Sitting all alone in a maroon suede chair, a feet away from an oak dining table, he picked up his mug of brew and took a sip from it. The cold air from the air-conditioning vent blew over his balding head. The fried samosa and cottage cheese which was kept on his table was becoming cold. His muffler and black waistcoat probably kept him warm. Attentively, he was scanning his environs. Outside the glass window, about 10 feet away, the dark monsoon clouds loomed large, threatening to burst and flood the streets which were about 16 floors below. Below the clouds, a 270 degree panoramic view of Bangalore city was visible. Tall glass buildings and lush green trees formed a homogeneous mix of vibrant colors and gave the perfect bird’s eye view of the garden city of India.
I went up to his table and asked if I could join him for some time. With an enthusiastic “Yes!”, almost bordering relief from seeming boredom, he gestured me to join his table. I sat down.
It took a couple of moments to realize that I was sitting next to Raghu Rai, the best Photojournalist India has seen. He has the distinction of being the only Indian photographer to be a member of Magnum collective. He is a Padma Shri awardee((the fourth highest civilian award in the Republic of India, after the Bharat Ratna, the Padma Vibhushan and the Padma Bhushan). His work has been published in almost every publication/journal/newspaper worldwide. A civil engineer by education, he became a photographer by accident. Even his first picture, that of a wild donkey, received critical acclaim! His most noteworthy work was on Indira Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Bhopal gas tragedy and Kargil war. He has numerous books( 25+) to his credit. His other work included pieces on Agra, Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Tibet, Khajuraho etc.
Nikon India had organized an event (Nikon-Through The Lens) for which I was invited. I remember asking the Nikon team the agenda for the evening. When they said Raghu Rai will be there to give a talk, I was delighted! The talk was short and hardly lasted 15 mins. I wanted to hear more from him. I had many questions. Now was the time to ask!
In his talk, he mentioned about how he had been a user of nikon film cameras and with the advent of digital, he had to transition to digital cameras. He mentioned that film grain was the spice of the pictures from the yesteryears and that people despised grainy pictures when digital technologies made an appearance and how people are beginning to like grainy pictures all over again. He also mentioned that black and white photography was what he grew up on and it had taught him more about composition and photographic elements than color which came later. He chided the current day photographers and mentioned it was too easy to take a well exposed picture these days. The learning curve is non-existent he exclaimed! He also said that people are getting carried away by the glittery, “colorful” pictures. “All pictures look the same these days. No one wants to differentiate their work from others”. In his closing remarks, he implored the audience to immerse in the craft to get better at it.
Back at the table, after having heard his talk earlier and having heard other talks by the technical team of Nikon, I was ready for some discussion and a few questions with Mr. Raghu Rai.
My first question was: Why is there only 1 Magnum Photographer from India? What gives?[Note that the responses below are not verbatim answers, but 90 percent of what he said.]
Mr. Rai: The photojournalist’s world is changing. People are not coming up with photo-essays like they used to. There is no revolutionary photojournalism happening. Not many are working on elaborate projects. Anyone with a mobile phone camera can get you pictures which can be printed in a newspaper or magazine.
Me: True, I’ve heard most media houses and newspapers don’t have full time photographers and are working on a freelancer model. For E.g, Chicago time laid of it’s entire full-time photojournalist staff which included a pulitzer prize winner.
Mr. Rai: …which is why I work on my own and still continue shooting to this day. *Points at his camera on the desk*. I still carry my camera everywhere I go. *Points outside the glass window* Btw, I was shooting around the building earlier today and this just not feel like the India I know. (We were in UB City, a plush mall and he was alluding to the extravagant high rises. His work has taken him to the heart of India and I agree with him here.) Photojournalism is dying a slow death.
Me: Which project of your’s was your personal best?
Mr Rai: I can’t really say. All my projects are very endearing!
Me: *Nodding in agreement* Indeed, I have been following your work and have chanced upon a few of your books and I must say they are all great. (I expected this answer because it is very tough for an artist to favor one project over another!)
Me: Raghu ji, how do you chose your projects? How do they happen? How do you ideate and execute them? Do you take on a project and work on it exclusively and move onto the next?
Mr Rai: I never have just 1 project on hand. I work in parallel! I always have 2 or 3 projects at any given time. Some projects have lasted a few days, a few months and some a few years! Besides, I am always shooting, so every project is ongoing!
Me: Any project that you are working on right now?
Mr Rai: (*non-commital* 🙂 )Well….yeah…let’s see how it goes. (Mr Rai, I’m sure it’s going to be par excellence as usual!)
Mr Rai: ….But let me tell you about something that I am really interested in. I would like a double censor camera. I could do wonders with such a camera. You know, in which there are two sensors adjacent to each other which gives you a wide frame in a single shot. I hate and cannot use stitching in my work since they scene changes very fast.
Me: Wouldn’t we need a new line of lenses for it to avoid vignetting and distortion?.
Mr Rai: No, the sensor size can be reduced slightly to accommodate the extra width.
Me: Nikon must surely be working with you on this? (@Canon, @Nikon, @Sony, @Pentax, @Olympus, are you listening?)
Mr Rai: Yeah, sort of.
Me: Would taking a large MP camera and cropping help?
Mr Rai: It’s too cumbersome! I would prefer if straight out of the camera.
The brews and grub get replenished and we continue our chat.
Me: I know you got into photography by accident, but what made you continue it? When you started off, it wasn’t a very popular profession.
Mr Rai: Sometimes, you just need to forget about everything and do what you feel like. It was unknown, but I didn’t care! (Touche’, Mr Rai!)
Me: What was it to work with Henri-Cartier-Bresson?
Mr Rai: Great experience!
Just when I was about to get into his work on Bhopal Gas tragedy, about Mother Teresa, and many other points, he was invited on stage to give out the awards. Both of us finished our brews, clicked a couple of photographs and I thanked him for the opportunity.
He had chosen a picture for an award some time earlier. It was displayed and it was a shot of clouds against a moonlit sky. While presenting the award, he mentioned why he picked it as opposed to others. “It’s different from the others”, he said. “It’s not the glittering picture that we see so often these days”.
Raghu ji, wishing you the very best! I went back and saw each and every one of the 2323 of your pictures which are on the Magnum website.
You can see his pictures HERE.
Thanks Nikon for this wonderful event and for giving me the opportunity to chat with Mr. Raghu Rai himself!
What would you have asked Mr Raghu Rai if you had 30 minutes with him? Did I do justice? Leave your responses in the comments!