Living through the lens

Raghu Rai and Sadanand Menon. Photo: R. Ragu  

There was a slight dip in the audience’s enthusiasm when photographer Raghu Rai said he hadn’t brought along a soft copy of some of his best pictures. He had a reason — “Forty minutes is too less for talking and analysing pictures.” Instead, the septuagenarian, who has been in the field for 50 years, spoke about his life as a photojournalist, his opinion on selfies, and his new book, Picturing Time. Excerpts from his conversation with arts editor and critic, Sadanand Menon.

What made you come out with this book; how did you choose images from the lakhs you have clicked so far?

Everybody keeps asking me, ‘What is my favourite click?’ I don’t have one; I don’t have a final image. It’s almost like asking which brick would I like the best in this beautiful building (points at the Lady Andal auditorium). And about the book — each time, different editors and publishers come to me with an idea, and I just go ahead with it. So, this time, I thought I will just put together a few of my personal favourites.

You have clicked some beautiful pictures of Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, M.S. Subbulakshmi and the Golden Temple… Tell us about them.

I had to smuggle my camera into the Golden Temple {after it was partly destroyed in 1984}. The Army was not allowing photographers, so I camouflaged myself as a worshipper, hid a small camera within a bunch of garlands and sneaked in.

Also, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time with Mother Teresa; and I have known the Dalai Lama since 1975. His spirituality, love, and energy are unbelievable. I haven’t seen God, but I am pretty sure that he will be something like the Dalai Lama.

M.S. Subbulakshmi… each time she sang, she closed her eyes and connected with a greater power. I tried to capture that tadap {yearning} in my photos.

There are always clouds in your pictures. Do they just appear from nowhere?

(Laughs) I believe that if a photographer takes his heart out and puts it in the sensor of the camera, all the magic gets captured. It is about being one with the situation — mentally and physically. And when you are in sync, life begins to perform for you. There was one time, when I asked veena artiste S. Balachander for a photoshoot in Mahabalipuram in front of the ‘Butterball’. He was sitting on the rock, beside the ‘Butterball’, men were walking in the backdrop, and suddenly, the clouds rose and I clicked. Yet another time, in Benaras, there was a host of sparrows pecking grains — not an interesting enough shot for me. But then, a black crow appeared and the sparrows took off together, making space for it. I clicked — it was almost like the bird landed there for me.

You have shot images of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy (in 1984). What should be the attitude of news photographers in such situations? Does photographing reality make them parasites?

I recall the day of the tragedy. I took a flight the next morning, and when I reached, I realised that the gas there was heavier than the air. It was not going away, but rather, crawling. I was not worried about the gas, but wanted to capture the essence of the tragedy in a simple, honest manner. There were nearly 3,000 deaths in two days, and nearly 22,000 in the years after that! These photos are necessary, if not for bringing change, to remind people/bureaucrats of what happened. Written history can be rewritten, but photo history cannot.

(From the audience)

What do you think of selfies?

See, those cameras have a wide-angle lens. So whether Modi is taking it, or Obama, it will always come distorted. (laughs)

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Printable version | Jul 30, 2021 5:18:59 AM |

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