Photographer Pablo Bartholomew shares details about his journey back in time with SHAILAJA TRIPATHI

There can be several routes to rediscovery, but Pablo Bartholomew has opted to rummage through the past. And, well, he has the material for it. The veteran lensman has been shooting ever since he was a young boy. First he shot for himself. He trained his lens on the marginalised, be it a lesser known community like the Nagas, the dark world of morphine addicts (for which he got the World Press Photo Award in 1975), or cities and Indian emigrants. And then he documented the happenings, working for reputed agencies, with his work being featured in several national and international magazines. The iconic image of a half-buried child taken during the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984 was just one such assignment. The image went on to fetch the coveted prize of the World Press Photo of the year.

And several years later, done with awards and accolades, Pablo is digging up the archival past, which he says doesn’t just include his work but that of his illustrious father Richard Bartholomew as well.

“When everybody is a photographer, you will have to reposition yourself and your work. When I started out there were very few photographers on the scene, and now there are so many practitioners. It also happens that after many years one becomes schooled. This, I thought, was a way of unravelling certain things and looking at everything with a fresh eye,” explains the photographer.

Revisiting his father’s work — writings, art, photography — alongside his own and reading them again in a new context has been a preoccupation since 2005.

‘The Calcutta Diaries’, the latest exhibit from his stable currently on at Art Heritage, is a continuation of the narrative, preceded by exhibitions like ‘Outside In: A Tale of Three Cities’, ‘The Chronicles of a Past Life’, ‘A Critic’s Eye’ and books like Richard Bartholomew: The Art Critic and A Critic’s Eye.

‘The Calcutta Diaries’ comprises his early work, quite intense and personal, just like his other series which was done between 1972 and 1982. He is now calling it an archive. It all started when he was expelled from school, and that’s when he found himself at the threshold of the world of the marginalised.

He was taking pictures even before that. Having a father like Richard, who was also a photographer, meant that Pablo was introduced to the discipline quite early on. He didn’t need to learn the subject formally. He watched, listened and learnt.

“Like a child born in a gharana of music doesn’t need to go outside to learn music, I also learnt everything at home. My father had a darkroom and knowledge of the craft. The darkroom is an important part of the process... It is all so structured in a digital camera, but how many people make an effort to know that? You press the button and something happens but you don’t know what happens,” says Pablo, who has finished with his black and white archive and will begin working on his news archive soon.

At home, learning camerawork was never didactic. On Sundays, his two friends — one journalist and one graphic artist — would come over and have discussions about the equipment. They would exchange photography magazines. “And I would be part of those discussions,” recalls Pablo, adding that his father’s work in America done in the 1970s was a great learning experience. A selection of these photos was made into an exhibition, which was mounted at Photoink in 2009.

Pablo makes clear distinctions between the work that he did for himself and his professional assignments. The self-assigned projects that took him to the opium dens, prostitutes, rag-pickers, film extras, and Chinese working-class migrants in Tangra in Calcutta are described by the photographer as “slow photography which was done when one had more time.”

His own roots — a Burmese father who fled his country during the Second World War and came to Assam and eventually settled in Delhi, and a half Punjabi, half Bengali mother — did help him relate to the world that goes unnoticed. The surroundings of art and literature, which gave him company while growing up, further nurtured his interest there.

Ask him if he felt like an outsider and he asks in return, “Are you an insider? We are always outsiders. You can be part of something and yet not be part of something... I don’t feel like a Gujarati, Punjabi, etc. I can transgress a lot of barriers but that doesn’t mean I don’t come with prejudices...”

The Calcutta Diaries

Art Heritage at Triveni Kala Sangam, Mandi House, New Delhi, is displaying a collection of Pablo’s work done in Calcutta during the 1970s and ’80s. Lyrical and poetic, it is like a languid essay attempting to show diverse sides of the city. From street shots to the film sets of Satyajit Ray, from Chinese working class migrants to intimate photographs of his grandmother, the photographs are as much about Pablo’s exploration of his life as they are about the metropolis. (The exhibition is on till January 23.)

More In: Arts | Metroplus | Features