Photographer and filmmaker Ryan Lobo tells Bhumika K. the act of storytelling, be it through film, photography or writing, is mystical

The diminutive and amiable Ryan Lobo is hardly someone you would associate with the dark horrors of war. Ryan Lobo has a few other surprises. His stark black-and-white images from war-torn lands are complex stories of simple people caught in these wars. Very few guns and rarely any gore here. He's also very conscientious about telling his story with integrity. And he doesn't romanticise war photography.

Storyteller, photographer, filmmaker is how Ryan Lobo describes himself (well, on his website); otherwise he talks very little about himself. An exhibition of his photographs from Afghanistan, Iraq, Liberia, titled “War and Forgiveness” is on in the city. Ryan brought out his photographs to exhibit with much reluctance. “I initially wondered what use it would be to show pictures of war fought in faraway lands, here in Bangalore. But you come here to see a similar situation — of corruption, mismanagement of funds; you see injustice. There are different forms of war everywhere… War zones of a different sort where we are often the banal and apathetic audience. The most depressing thing about working in conflict zones is not the fear of death. It is coming back home, and realising that the landscape of suffering is the same everywhere. It is seeing the seeds of the same thing in our conversations, in reactions and often, in myself. I thought some stories are universal,” says Ryan.

The photographs in this series, says Ryan, are introspective accounts of his time in these countries, while he was working on films he was commissioned.

In 2001, Ryan co-founded Mad Monitor Productions, a film and photo production company based in Bangalore and Washington DC. (He had earlier dropped a masters course in cell biology in USA to return to Bangalore and set up an advertising agency!). His films have aired on the National Geographic Channel, National Geographic Channel International, Animal Planet, The Oprah Winfrey Show and others. “While making films I found photography more compulsive. Filmmaking is a team effort and one's individual artistic vision is somewhat compromised,” is how he describes his venture into photography. His photographs have been featured in magazines like Tehelka, Outlook Traveler, Marie Claire, Elle, The Wall Street Journal, Geo, Time Out, The Boston Review etc. In 2009, Ryan shared his photographs and his ideas on “compassionate storytelling” at the TED conference, to a standing ovation. He's now a photograher with Tasveer.

In Iraq he was commissioned to shoot a film on the life of local people there during the conflict. While the film itself didn't materialise, he came away with photographs and his journal, which now functions as a catalogue for the exhibition.

“In Afghanistan I was commissioned to work on a film about the heroin trade for Nat Geo TV and travelled to Kabul and Jalalabad to interview farmers and the poppy eradication efforts being carried out in Afghanistan at that time.” He was in Liberia on and off since 2007, for the making of the film “The Redemption of General Butt Naked”, which chronicles the journey of a warlord who murdered thousands, and his journey of redemption over five years, as an evangelist. The film, which Ryan co-produced, won the award for best cinematography at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival.

India's eunuchs, child adoption in India, man-elephant conflict, body art in Papua New Guinea, signature dishes of the Anglo-Indian community, American prisons, exorcism, dinosaur fossils, Sri Lanka's Tsunami volunteers, Thailand's child boxers — these are just some of the subjects of the films he's worked on in various roles including field producer, videographer, or photographer. What really made him do this series of pictures? “I sometimes feel that I am drawn towards certain stories rather than choosing them myself and that I am a part of something much larger than just myself. I think being inspired is important and that the act of storytelling, be it through film, photography or writing, is somewhat mystical,” says Ryan.

It's a given that war photography is difficult. But what about it is? “More than ostensible dangers one has to be aware of one's own way of looking, independent of what happens outside oneself.” On the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan Ryan says he didn't know what was going on most of the time outside the little sphere of protection he was a part of — the team had hired security contractors. In Iraq he could hear gunfire and bombs going off all the time and could not move out of the protected house without security.

“In Afghanistan there was one time when we had to leave a village in a hurry where heroin was being farmed as our informer told us that the Taliban were on their way there to kidnap us. I don't know exactly how dangerous or not these trips really were because there is also so much spin around the danger element, especially when you are far way and there's no way of corroborating what ‘those people' were really up to. The real challenges are within one's own self and are about maintaining integrity in the face of spin and potential sensationalisation.”

Tasveer in association with Ganjam is hosting his exhibition “War and Forgiveness” till March 19, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. (Sunday holiday). It's on at 26/1, Sua house, Kasturba Cross road, near the British Library. Ryan Lobo will also do a guided tour of the exhibition on March 5, 13 and on 18, 6 p.m. onwards. To participate call Priya on 40535212.