Photographer Josh Schrei was in northern India during a series of unprecedented mudslides that devastated cities and claimed over a thousand lives, and he has the startling photos—and a corresponding story—to prove it.
The Railyard Performance Center hosts an evening with Schrei to benefit the mudslide victims of Ladakh, India. During the event, Schrei narrates a photo-journey of his time spent there before, during and after the catastrophic rains that swept through the region in August 2010. He draws insight from the three major spiritual traditions of the region: the Shiva traditions of the Hindu Himalayan region, the devotional Bhakti traditions of southern India and the Buddhist traditions of Ladakh.
Schrei was originally drawn to India because of its inherent beauty and because of his interest in Indian and Tibetan spiritualism. Tibet's culture, which is dwindling elsewhere, remains more or less intact in Ladakh.
While on a trek around Ladakh’s capital city, Leh, the rain started. It continued unabated for four days before the mudslides began.
“On the fourth night I was out with some Indian friends and it was just like the sky opened up: It hailed, it poured rain. Literally, the sky was like a sheet of lightning. There was no point at which the thunder stopped,” Schrei tells SFR.
Any amount of rain is unusual for Leh. The city and surrounding region typically receive around three to four inches per year. The local people rely on glacial runoff for their water supply.
“Ladakh is kind of like New Mexico on steroids. It’s dry, it’s high elevation and there isn’t a lot of vegetation, but everything is kicked up a notch,” Schrei says. “It’s just beautiful. You get these stark, barren hills contrasted with these emerald green river valleys where everything is farmed.”
As the rain continued to fall, the locals assured Schrei it was very unusual. Schrei returned to the guesthouse where he was staying unaware of any impending danger.
The next day, the landlord of Schrei’s guesthouse told him there was a problem at the bus station.
“I asked him what it was, and he said I think the bus station is gone,” Schrei remembers. “I instinctively grabbed my camera and headed down there.”
When Schrei arrived at the bus station, he found an unimaginable situation.
“Basically all of lower Leh had been swallowed by mud. The bus station, where I’d just been the day before, was gone. The force of this thing was immense. Houses were destroyed like I’d never seen before,” Schrei says.
As a result of Schrei’s instinctive quick thinking and a friend’s working satellite internet connection, he was able to get the first photographs of Leh out on the Associated Press wire. As soon as the photos were sent, Schrei picked up a shovel and started the cumbersome task of helping to dig an entire city out of the mud.
The things Schrei saw in Leh after the mudslides will stick with him forever.
“One day, I assisted with helping to dig out a family of six people who had lost their lives, and that’s something you don’t forget easily,” Schrei recalls.
Over the past several years, Leh has built a thriving tourism business. The history, dramatic landscape and unique culture of the region attract people from all walks of life. This catastrophe essentially undid everything the people of Leh had worked so hard to accomplish.
Schrei hopes that the images and stories he shares raise viewers’ awareness of the daunting task that still lies ahead.
As he puts it, “There’s also a lot more rebuilding that needs to be done, and there’s a lot more that people can do. It’s an awesome and beautiful place.”
The Lake of Nine Devotions: A Photographic Journey Through India to Benefit the Mudslide Victims of Ladakh
Saturday, Dec. 11
Railyard Performance Center
1611 Paseo de Peralta