What Gives Indian Explorer Raghu Rai Photographic Edge


Renowned photographer Raghu Rai celebrates the privilege of shooting in India. A romance breathing seasons. Fifty years. The opening and closing of his camera shutter has given India’s visual narrative the immortal rhythm of reflections. Romance breathing, growing bolder, finer, whimsical, becoming free, setting off, to lose way to return before sunset or sunrise. Raghu Rai loves ragas. He loves composition. He loves visual music.

Raghu Rai, allowing shadows, his own, in the frame. The veteran, writing new compositions in aesthetics, documentation, photo essays, photo books, portraits, and editing, is growing with India. Not growing older. Growing. Growing with a devouring appetite, to unravel more and more in his country. Raghu Rai, playing with the sun and selfies, as times and trends change. Over the decades, his dark room and studio have become the busy green room to India and its performance to light.  Aware of the work and experiments taking place in the West, he has seen India with cultural consciousness developed here.

Five years old in photojournalism, in 1971, Raghu Rai walked with soldiers in Bangladesh, protected by them from bullets, returning, with pictures of heroism, romanticism, outrage, and tragedy. History stared into his lens, with eyes freezing, grieving, angry and fearless. His hide and seek with history, news, tragedy, and beauty, continued, as India unfolded — in Bhopal Gas Tragedy, at political meetings, in the highest echelons of power, rallies, drawing rooms, and concert halls. He is walking into colours, clouds, black, and white, trees, rain, self and India. Photographer Udit Kulshrestha  makes the maestro talk. Listen.


Self and selfie


UK: What are you working on?

RR: Magnum will be 70 in 2017 and so will be India. I am working on Magnum and India @70. There is work from all of the Magnum’s photographers including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marilyn Rita Silverstone, and Mark Power. I am editing those pictures. There will also be an exhibition.

UK: You were shooting clouds. Tell us about your work on trees, clouds and stones.

RR: I became a photojournalist the moment I picked up the camera. I had to fulfill my responsibility with the newspapers, and later, with the magazines. You keep doing that, but your love for nature is eternal. It always exists. So, while you are going for an assignment, on a political story, or a crisis story or a social event, on the way, you find, those mesmerising moments in nature and you don’t want to miss them.


Clouds and Raghu Rai


UK: Have you been photographing yourself?

RR: I have been photographing… not myself. When we get to great places, we get up early in the morning for good light, before the sun rises, and we take pictures in good light. We are there when the sunshine arrives. Now, if this is a scene in front of you, and the sun is rising, rising from behind and here is the guy taking the pictures, he is casting a long shadow in my space. I cannot avoid him. What do I do? I either include him or I change my angle to the other side where there may not be an intense and beautiful situation. I have experienced, ever since I was born, this guy has been chasing me, wherever I go, he comes with me. When I want to take my early morning shots, he would cast such a long shadow in my space, and when the sun goes up, and light becomes harsh, he becomes a dwarf, and that is when I cannot shoot. This guy disappears from my space. So, this has been happening. He appears in reflections, he appears in shadows, he appears, through his feet or hands or some other way. I have been facing this guy every time, over the years. I have included him as a part of the frame — sometimes — where he makes sense.




UK: You make photobooks and coffee table books. Where do you see yourself moving? What is the future of the photobook as it evolves in the West and unfolds into handmade and limited edition books?

RR: You see photobooks and coffee table books (around). There are a lot of publishers doing coffee table books. So many books are being produced by so many photographers all over the world, but, the bulk of it is being produced in a very touristic (manner) and a mishmash of anything and everything. Very few photobooks have something very special in terms of binding styles, the putting of pictures on each page — it is changing. Change is very good. So, even I am in the process, sort of, realigning myself with the new feeling of producing a book. However, it is a fact that the pictures have very limited market — very limited.

UK: How do you see photography developing in India?

RR: A lot is happening in India for photography. Metros and towns are hosting photo festivals. It is something big. Tasveer and Photoink do only photography exhibitions. So many other people doing photography is very strange (and not enriching the way it should be). The curation at these festivals is mishmash. Why are so many exhibitions needed? Have 10 exhibitions or five — but great ones, so that, every image displayed has something very specific and very intuitive and magical to share. Now, because we are still doing conceptual art, because we are still doing experimental, because West is using digital nonsense, you remove somebody’s ear and make a portrait, you remove somebody’s eyes and make a portrait. These are techniques digital (work) is giving.




UK: How should a photographer disseminate his work?

RR: Well, (through) exhibitions or books or magazines and newspapers. Newspapers and magazines in India are hardly published with the proper picture or the big picture and most newspapers carry those little things. However, there are also those arty pictures, you know, in the magazines…


A portrait of Bal Thackeray


UK: There are a lot of experiments happening in portraits and portrait projects. The portrait style is witnessing new changes in the West. The person’s face is hidden, but it is still a portrait. In India, we are still looking at either an environmental portrait which is about the persona and the environment, or the dead in your face kind of portrait. Your comment.

RR: Be it photojournalism or documentary or other styles of photography, everyone wants to be different. Now that’s rubbish. Being different is making people do different things — silhouetted face or looking on the side, looking lost. I mean, sometimes it works, but most of the times (it doesn’t). When you say “portrait” of a person, when you go and meet a person, you meet him upfront, you know the eye level. These days, people are making portraits with wide angle, with big telephoto, throwing everything out of focus and taking them out of context. Even these celebrity pictures being taken with superb wide angle lens, you know, you look at their bodies, they are standing, and their legs are going like this, complete distortion and faces looking funny. Every newspaper every magazine is printing that rubbish. This is becoming a totally irresponsible way of photographing people. It is becoming more commercial and mishmash. It is a quick and fast generation. They want to pick up something which looks different. Arrey! Distortion — my god! You see, even in older days, when they photographed monuments or buildings, with big camera, they made sure their verticals were correct and there was no distortion. Today, shamelessly, people, their faces, their bodies, are being distorted. Similarly for portraits — sometimes some people use wide angle.

UK: Tell us about your photography initiative, the Creative Image Magazine; its philosophy and progress.

RR: Today, there are thousands of people becoming photographers or taking photography seriously. There are young people doing so much of it. It reminds me of our times, when we were younger and growing as photographers. We used to get foreign magazines which were very difficult to find and very expensive during the late 1960s, and 1970s. There was a photography magazine from London; there was a popular photography magazine from New York, and similarly, few others. Camera magazine from Switzerland and Creative Camera magazine from London lasted a few years. We used to get those magazines somehow and it was very stimulating.

When I was growing up as a young photographer, we used to look at the great works of masters like Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and others. I had seen their work back then, and I am looking at their work in today’s sensibilities, all over again. So, we are looking at works of an old great master, a contemporary master and other experimental young photographers.

I wanted to put together something well-researched. Each issue we create takes me almost two months. It’s a bimonthly. We do so much of research. Each theme we pick, we look at the world and photos from anywhere and everywhere. So, the amount of the body of work I’m seeing, I tell you, is mind-boggling. So much is available on the Internet. We have only 100 pages so far. Each time, I can produce a book, on new stuff, of 300-400 pages. So many people are doing so much good work except (in) our country. I mean, mostly, they follow trends and style. They are not being original most of the time, which is not very nice. A lot of work is being done, but wo hai, aadat ho gayi hai ki aisa karne ki waise karne ki (there’s a habit of following this style, or that style).  Convenience — creativity is against convenience. You have to go to capture something unique.

I feel that each individual has the possibility, his/her own, to come up with new expressions and new explorations. So, at the center for photography we started, and through this magazine, the purpose is to ignite that creative spark and madness in you, so that you become an explorer of not this kind or that kind but of your kind.

UK: Are there visual aesthetics that define Indian photography?

RR: No. Let me tell you. The West is leading. Photography was born and brought up in the West (it came to India simultaneously). The fact — they are rich nations, they have resources, they are developing new equipment, new films, new paper, new this, new that, and they have organisations and institutions which fund young people or people who want to experiment. There is churning and availability of finances of equipment. In India, it is a little drop here and there.

I was at an Australian photo festival. Martin Parr — one of the important colour photographers — a photographer very well respected in Europe — we were exhibiting our works at a museum. Half side for him and half for me. He was (showing) colour work, mostly from daily life — not very experimental. Usually, he can be very experimental and his experimental work has some very powerful images. I had my wall — of black and white works on the other side. I used to get so much more response. We had a talk. He and I. Martin said, “Raghu, you primarily work in your own country and your work is best on India. Is there an Indian way of seeing things?” That’s what you asked.




UK: Yes.

RR: So, I turned around and I asked Martin “Is there a British way of seeing things? If there is an Indian way, there must be a British way.” He laughed. That’s where the difference lies. I primarily shoot in my own country — that’s one thing — my privilege. It intensifies my understanding of things because I don’t flaunt it around in another world.  I, an Indian, born in India, brought up here, started photography here, growing and maturing here, maybe when you shoot India and I shoot India, I understand the nuances better than you do. That’s where I have an edge if I’m an explorer and that’s where my picture will have more insight drawn to it than a foreigner’s. But I’ll not say there is an Indian vision or Indian way of doing things. I culturally like that we have a miniature style of painting. We have other styles of art and creativity.




UK: There is very less work on India (being shown) at Indian photo festivals. Why is it happening? How are you bringing a change?

RR: If we produce a good world class photography magazine and I’m showcasing work from the West and from everywhere else, and not giving any space to India, it is unfair. There should be more work shown from India at the photo festivals here. In my magazine, I find it difficult to pick enough works by Indian photographers of that stature. That’s where I get defeated. That’s when I have to get works from other countries and other photographers. Then, I think, ‘Why not?’. The idea, after all, is to share the best. But certainly, the photo festivals show mishmash even from foreign photographers’ work.  Might as well show the Indian works.

UK: Do you identify with the trend of selfies?

RR: Selfies are a socio-economic game we play. They cost you nothing. You can take hundreds of selfies. Even the presidents and prime ministers are playing it. It is a lot of fun. Every mobile has a camera. The camera has the lens. A wide angle lens. When you make a selfie from a distance with the wide angle lens, it distorts the faces. It is a fun and joyful picture. Nobody minds it. The fun and joy is momentarily there. Why shouldn’t people have fun?

UK: Share a guru mantra.

RR: Do not take all those good pictures you have seen before. If you switch off your computer and look at the world with your heart’s eyes, you will begin to see new things.


Bangladesh. 1971


Pictures: Raghu Rai