It wasn’t the rugged beauty of the Himalayan mountains, nor the nomadic customs of the Buddhist tribes, that drew Abu Dhabi photographer Yiannis Roussakis to the Ladakh region of Indian Kashmir.
“I find it easier to work in certain parts of South east Asia, because people there are not as conscious of how they present themselves to a camera as they are in the modern world,” he says “It gets harder and harder to have a spontaneous glance or communication with a subject. But in these places, people can still be very direct, which makes it easier to photograph who they really are.”
An exhibition featuring photos from his visit, Songs for Everyone, is on display this month at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Modern Art Gallery. He spent six months during the past two years in Cambodia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, as well as 4,500 metres above sea level in Ladakh, India, shooting portraits of the people he met. He took the time to get to know each of his subjects before taking out his camera – in some cases, several days.
“I try to have communication with the subject and make this come through in the photograph,” he says. “In Ladakh, I had to have a guide and a jeep, set up camp there, and then very politely ask for permission to participate in their daily lives. I got invited to their homes, to their Buddhist ceremonies.”
Despite the language barrier, Roussakis says there is always a way to communicate with anybody.
“If people feel that you’re not there just to spin pieces of their lives around, and you share part of yourself, then they will share part of themselves back,” he says.
Many of Roussakis’s subjects in Ladakh were Tibetan refugees who have created lives for themselves in the mountains herding animals. Although their lives might seem far removed from those of people in Abu Dhabi, where Roussakis has lived for four years, he wanted to capture a sense of the commonality in the human experience.
“People everywhere have been struggling for thousands of years with the fact they’re alive and are going to die,” he says. “I see that there’s a piece of information hidden in the observation of the ways people live their lives and find peace, with all these basic existential questions littering their heads.
“We’re so preoccupied with our own lives nowadays, it’s very useful for us to observe better what’s going on around us. I want people to see in the photographs how people cope with the same fundamental questions that we try to cope with.”
Roussakis, who is from Greece, shoots most of his photos digitally in black and white, occasionally adding a splash of colour to draw the eye towards a certain subject – such as the deep orange of a monk’s robe.
“I’m always fascinated with trying to give an old feeling to the photo,” he says.
Eleven of the 38 photographs on display are portraits of older people. Roussakis finds them particularly fascinating “because you can see the passing of time. They communicate a different set of experiences and if they trust the photographer, they allow true colours to shine through”.
In Everybody’s Grandma, for example, a Himalayan farmer stands as majestically as a queen.
“I loved her attitude,” he says. “She’s very proud. In a deeper sense, she’s present in all possible ways. In my eyes, she has found a place of completeness and she projects that. I wish everybody had a grandma like that.”
In Nomads in Ladakh, a mother and baby sit smiling beside their small tent. “It was a moment of happiness captured,” he says.
Although the subjects of Roussakis’s photographs could be said to living in poverty, Roussakis points out that they do not perceive themselves as poor.
“Poor people in modern societies now know all too well that they’re poor and they cannot accept that – they feel embarrassed about not being rich,” he says. “This is the impact of the internet and shifting culture in the West that makes poor people feel blamed, or not capable enough.
“The people of agriculture and the mountains have very good social identity. They don’t perceive being poor as a bad thing, it’s just a way of life.”
• Songs for Everyone is at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Al Bateen until March 1. Selected photos from Roussakis’s previous exhibition, Million Street, which explore the roots of Abu Dhabi’s indigenous culture, are also on display