm.
What would you tell people who are thinking of traveling to Jaipur, or India as a whole?
I’ve already returned to India several times since this initial trip, and my advice would be to keep an open mind. Make an effort to adapt to the local customs, of which there are plenty, and rules (even when it might seem like there are none). I’ve seen so many people have a bad time in India because they couldn’t distance themselves from their predetermined notion of social norms. This often leads to foreigners wearing inappropriate clothing or misbehaving in religious sites, which has negative consequences and results in unpleasant memories.
Traveling around India can be such a fulfilling and eventful experience, if one is just open to it.
To follow along with Maria’s adventures, check out her Instagram.