Our Chief Photographer, K. GOPINATHAN, recollects the lighter side of the dark in the life of a photojournalist

It was another hectic morning when I got a call from a colleague telling me about the death of a friend. When another friend, Chandru, asked me if he could accompany me to see the body and pay respects, I refused as I wanted to remember my friend as the vital, angry young man he was.

Chandru demanded, “Is it you saying this? You, who have seen dead people everyday thanks to your job for the last 30 years?” He convinced me to go.

After a glimpse of the body, I stood in a corner. As I watched the long row of mourners, I went down memory lane.

Food for thought

It was in the early Eighties. My editor told me he needed a picture of the mortuary in Victoria Hospital for a feature. I know photography is prohibited and it was a challenge to get the pictures. My friend Chandru and I set out early in the morning. I decided I needed to gain the confidence of the Class Four staff to get my picture.

“Is your relative's body here?” asked one. “No,” I replied. “I just want see how you people do such a hard work.” It took some time to win their confidence but I was successful in the end.

“Come and see for yourself sir,” one of the workers said.

Chandru and I entered the mortuary. There were bodies scattered on the floor and on the table. There were no boxes to preserve them.

There were plastic bags on the tables. The workers cut open the bodies like automatons, put organs into the plastic bags, stitched the bodies with coarse thread and finally covered it with a white cloth. I looked over at Chandru who had covered his face and was wildly signaling me to come out. My task, however, was not complete so I continued to talk to the workers.

“Does your family know the nature of your job?” I asked.

“We have hidden this from our families, otherwise even my children won't come near me,” said one. “They think we are cleaners.”

As I kept up the idle conversation, I noticed they were getting ready to have breakfast.

“Sir, would you like to join us?” one of them asked

“No, we just had our breakfast,” we answered immediately.

“Sir at least you must have this banana,” one said as he pressed a banana into my hand.

And so I went ahead and ate the banana in the mortuary surrounded by bodies. That did the trick as when the workers returned to work they said, “Sir you can take pictures if you want.”

When I finished clicking and came out, Chandru, who had been throwing up, harangued me saying I was a fiend of the worst order.

But I had got my picture.

Down to earth

It was around 11.30 p.m. at the night when I saw the news of a burner blast at Peenya industrial estate on telly. After informing the chief reporter, I set out. En route I met a photographer from another newspaper. When we reached, it was midnight.

We were tense for two reasons — the deadline to file the photos was fast approaching and the entire area was in darkness. After some pleading, someone brought a torch.

“Are you a news photographer?” Someone demanded. “Look at this sir, there are hardly any safety measures in the factory…” He continued to talk about workers' condition and the union. I was listening with half an ear as I needed to take the picture quickly and reach it to office.

Another person came up to us and gave a detailed account of a worker whose head exploded with brains splattered all over the place.

“You should see the brain sir,” he said.

“Get that torch and show him the brain,” he shouted to another worker.

I did not want to see the brain, all I wanted was the photograph of the blast.

But the man would not leave. I finally told him, “We have not come to photograph the brain. Will you please show us the machine which blew up.” They took us to the machine and we hurriedly took pictures.

Torches vanished again and we were stumbling around in the dark when I saw the “brain man” with a torch.

To mollify him and to gain access to light I said, “You were talking about the brain, where is it?”

He pointed the torch downwards and said, “You are standing on it.”

Dead man walking

One morning as I browsed the papers, I saw news of a hooch tragedy that claimed many lives on Tumkur road near Nelamangala.

When I switched on the television, I realised this was a photo feature and set off for Nelamangala.

When I reached the Nelamangala Government Hospital, there was chaos. Doctors and nurses were moving about busily. The victims' families were beating their chests and crying out. There was a group of people commenting on the injustice of it all. Screaming ambulances were bringing in new patients and ferrying the more serious cases to Victoria Hospital in Bangalore.

After capturing the unfolding drama, I went to the mortuary which was crowded with the relatives and friends of the deceased. When they saw me, the women started crying and the men started to find fault with the doctors. I went into the mortuary, where the bodies of men and women were piled up. I took some pictures and waited outside.

Suddenly someone shouted “the body is breathing!” People ran to the hospital and dragged a doctor to the mortuary.

I pushed my way through the teeming crowds to get that rare shot of a dead man coming alive. I saw the doctor checking the pulse of the body and bubbles coming out of the body's mouth.

As I was clicking away, a man behind me started to tap my shoulder saying something. I ignored the man, but he was persistent and started to shake my shoulder. I take no notice of him and continue clicking. The disturbance continued and more people seemed to join in the fray.

I went on with my work. When the doctor finally declared it was some trapped air and that the man was well and truly dead, I turned around and asked the men why they were disturbing me.

They said, “You are standing on bodies sir”.

In horror I realised I had been standing on bodies all along. “Sorry, sorry,” I said hurriedly but there was no one there.