Raghu Rai’s office in Mehrauli, Delhi, is full of photographs — the most striking ones are signed originals by Henri-Cartier Bresson and his wife Martine Franck, co-founders of the prestigious international photo agency Magnum, of which Rai remains the only Indian member to date. The 71-year-old photographer, who has been making images for nearly 50 years now, has begun the process of putting together and editing the material for a new book, titled Sacred Rivers. His last, Trees, published by Photoink, was a homage to nature. “In the last eight to 10 years, I have moved away from theme-based photographic work. Nature takes me to places where the experiences are intimate and intense. I love the fury of the river and the rain together, having witnessed it on many occasions during my travels. With nature’s grace, today I am a free man, in many ways,” he says.
Through his journeys on assignments in the last four decades, Rai often stopped to photograph rivers across India. On many occasions, he found the rivers dirty, full of stench and yet constantly inhabited by people who had endless faith in their existence: “When I saw this kind of faith, I realised that it takes you beyond historical and geographical contours. It didn’t matter how polluted and static the rivers had become, given the kind of human intervention that they see on a daily basis,” he says.
Sacred Rivers will contain photographs from nearly five decades worth of shooting. How has he managed to look through years of photographs? Rai says that he isn’t old school and embraces the digital medium with as much ease as he does film. In the last three years, his team has been digitising his work, making his archives available to him much faster than before.
While talking about the scale of Rai’s Sacred Rivers and his love for nature, the conversation moves to the work of another great photographer Sebastião Salgado. Eight years ago, the Brazilian undertook a massive project across continents to bring to light the mountains, oceans, rivers and forests that humans seem to have forgotten in their quest for modern life. The work, now a major exhibition and book titled Genesis, is a celebration of earth in the truest sense and through its photographs, a reminder that over 40 per cent of the planet is still the way it was at the time of its formation. It premiered at the Natural History Museum in London last year. Salgado maintains that in Genesis, his camera was the medium through which nature addressed him.
Rai and Salgado have been old friends; the former in deep appreciation of the latter’s latest work, especially the scale of its production. “My work around nature is primarily centred on human continued…