Last year, we sent photographer João Canziani on assignment to document Rajasthan’s palaces-turned-hotels for our September/October cover story. While in India, he shot two short films—one of which recently premiered at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, California. We spoke to João about his films: Sentinel, which gives a unique, inside look at the colorful characters of Rajasthan, and Pehelwani, which tells the story of a group of young men who practice the ancient art of mud wrestling in the city of Mathura, India.

What initially drew you to travel photography and filmmaking?

“Photography was a very early hobby for me. I was always fascinated with traveling and the idea of meeting different people and getting glimpses into their lives. I’ve pursued photography as a career for the past 10-15 years, but filmmaking has been a more recent passion. It’s a curiosity about what I can do to immerse myself in a new world and what new perspectives will come out of that.”

Tell me about the two films you shot in India, Sentinel and Pehelwani.

“I shot Sentinel while on assignment for AFAR in Rajasthan last year. There are so many layers to life in India and so many stories you can find happening all around you at any moment. I was really eager to explore that, so I added a few days to my trip to see what else I could uncover. With the help of a local fixer, I was connected to a group of athletes who practice the ancient art of pehelwan—or mud wrestling—in the sacred city of Mathura, India. I spent a few days with these athletes shooting the documentary—it was such an interesting experience to see how they have devoted themselves to the sport. There’s such a sense of joy and camaraderie they have—it’s truly unique.”

Two mud wrestlers compete in Mathura, India. From Pehelwani, the short documentary available later this year.
What is your approach to travel photography and filmmaking in getting to know your subjects and portraying their realities?

“I try to maintain patience and approach my subjects with an understanding that I’m interacting with a different culture. It’s important for me not to have expectations of how things should be and to stay open to being surprised. I like to build relationships and trust with my subjects so that I can portray them empathetically and truthfully.”

You did a lot, creatively speaking, while traveling in India—you shot not only an AFAR cover story, but also a short film and short documentary. In what ways did India inspire you?

“India reminds me a little bit of my home, Peru. I love the intensity of it all—the colors, the chaos on the streets, the incredibly rich history and culture. There’s a visual richness that inspires me about India. It’s overwhelming to your senses, but in a good way.”

What are you hoping people take away from these films?

“I hope that these films help people tap into their curiosities—the same curiosities I had—about discovering something different from what they know and how they live.”

Sentinel from João Canziani on Vimeo. See more of João Canziani's work here.

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