His photographs are not mere pictures, they are hard-hitting images of people and incidents. Celebrated photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew, who was in the city recently, talks about viewing life through the lens

For ace photographer Pablo Bartholomew, the passion to view, understand and make a statement on the world through the camera started very early on in life. It sparked off when, as a toddler, he was allowed to shoot with his photographer-painter-writer father Richard Bartholomew’s professional cameras. It grew during his family vacations at the Kumaon hills, when he helped his father set up makeshift dark rooms and develop films in the light of kerosene lamps. It gathered steam during the many evenings when a host of artists and others dropped in to chat and discuss their work with his affable father.

“My parents were double refugees who relocated to India from Burma and thereafter from Pakistan following partition,” Pablo shares. Thanks to Richard Bartholomew’s nature of work and outlook to life, their home was a vibrantly alive place, throbbing with creativity. “In fact, I dropped out of school because my home seemed to be a much more happening place than school,” says the 58-year-old Pablo, whose hard hitting photographs have won him several international awards over the years. The best known of them is perhaps his Bhopal gas tragedy photograph of a wide-eyed, dead child being buried, a photo that has become the signature image of the tragedy and also got him his second World Press Photo of the Year award. This year, he was conferred the Padma Shri. He was in Chennai recently at the behest of the Chennai Art Club, when he narrated his life’s journey as a photojournalist.

Pablo’s photo portraits are perhaps less known than his photographs of people in conflict areas such as his troubling images of the Sikh genocide, the Bangladesh cyclone, the drug tourists to India in the seventies when morphine was freely available, or even his work for Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke khilari. But equally intriguing are his portraits of marginalised people such as the transgenders , the nameless junior artists, dancing girls, stunt men, and support staff at film shoots, the Indian Chinese in Calcutta, people of multi-ethnicity like Mexican-Indian Americans, Indians in France, sugarcane farmers in Mauritius … “I could easily capture their reality, because I identified with marginalised people,” he says. He acknowledges the influence of the portraits of the colonial firm Johnston and Hoffman, on his work.

“As a photographer, I have floundered. There were dark days when there were bills to pay, and no money for it, when I photographed with no idea if the photos would see the light of the day or how people would react to them.” This was in the seventies, when his stock of hard-hitting and black and whitephotographs was not in demand. It was then that he saved up to travel abroad and eventually landed a job with Gamma Liaison, a firm for which he worked for over 20 years, photo-recording societies in conflict and transition. “I did start a media company in the nineties, but I decided to focus on photography, because that is my life.”

The journey goes on. Right now, in a sense, Pablo is revisiting the scene where it all started… his father’s work and life. “After my father’s death in 1985, my mom passed on his archives (which included negatives he had never developed), to me. Now, I discover that we had done a lot of parallel photography independently, such as of people sleeping (he had mostly shot such photos of me and my brother, while I had focused on the marginalised people who sleep on the streets). My next project is on these parallels and will be called ‘Affinities’,” says Pablo.

His earlier major project ‘Coded Elegance’ was on the people and culture of the Naga tribes wherein he has Naga skull huts, which have since been done away with.

“In retrospect, I would say that it is more difficult to look closely around you, your family, village and state than to train your camera on a subject removed from you,” he signs off.

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Pablo BartholomewNovember 25, 2013