Award-winning photojournalist Raghu Rai’s Bangladesh War (1971) and Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984) images have left a deep impact on the psyche on the viewer.
He began his career in 1965, his first stint being with The Statesman in 1966, followed by various Indian newspapers and magazines, for which he covered many national and international events of political-historic relevance.
His books Khajuraho, Raghu Rai’s Delhi, Calcutta, India and Mother Teresa, depict a fair view of India’s broad landscape. Rai, who is also a member of the acclaimed Magnum Photos Agency, speaks about his passion for pictures.
How has photojournalism changed from when you started as a photographer in 1965 to now?
That time we were few photographers and there was no apparent security risk to the ministers of the country. We used to stand 4-5ft away from Indira Gandhi and photograph her. Today you are kept at least 30-40ft away. This is one of the major challenges in photojournalism. For any big political event, there is high security and high drama. So the world is changing.
What are you working on?
I am working on books that range from the Himalayas, rivers on India and other projects. There is less of photojournalism in my life because of all the restrictions and paranoia faced by photojournalists.
Your most memorable assignment?
I am a product of many big and small experiences. There were occasions when my editors used to tell me that there is no big event today and click a picture for a double column. I used to get bothered by that “small space”. But I used to shoot the story with all my passion and come back with a big print. When my editor would see me bring a 12-inch print, he’d say, ‘Oh Raghu, I told you this assignment was for a small story’. My reply would be, ‘Please take a look at the picture’. If he liked the photograph, he would ask me if I’ll be okay with three columns. I used to say, ‘No, not less than a four-column’. Nobody gives you space unless you claim it with the power of expression.
Any plans to revive Creative Image, your photography magazine that you recently closed?
I started this magazine because I saw so many young photographers starting with a cellphone and buying a DSLR. Everybody is taking pictures and everybody is becoming a photographer. So we started this magazine in order to ignite that creative urge in them. Whenever we requested Henry Cartier Bresson Foundation and Ansel Adams Foundation, they gave us the photographs to publish after seeing Creative Image. Photographers like Steve McCurry and James Nachtwey wanted their works published in my magazine. But our photographers, with overuse of digital technology, were producing well-exposed, colourful, clean images lacking in meaning, I realised why am I wasting so much of my time. Let me tell you, nowadays most editors are visually illiterate, unlike the time I was working in newspapers. My editors then would look at every inch of the photograph to decide its merit. Today editors just glance at a picture and decide on it. You see ab paise ki gareebi toh kam hoti jaa rhi hai dish mein. Intellect ki gareebi ko kaun sambhale? (In the present times, people have money and are not poor, but how shall we overcome the poverty of intellectualism?)
What kind of pictures are we missing on?
The ones which have inner depth and intensity of the moment. Which are so symbolic that you don’t have to write and explain its meaning. Some people say a good picture is worth 1,000 words. I say a 1,000 words can be a lot of noise. A photograph should speak for itself and that must come through its content and sense of how you have received and perceived the situation and captured it. A photographer has to invest oneself – mentally, physically and spiritually to understand the world differently. But if you get a fairly well-exposed, colourful picture, people say oh great, the job is done. And mediocrity is loved by everybody. A good photographer, one needs fire in the belly. You must feed your mind with art forms such as literature and music. In any case, without philosophy, nothing survives.