Well-known photographer Pablo Bartholomew on photojournalism then and now.

He started his journey in the world of photography in the early 1970s and was chosen as the Best Young Photographer by the Press Institute of India in 1975. The next year, his photo essay ‘Morphine Addicts in India’ won the World Press Photo Contest for Best Picture Story. His iconic photograph of the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy was awarded Picture of the Year at the World Press Photo Contest in 1985. As he gets ready to present a session on ‘Remembering Bhopal’ at The Hindu’s literary festival next month, 58-year-old Pablo Bartholomew took time off for this interview.

As an iconic photojournalist, what are your feelings about the Bhopal tragedy that continues to haunt thousands of people three decades later?

I am a photographer first. That is how I began to take pictures. I am not sure of the term ‘iconic’. Photojournalism is only one part of my journey. There are many other forms of photography that I continue to practise, such as documentary and visual anthropology.

The Bhopal tragedy was terrible and it has been compounded by shoddy governance and sell-outs. For some, it would be convenient if this issue were to go away, but it won’t.

Personally, I look at it as a failure of photography to make change happen. And since change for the better has not happened, I look at it as a personal failure in this genre, that is, photojournalism. The failure stems from the fact that we are all too thick-skinned to be sufficiently moved to effect change.

What is the role of photojournalists when faced with such incidents?

I cannot comment for others but in my early twenties some of my first assignments were with the Red Cross. I remember carrying medicines and being trained as a barefoot doctor to help distribute and administer basic medical care in the cyclone and flood- affected villages of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. Apart from this, I think it is important to do what you are best equipped to: Take pictures. Good pictures.

What is your opinion of the manipulation of pictures on the spot or during post-production?

We all edit as we shoot. That is an intrinsic part of photography. What we shoot, how we shoot; what we include and what we keep out. But, again, this is an individual call. The important thing is to be honest with yourself. The rest will fall into place.

At the editorial stage, the control is often taken out of your hands. The way pictures are used, cropped and captioned has to do with what the media organisation is trying to say and its slant. Often, the pictures are distributed by agencies to magazines, newspapers, publications and other media houses, which use them as per their needs. But this is very different from digital manipulation on a computer, where you take elements of an image out or bring certain objects closer or add objects. That kind of meddling is not acceptable at all.

With non-photojournalists increasingly documenting daily life and displaying their work on social media, what is the role of a photojournalist today?

Marginalised to a great degree. There are smaller budgets. Less time to spend on stories. But then everything evolves. Maybe this is the new face of photojournalism. Conventionally, in the past, photojournalism was supported by funding from magazines or photo agencies. Now that this is drying up, photojournalists and documentary photographers need to look for alternative means to support their work. If the project is self-funded, I am not sure if it is the same kind of photojournalism anymore. Photojournalism was a collaborative process between the photographer and a magazine or photo agency. With that role diminished, the kind of story being made is changing. Also, once the self-funded project is completed, will the photojournalist find a publisher?

The larger question is: where is this kind of photography shown and seen? With the number of pages in most magazines shrinking and less money for long stories, the whole storytelling genre is in dire straits. Yes, there are many new platforms… from blogs to e-books to apps, but do they have the vigour of respected magazines or publications? The editorial process is important as it has a certain check and balance that lends credibility. With print media near collapse, how can storytelling or photojournalism even attempt to go to a deeper level?

What do you think of the present standards of photojournalism in India?

It’s quite good but there are not enough magazines or publications that can give money, space and also edit well. We have missed the bus. Photography has been eclipsed by TV and the movies.

Should Indian media houses give more freedom to photojournalists?

It is not about freedom but they need to give photography the space it needs. Space for advertisement is obviously more important; so it may never happen.

What is the best qualification for a photojournalist today?

To be a good photographer, with heart and eyes, and the ability to take a lot of frustration and humiliation because of the bad working practices followed in media houses.

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