National Geographic

Blessed With Water On World Water Day

In a 2006 lecture, photographer John Stanmeyer recounted a memory from Bali. He was eating breakfast on the beach with his wife, he explained, when a group of parents walked toward the water, carrying their children. In traditional Balinese culture, a baby's feet are not to touch the ground for the first few months of their lives. In this baptism ritual, parents lowered their children into the ocean tide, allowing their feet to touch the earth for the first time.

From Bali to Birmingham, the ceremonial use of water is something that can be seen all over the world — because water is not only a physical life source, but also a spiritual one. It's the topic of Stanmeyer's latest photo series in National Geographic's special water-themed April issue.

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    "The Maya believed natural wells, such as the Xkeken cenote in Mexico's Yucatan, led to the underworld."
    All photos by John Stanmeyer/National Geographic
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    "A cross hewn for Epiphany in the ice of Maine's Kennebec River by parishioners of St. Alexander Nevsky Russian Orthodox Church commemorates the baptism of Christ."
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    "A woman launches an offering on the Mekong River, known to Laotians as the "mother of waters," during Boun Pi Mai Lao, the New Year's celebration in April."
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    "India's holiest river, the Ganges, is scribbled with light from floating oil lamps during the Ganga Dussehra festival in Haridwar."
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    "The sacred waterfall at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Mie Prefecture, Japan, washes away impurities in the Shinto ritual known as misogi shuho."
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    "A pilgrim embraces the renewal granted by Saut d'Eau falls at the festival of the Virgin of Miracles in Ville Bonheur, Haiti."

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It seems like a dream job, I told Stanmeyer over the phone, to travel the world for months on end, photographing religious ceremonies. But he reminded me that it's still work. "I feel the enormity of what I'm having to do," he said, "which is ... to show to 30 million or more readers the weight and measure of our human existence together on this planet interacting spiritually with water."

The April magazine is devoted entirely to the topic of fresh water — environmental concerns and humanitarian threats, but also, as Stanmeyer explained, its cultural significance. It's a timely release, coinciding with World Water Day. Look for more photos from this issue in the coming weeks, including the works of Edward Burtynsky and Paolo Pellegrin. And if you're in Los Angeles, check out an exhibition of photographs from the April issue at The Annenberg Space for Photography.

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