Frames of reference

Frames of reference

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 30 July, 2016
Raghu Rai.
With a Padma Shri, a World Press Photo award and countless other accolades to his name, India’s greatest living photographer, Raghu Rai, is celebrating the golden jubilee of his photography career this year and has published a selection of his finest portraits to mark the occasion. He speaks to Srija Naskar about his love affair with the camera.

Looking back at your 50-year-long career as a photographer, how has the journey been?

A. Well, I can only wish to be reborn as a photographer [laughs].

Q. How did you decide to get into photojournalism?

A. My brother, Paul, was working as the chief photographer with The Indian Express. I used to see him getting published every week, and I thought it's not a bad idea to become a photographer and work for a newspaper. I was being trained as a civil engineer in the early 1960s, but did the job in Delhi and hated it. Inspired by my brother, when I joined The Statesman in West Bengal, I never went back to civil engineering.

Q. In the introduction to your book People, you have described your portraits as mostly “posed pictures” and how shooting the same has always made you feel uncomfortable. If you could shed some light on portrait photography.Would candid pictures of ordinary people also qualify as portraits?

A. Yes, yes. As long as the frame can capture the strength of each individual, it becomes a character portrait. A portrait does not necessarily mean that everybody has to just sit straight, look into the camera and pose for you. When I take a person's portrait, I am trying to capture the aura of that person, that person's spirit in the picture. I am trying to get the truth of that person to emerge in the photograph.

Q. How then do you distinguish street photography from portrait photography?

A. Street photography involves general activity and interactions of life but in portrait, there's a specific focus on a person.  In street photography, you are trying to capture the lives of people through their daily interactions but in a portrait, the person, not the surrounding, becomes the boldest element in the frame.

Q.  From your book, I see that you have had a range of favourite subjects (among celebrities) for portraits, and Satyajit Ray was one such figure. Did you get to meet Nemai Ghosh, too, while shooting on Ray's sets?

A. No, because Ghosh used to shoot stills long ago. When I was photographing Ray during the mid-80s, Nemai was not shooting on a regular basis, you know.

Q.  Also, among the many contributions you have made to the Magnum Tasveer series, I spotted a very interesting image of 1950s Calcutta titled Grain Bags as Bed. How was the experience of shooting in post-famine Bengal?

A. You see, these kinds of situations, like famine, drought, refugees, war, are very easy situations to photograph. Since the misery, the suffering, the drama of it is so pronounced, capturing such moments becomes far easier.

Q. Let's talk about Indira Gandhi now, another of your favourite subjects. You have said how you loved shooting her early on in her career, and that later on changes in her career and persona made photographing her not so much fun. What was that aspect in her personality that drew you as a photographer?

A.  What was happening in those years was that you had more clear access to all these leaders. And these leaders were more charismatic than any leader of today. Since terrorism in the country was not so much on the rise then, we could stand 4-5 feet away from Indira Gandhi and take pictures of her. That kind of accessibility with a leader of such stature cannot happen today. You see, after all, in photography, if you're not close enough, your pictures are not good enough.

“Mrs Gandhi loved the Himalayas. I had arranged for a special appointment to photograph her while she was in Shimla. I made her climb on a stone parapet against the clouds, so that I could get a full view of the Himalayas and it turned out to be exactly as I had wanted.”

Q. If you could share with us one such moment when you photographed Indira Gandhi at such close quarters.

A. Mrs. Gandhi loved the Himalayas. I had arranged for a special appointment to photograph her while she was in Shimla. I made her climb on a stone parapet against the clouds, so that I could get a full view of the Himalayas and it turned out to be exactly as I had wanted.

Q. You have also mentioned your first meeting with Mother Teresa in 1970 and how it not only inspired you as a photographer but also as a human being. If you could shed some light on how she's been an inspiration to you.

A.  When I was shooting for the first time, it went on for 3-4 days and Mother told me to not come the next day because it was Easter and she did not want anybody to be walking around when she was in prayer. I was unhappy. So I told Mother two things. First, that you do seva and nurse and look after people and that is very important to you, to which she said, yes. I also said that the second thing that you do is rejuvenate yourself to sit and pray. I told her that I have done only half the story, the bit about you nursing people. I said I have never met or seen God and I have never seen you pray but when you pray, they say one can see God in your eyes and that is what I want to photograph. She said, “Alright”; with the condition that I will only be allowed to sit on one side and click all photographs. I obeyed her, but the photographs didn’t turn out to be satisfying because from where I was sitting, I could only click side profiles. So when she bent down in prayers and got up, I braved to go and stand in front of her and looked into her eyes and said to myself, “My God, it's so powerful, I must take some pictures.” Later on, when I asked for her forgiveness for not being able to keep my promise, she said, “God has given you this assignment and you must do it well.”

Q. There are portraits of M.F. Husain and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in your book, among others. Did you also get to photograph them when they were in exile?

A. No. But I really thought Husain sahab would come back. Unfortunately that never happened.

Q. Quite interesting is a portrait of Bhindranwale in the confines of Akal Taqt, a day before he was killed. If you could share this experience with us.

A. It was very quiet and everybody seemed afraid to be stepping out of their homes, given how toxic the atmosphere was at that time. I used to go to Amritsar on a regular basis to photograph Bhindranwale. So I sent a message insisting I get to photograph him in Akal Taqt. They said that an entry was difficult but finally it worked out. I had never seen so much anger and fear in his eyes. You could make out that it was not the same Bhindranwale who would indulge in so much dadagiri. It seemed he knew it was going to be his last day. It was all dark inside, and with just a little light entering from one side of the door, I managed to click his last portrait.

Q. Which has been the most challenging event to shoot in your entire career span?

A. Photographing Mother [Teresa] was very difficult because there were restrictions, everything had to be done with great sensitivity. And she was also not fond of photographers taking pictures, so every time I had to really prepare myself to meet her and to be with her. It was like meeting a saint.

Q. And, where have you most enjoyed shooting?

A. Calcutta, undoubtedly. Although I have not done much photography outside India, I was working on a book with two other photographers which led me to Mexico. That was enjoyable. Besides that, I think Rome is a very powerful location.

Q. As a photographer, what is your take on the selfie culture, which is so much in vogue these days?

A. I feel it's just for social fun. Also, it does not cost you much and at the same time you can take as many photographs as you want with friends and family. But one must understand that since all mobile phones have wide angle lens and the selfie that you take is with a wide angle, it is actually the wrong thing to do because it distorts your features.  Personally, I am not into taking selfies. But in public events, people often come and tell me “aapke saath photo karna hai [we want to take a photo with you]”, toh main bolta hoon, “karlo bhai” [so I tell them, “go ahead, brother”] [laughs].


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