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Sometimes, with a vengeance, I convert my pictures into black and white: Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai on completing 50 years of making iconic images, his book on the Dalai Lama and why a photograph deserves to be held in the hand and not just viewed on a screen.

Written by Somya Lakhani | New Delhi | Updated: November 1, 2015 2:08:20 pm
Raghu Rai Raghu Rai

In 1965, a young man took a photograph of a donkey. Its droopy face and big, round eyes made it to The Times, London, and the 20-something old left behind his ambition of being a sitar player to become a photographer, a documentarian. For the past 50 years, Raghu Rai has captured the entire gamut of life in India: from politics to industrial tragedies, from spiritual leaders to renowned musicians, artists and filmmakers. The Magnum photographer shows no signs of slowing down at 73. And now, in his latest photo book, The Album, Rai reveals his personal story through 200-plus images of his family and friends taken over the years. The book includes pictures of a young Rai taken by senior photographer and his brother S Paul, as well as photos of his four children, his wife Gurmeet, his friends like photographer Kishor Parekh, writer Amrita Pritam, sculptor Himmat Shah and painter Jatin Das, among others. Ahead of its launch at the Delhi Photo Festival on October 30, Rai talks about the “gap” that keeps him going, how colour can become distasteful, and publishing a bi-monthly photography magazine.

Excerpts:

Tell us about The Album, the people and moments you have captured in these photographs.
The Album is about family and friends, the people closest to you. I try to be a full-time photographer, so I carry my camera everywhere. Often, when you capture something, you feel good about it but when you look at your own work analytically, you think “kaafi acha tha par woh baat nahi bani (It’s good but lacks something)”. So you feel a gap, and a creative person goes on because of that gap, which can never be fulfilled. So, I come home with a gap, and I meet my wife, children, friends. I keep taking photos to fill that gap.

About a decade ago, I began digitising and categorising my work, under “family”, “friends”, “travels”, and so on. About three or four years ago, Prashant (Panjiar) said to me: “Raghu, you have been shooting your family and friends for years, why don’t you do an exhibition?” I replied: “You must be joking…apne dost, apni family, it’s not a good idea.” But somewhere the idea tickled me and since I had already digitised it, it made sense. When I began work on it, it made for a wholesome experience. All the photos have not been taken by me in the book, some have been clicked by my friends.

In what way was this a wholesome experience?
As photographers when we come back and edit our photos, we relive that experience; remember conversations and incidents of that time. You analyse your own character and behavioural pattern. All the good and bad memories of the last 50 years flood back and you have to own them. This makes it a wholesome experience for me.

All the photos are black and white. Is this deliberate?
There were coloured photos also but I converted them into black and white. Digital technology is so good and easy that you put any camera on auto focus, auto exposure, and it takes these flawless, well-exposed pictures, full of colours. And that rang-birang is becoming such a vulgarity, that sometimes, with a vengeance, I convert my pictures into black-and-white.

Raghu Rai’s wife Gurmeet; with fellow news photographer Kishore Bhatt; Rai in his birthplace Jhang, Pakistan during a visit in 1977 Raghu Rai’s wife Gurmeet; with fellow news photographer Kishor Parekh; Rai in his birthplace Jhang, Pakistan during a visit in 1977

There are several pictures of your brother, S Paul. What impact did he have on your life and your career?
Paul is 12 years older to me, so was Kishor (Parekh). When I started taking pictures, they were big names. Others were nowhere close to them. So, when I got interested in photography, I was sandwiched between these two. In that situation, either you get crushed or you sprout between the two. During the day, we were warring enemies because Paul was chief photographer at The Indian Express, Kishor was chief photographer at Hindustan Times and I was the chief photographer at The Statesman. I became a chief photographer within a year-and-a-half. These two were more experienced and in better control. But it wasn’t like they were beating me – some days I gave better pictures, some days they did. I can say today that if they weren’t there, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be fighting for better work, better awareness without them.

Did you have to struggle a lot in the early years?
I struggled physically but the photograph only happened when I was living in that moment of total awareness. Today, I don’t have that kind of ambition or need to prove (something) to the world, so I do things with ease and sensitivity.

Who has been your toughest subject till date?
It has to be Mother Teresa. She wasn’t fond of journalists and photographers running around and disturbing her space. In the 1970s, when I first met her, she told me that I couldn’t shoot her the next day because it was Easter. I was bent upon convincing her. I said, “Mother, you say two things — one that you do seva, and the other that you have to connect with Christ to rejuvenate yourself after seva. I have seen you do seva, and tomorrow you will be connecting with the Lord. I have done half the story and the other half is left.” Mother phas gayee. She agreed on one condition that I will sit in one place. Next day, I reached and she sat me next to her, I could only get a side profile. It wasn’t good enough, so I moved and broke that promise. You had to prove yourself, your integrity and intensity while doing it.

You are launching a bi-monthly photography magazine called Creative Image.
There are three-four commercial magazines at the moment, and they’re replicas of each other. The bulk of pages show photography that was done 50-60 years ago. Our focus will be on India and Asia, and then the world. The works will be by masters and young photographers too. So, in the first issue, which we launched at Delhi Photo Festival, we have a series by a young guy who pretended to be a Syrian refugee and took photos, as well as a series by James Nachtwey on Syria. It’s going to be a print magazine, not an online one. A lot of young photographers come to me to show their work and they bring their laptops. I tell them that this is not your work, it’s a machine. You have to carry a photograph, similarly you should be able to hold a magazine in your hand and see it and look at it, and if it’s good, preserve it.

What are the other projects you’re working on at the moment?
I am doing a book on the Dalai Lama. He is the love of my life, he’s like a child. People say that when he’s in meditation, his spiritual energies encompass an area of three-four kms. Sixteen years ago, I was photographing him for Time magazine, and before leaving, he gave me a small stone, which I kept in my camera bag. One day, years later, I had a burning sensation in my chest, and instinctively, I strung that stone on a thread and wore it.

One day during a hectic assignment, I felt uneasy. I got it checked and the angiography revealed 90 per cent blockage in my arteries. The doctors said we don’t know how you are still alive. After the surgery, I went to meet the Dalai Lama with wife and daughters. When I thanked him [for the stone and its protection], he laughed and said “I can’t do these things”.

I complete 50 years in photography at the end of the year, so Aleph is releasing a book to commemorate that. I recently released a book, a commercial assignment called India Through the Eyes of Raghu Rai. I travelled across India in August, and took these photos using a phone camera.

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