Society

The Journey of a Photographer

He calls Madurai his second home and spends three months in Temple Town every year to “observe, study, discover and capture the social life and culture of Tamil Nadu.” His annual visits since 1987 have resulted in a collection of 60,000 plus photographs which he loves to share with the world.

“The key to become part of a global society is sharing,” says Henk Jacobs aka Oochappan, “and that is why I share my photos to the world and in Tamil Nadu I share the fun of photography with the Tamil people.”

Henk describes his approach as ‘socially engaging photography’, a concept that uses all techniques to highlight the place, its people and culture by uplifting it. “I will see and find beauty in all situations and it will make you wonder and arouse the curiosity to know more about the place.”

When Jallikattu was banned in the State this year, Henk roamed around in the countryside to take pictures that show how much farmers love their bulls. His candid pictures speak for themselves.

“You never take a photograph with a camera, it is only a tool to translate what you see,” asserts Henk. “Your mind interprets and your eyes take the real picture,” he says.

In fact, he is of the opinion that days of professional photographers are numbered. Nobody proposes a price on photos any more and within 10 years the digital reflex cameras will become a collector’s item,” says Henk, who takes his photography a step further than realism and calls it naturalism. “You no longer merely click a photo but you reproduce your feelings and emotions through the frame you compose,” he adds.

Henk feels the post-processing of a photograph brings in the naturalism in every frame. “No matter what camera you use, it has its limitations and flattens all out on a sensor without any feeling and it is for you to recreate your personal impression,” he says, and adds, “in every photo that I have taken you feel you can almost touch the people.”

Henk did not start off as a photographer though he had all the ges from childhood. His father worked for the Agfa-Gevaert in Mortsel, Belgium, where he grew up literally inside the dark room playing with rolls of free photo paper and all kinds of material to develop the negatives. At 10, Henk won a camera as a prize in a school competition and started discovering what all he could do using the equipment.

Though he went on to study architecture and served as a senior officer in the State prisons of Belgium in Brussels, Antwerp and Lokeren for 20 years, the passion for architecture remained alive in him and also brought him to India for the first time in 1987 to look at the Auroville Ashram in Pondicherry.

“While interacting with the local Tamils I found their hospitality so charming that I decided to return the next year,” he says. And so he did to Kanchipuram, Chidambaram, Rameswaram, Kodaikanal and Madurai in the subsequent years. The visits drew him deep into the social life and culture of the local population and Madurai endeared him the most. When his mother questioned him what took him to Madurai every year, he started taking photographs as a proof to show her the colours and beauty of the town.

Tourists who come here see only poverty which is created by man by parking an expensive car next to a hut, says Henk. But what attracts me the most, he says, are the people with a heart of not gold but diamond diamond and the way they sail through life’s joys and struggles with very expressive emotions, be it a smile or a tear. It is such images that Henk loves to freeze.

Impressed by his frames of joy and colours, his mother too accompanied him for seven successive years till she passed away at the age of 85 in 2011. But it was in 1994 on his way to Kodaikanal in a State bus that Henk found himself sitting next to Ochappan Thevar, a farmer from a village near Usilampatti. “I asked him to teach me Tamil and we became friends forever,” he recalls.

It was Ochapan’s simplicity, genuineness and smile that appealed to Henk and on every subsequent visit he took Ochappan along as a guide. The duo would ride for miles on a Bullet Enfield exploring the district. It was in the simple farmer’s honour that Henk suffixed his name with Oochappan two decades ago. “I added an extra ‘O’ for the big brother feeling I have for him.”

In the last decade, Ochappan’s distant relative, M.Anandraj, has become Henk’s guide-cum-friend and the two have travelled to the North for taking photographs. “He has his music band but I have trained him into a photographer,” smiles Henk, something that he has done to scores of aspiring young boys and girls in Madurai.

As a result now when he comes visiting Madurai, his schedule gets packed with college lectures on photography. And he gives one valid tip to all that photography is like talking. “Make love with your camera while shooting and it will radiate in your photo, he says.

You don’t have to shoot wars, poverty and misery to be a good photographer, he says. “The real challenge is to be ready in showing the tiny things of life in the most captivating way whether it is portraits, landscapes, wildlife, industrial or street photography.”

Henk’s favourite frames are those which have humans as the main element presented in a personal unique way so that people don’t get bored looking at them. “It has to be fun for all,” he says, “those in front of and behind the camera and all those who see the photo later.”

“I am a professional amateur and a photography painter without any limits,” he declares.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 1:31:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/The-Journey-of-a-Photographer/article14026714.ece

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