Master behind camera

Life in Black & white

Master behind camera

Ace photographer Raghu Rai has captured some of the most emotive and touching images of war-ravaged refugees during the Bangladesh war. The lensman talks to Sanjay Austa about his latest book ‘Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom’

“I never seem to find something when I need it,” confesses ace photographer Raghu Rai. For many decades, Rai had been searching for his 1971 Bangladesh War photographs and had given up on them. But in the processes of digitising his work for posterity, old boxes were being dug up in his studio and one day his assistant handed him a dusty old packet marked ‘Bangladesh War’.

“The packet was so tightly sealed that everything inside was in perfect condition,” says Rai. The package contained Rai’s first and only conflict photographs. He was barely five years old in his profession then, and though some of his war photos were published in important newspapers around the world, he lacked the confidence to turn them into a book.

But these photographs passed the test of time. Over the decades, the human suffering they depict is as fresh and compelling. “When I looked at the pictures today, I thought they were potent enough and they deserved to be put in a book,” he explains.

On covering war

The book, Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom (Niyogi Books), published this year, has over 100 photographs that focus on the human stories, making an interesting contrast with Kishore Parek’s seminal book on the war, Bangladesh — A Brutal Birth. Parekh, much senior to Rai, also covered the conflict and along with war photographer Don McCullin, depicted the war in all its horror. Their photographs dripped with violence and blood at their  graphic best.

While Kishore and Don seemed to be at the war front covering it as they saw it, Rai seemed to be interested in those who were left behind in its wake. Rai’s pictures are of hapless refugees; most of them weak from walking and hunger, girls pregnant from rape, children wild and confused, and the old dazed and traumatised. The book is a unique war testimonial as it has only two photographs of corpses and only a few others of injured soldiers.

“When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, there were pictures of him blown into pieces. If I was there, I would have not taken the photographs that way. I am not condemning anyone else’s work — but at the same time, that is not the way I would do things. I would like it to be more symbolic and shoot images that bring out the suffering in a subtle way and not in a brutal manner,” he says.

Rai is also quite clear about the perennial debate on whether the photographer should intervene or be a witness to an unfolding tragedy. He criticises Kevin Carter, who shot the Pulitzer-winning ‘Starving Child and Vulture’ photograph in Sudan. “I believe he left the child there. He did not do anything about it. Alright, you take a few quick pictures, but you can’t leave the child. Aisa thodi hota hai. If somebody is shooting somebody and if you intervene you might get shot is another matter. But here in this case — Oh, my god. That is sinful. And that is unpardonable,” he says.

Most photojournalists make a name for themselves covering conflicts across the world. Not Rai, for whom the Bangladesh war remained the only conflict he ever photographed. He admits to being squeamish about blood.

“Once, I was with a doctor friend and there was someone with his arm bleeding. The doctor said, ‘Raghu’ can you hold it? I will put some stitches.’ I held his arm and I almost fainted. I said I can’t take it,” he says.

Rai is also one of the rare Magnum Photographers who has stuck to only one country and not documented any other. (Except perhaps for this book on Bangladesh war) He has remained steadfastly committed to photographing India and India alone, producing over 30 books on it.

“India is a large enough world for me to carry on. India has everything here. You have people dying of hunger here. We have had wars also. We have almost everything. And also, I don’t believe in flirting around everywhere,” he exclaims.

Love for India

India, however, has remained a big draw for photographers around the world, many of whom built their reputation solely by photographing India. What perhaps puts Rai apart from the lot is his Rushdiesque depiction of India. Rai is to photography what Rushdie is to literature. There are no neat, studied frames. His photos radiate the boisterousness of an Indian street, with its multitude of elements, all of them falling perfectly in place.

Though only a few years old in the profession then, one can see Rai’s experimentation with the wide street canvas photos in Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom.

“People ask me all the time, is there any Indian vision? I say no. There can’t be an Indian vision. The difference is because I was born and brought up here and I can smell and feel so many nuances and little details that a foreigner may not respond or relate to. So my understanding of a situation will be more comprehensive. But I will not call it an Indian vision because photography is a universal language,” he says.

His books and exhibitions have always brought him fulsome praise from critics but does he think he made a mistake by having the exhibition ‘Just by the Way?’ For this exhibition, Rai had pulled out nudes he had shot in the 70s and 80s. The photos passed muster only due to Rai’s name. The exhibition was in fact held under the aegis of Tasveer, but as one reviewer pointed out, “His images (of nudes) look voyeuristic and unaesthetic, harking back to photographs in disreputable men’s magazines 30 years ago”.

Responding to the criticism, Rai says, “Not that the work I showed was great. I won’t claim that. It’s not necessary that every photograph should touch everybody. But I am certainly an explorer and while some of my images are strong and very successful, some images may not be that strong. It doesn’t matter,” he says.

Rai is now busy putting together a book on Kolkata. He, however, says he can’t find his photographs of Mother Teresa. Maybe a little more of rummaging in his studios may find him this lost treasure as well.

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