Tomorrow is World Photography Day. Our Chief Photographer K. Gopinathan goes down memory lane
What keeps me alive even after 30 years in this profession, are the interesting things that happen in my workday. Each day is different — they are interesting, unpredictable, horrifying, risky, and anxious, keep you guessing, and sometimes, it all happens together like a chain. The news photographer's reflex should be quick enough to react to the situation, save himself, his equipment and take pictures — the best ones. No editor will like to know why and how he/she missed the photo; in their dictionary there is no word called “excuse”. They want results and only the end products matter.
It was the mid-80's and I was with a leading national daily. That day's morning paper gave me a shock — there was a news item about a tiny girl's left hand chewed off by a leopard at Bannerghatta National Park, when she tried to feed the animal. Those were days when there was neither television crews nor mobile phones. We were mostly dependent on the readers' feedback. I rushed to the office, made many calls, and finally got the information that the child was admitted in Victoria Hospital.
On my way to Victoria Hospital near Kalasipalyam in City Market, I noticed a big crowd blocking most of the road. Instead of rushing to the hospital, I stopped to probe the crowd. I saw many youngsters in just their underwear , chained and surrounded by policemen. The police were parading rowdy elements to display their might to the public, and of course it has no legal sanction. I dropped my moped and started taking photographs. A few young policemen snatched my camera; all my protests fell on deaf ears. I was overpowered by the policemen. “I am from the press, I am from the press!” I kept shouting in vain, with the public as a mute witness. I pulled a few visiting cards from my pocket and threw it towards the crowd, took my moped, and rushed to the Kalasipalyam police station. Luckily, I knew the inspector thereHe tried to pacify me, telling me all the young cops are new recruits, “You know, young blood.”
The inspector shouted at them: “Don't you know he's from a leading newspaper?” “But sir, he only told us he is from some press!” “Give him back his camera first,” roared the inspector. I got my camera, but the story didn't end there. “Sir, we are sorry, you should come to our room and have some coffee,” the cops insisted. I would need their help in future, so I obliged. When I was sipping coffee, a writer in the station dropped in to ask, “Sir, are you Gopinathan? There is a call for you”. The call was from my office (the visiting card I threw towards the crowd worked, and someone informed my office). The caller was our crime reporter, shouting “Gopi, what happened? Don't worry, we will be there.” I assured him I was fine and told him I was headed to Victoria Hospital to take a picture of the child attacked by the leopard. “No, no, don't go any where. Wait, we are coming,” he kept insisting, but I refused and went ahead to Victoria Hospital.
I entered the ward on the first floor, saw the tiny little girl with her hand amputated — in her other hand she was holding a toy. She smiled at me as I shot her pictures. I quickly grabbed some photos and turned back to see a reporter from The City Tab getting in with a mini camera. “My exclusive photo is gone,” I thought, but consoled myself that she was from a weekly newspaper — my photograph would still be published before hers. After clicking away many angles, and allowing the reporter to take over, I turned back and looked around the ward for any other photo possibility; something attracted my attention.
It was a child with the whole body covered in bandage — under a cot. It was a pathetic sight, but, for me, one of the best news pictures! I quietly took only few frames of the child under the bed and old lady over the bed. I stood there till the other reporter left the room to make sure it's my exclusive picture. I had already got three news pictures in a row. I decided to go back to process those pictures, it was the good old days of film rolls, don't forget! As I was coming down the stairs of the hospital, I saw an old lady being lifted down the stairs by her family members. I asked, and they revealed that the lift was not working for months. It was a regular job for the family members to lift their patient up and down for checkups and screenings. I got yet another picture! Once I came out and saw many police vehicles lined up. Another photo opportunity? Went to a police officer to find the reason for the commotion. He looked worried and started with “It's all because of a photographer…” He stopped talking suddenly, and took a close look at me and said, “Sir, it's you we are looking for. Someone from your office complained to the Police Commissioner that we have beaten you up and you are admitted to Victoria Hospital. The Commissioner is shouting at us and he won't believe us. Please come and talk to him on the wireless set,” he pleaded. I promised them I will tell the Commissioner directly or over the landline. I reached office, saw the crime reporter coming out of the gate. He looked at me and shouted, “No wounds? No injury or fractures?! But I told everyone you were beaten up by the police very badly! Why don't you put on some bandage?” I had just completed half a day, but I had a long day head — there were more assignments to be covered; I moved on.
The next day, all over Victoria Hospital, “Photography Prohibited” boards made their appearance. The boards are there till today. Later, the Editor's column was flooded with readers' response to the photo of the child under the bed. The hospital superintendent argued that it was taken while cleaning the bed.
Last month, when I went to the same hospital with a minister for a surprise visit, I was in for a surprise — I saw an old lady waiting at the stairs on the first floor, for someone to lift her and carry her down for a medical check up — a repetition of the scene I had encountered 25 years ago. This time, The Hindu published the photograph. Some things never change.
Keywords: World Photography Day