Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to travel to India. In December of 2017, I finally had the opportunity through an assignment for FUJIFILM, equipped with the brand-new X-H1 and a variety of X Series lenses. After months of research and development, I set out for the ancient city of Varanasi to create a mini-documentary and corresponding photo series that profiled the city’s unique community.
After 46 hours of travel characterized by delays and missed flights, I quickly realized that India ran on its own time. However, I was so excited to create with the new camera that any obstacle to travel was outweighed by my eagerness to get out and shoot. From the moment we pulled out of the Varanasi airport, I felt a sense of the surreal, every street we turned onto seeming like a film set. After years of wanting to visit this country, I was finally here.
I immediately grabbed the X-H1 and started rolling from the back seat. Transitioning to this camera from other FUJIFILM systems was seamless, the functionality very simple and well-designed. From the very first time I played back the footage, I knew this was going to be the best FUJIFILM project I’d created to date.
This camera features a wide variety of additions to previous X Series bodies. The new video specs that stood out the most were the DCI 4K at up to 200 Mbps, 120fps at 1080P, and most important of all for me, the ability to shoot in F-Log. On the photo side, I couldn’t really ask for more. The camera boasts 24.3 megapixel stills, paired with a rapid 14fps, and the superior FUJIFILM color profiles and film simulations, making it the most versatile and powerful camera of its size and price point on the market.
Because of the numerous flight delays and the absurd traffic in Varanasi, I didn’t make it to my hotel until just after sunset. As we drove through the city, the streets were packed with people, stubborn cows, rickshaw drivers, monkeys, street dogs and more, making it one of the most overwhelming sights I’d ever seen. I finally met up with my second-unit DP, Karl Jungquist, and set off to test out the camera in low light at the nightly Aarti Puja ceremony before our first full day exploring the city. I was very impressed with how clean the footage and photographs looked. Even when I pushed the ISO far beyond what I’d ordinarily use, the X-H1 was able to produce consistent high-quality video and photo outputs. I couldn’t wait to see what the rest of the week would have in store.
We made our way back to the hotel, and after a few hours of sleep, we got up and set out for the ghats — steps that lead down to a river — to take a sunrise boat ride along the Ganges. There are over 84 ghats in Varanasi, each with its own design, story and locality. Many locals we spoke to view the river as a “Mother,” in that the water gives people and animals life. Some of the most beautiful footage captured on this project was taken along the ghats or while floating along the Ganges. The X-H1’s in-body image stabilization allowed us to shoot the entire film handheld with a variety of zoom and prime X Series lenses.
Although the film includes footage of people from all walks of life and a variety of scenes in Varanasi, the three subjects that guide the story were the most captivating individuals we met and were able to build a relationship with while on site. We put ourselves out there and shot 16- plus-hour days every day on this project, aiming to make connections, tell the locals’ stories and help out where we could. Our efforts were rewarded at seemingly the most unexpected times.
The first story involved Sadhu, a man who renounced all worldly possessions in pursuit of spiritual liberation and the dedication of his life to Lord Shiva — known in Hinduism as the creator and destroyer of the universe. The morning we spent with Sadhu was one I’ll never forget, and it arguably produced the best footage and photographs of the entire trip. I’m so grateful that he agreed to spend the morning with us and tell his story. He seemed impressed with the technology and with each look at the tilt-screen LCD on the X-H1 he was more comfortable with taking direction. One of my favorite photographs features him reaching over the old-school boat into the Ganges, signifying his connection between his life and his “Mother.”
The second subject was an Aghori, a man who also renounced his possessions in pursuit of spiritual liberation, but through practices that are seen as taboo within Hindu society. Capturing his story and beliefs was a key element in showcasing the unique diversity of Varanasi’s community. He was an interesting character and very open to being on-camera. I have a strong feeling the compact size of the XH1 made him feel at ease. With each look at the LCD, he would give a grin of satisfaction for how he looked on-screen.
The final interview subject we featured was a cremation ground worker named Dablu. We met Dablu just outside the grounds on one of our last nights in Varanasi, and we were fortunate to have him guide us through the process of the Hindu tradition of public cremation (in pursuit of Nirvana) at the Manikarnika Ghat of Varanasi. Being able to document the grounds the way we did as foreigners is unheard of — and was probably the most powerful experience I’ve ever had. This segment of the film is the most stunning, in my opinion.
In Varanasi, you never know what to expect. With the powerful X-H1 mirrorless camera, we were able to capture everything the city had to offer through both photo and video outputs, and I am grateful to have created some of my most passionate and high-quality work in the making of the mini-documentary The City of Light.
Daniel Malikyar, 23, is a photographer and creative director based in Los Angeles. He is an official FUJIFILM X-Photographer and has shot commissioned projects in over 40 countries. He is also a co-founder of MGX Creative, and serves as the creative director for Marshmello. His branded content has received numerous awards and over 1.5 billion views online, and his projects have been featured across a variety of advertising and broadcast platforms, including Times Square and Fox News.