It was a donkey that made Raghu Rai want to become a photographer. He trained as a civil engineer in the early 1960s, but did the job for a year in Delhi and hated it. His elder brother was already earning a living taking pictures and suggested Rai accompany a friend on a shoot to take photographs of children in a local village. When he got there, Rai’s interest was sparked not by the children but by a donkey foal in a nearby field.
“I tried to get closer, but when I was about 10 feet away, the donkey started running and the children started laughing,” he says now, more than 40 years later. Rai chased the donkey for the best part of three hours in order to amuse his audience. “I was enjoying myself. After a while, the donkey got tired and stood there so I got closer and took the shot. It was evening and the landscape was fading in soft light.” His brother entered the resulting picture into a weekly competition run by the Times in London. It was published. “The (prize) money I got was enough to live on for a month,” says Rai. “I thought, ‘This is not a bad idea, man!’ ”
That was 1965. The following year, he joined the Statesman newspaper in Calcutta as its chief photographer. He never went back to civil engineering. “My father worked for the irrigation department,” says Rai. “People would ask how many sons he had and he would say, ‘I have four. Two have gone photographers’, like he was saying, ‘Two have gone mad.’ ”
His father need not have worried. Over a career spanning four decades, his son has become one of the foremost chroniclers of the changing face of India. His images are famed for capturing both his country’s brutality and its beauty, often within a single frame.
Rai, who was born in a small Pakistani village and came to India during Partition, has been witness to some of the most significant events in his country’s recent history. He was one of the first photographers on the scene after the 1984 Bhopal industrial disaster and has produced acclaimed documentary series on Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi.
Championed in the West by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Rai joined Magnum Photos in 1977 and went on to judge the World Press Photo Awards from 1990 to 1997. His impressive body of work is now being featured in a retrospective at the Aicon Gallery in central London and in a landmark exhibition at the Whitechapel, charting 150 years of photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
At 67, Rai says he is not “proud” of what he has achieved, “but it’s fulfilling to know one is going deeper into the layers of complexity of my country… I like being among my own people. I merge with them. I don’t carry camera bags, I don’t wear stylish clothes. I have one camera with a zoom lens so I am not alarming people; no one is saying, ‘Here comes a photographer!’ ”
Like Cartier-Bresson, Rai believes in the importance of the telling detail and the captured moment: The crucial accent that gives greater meaning to the whole. “Either you capture the mystery of things or you reveal the mystery,” he explains. “Everything else is just information.”
At Bhopal, when a toxic gas leak caused the death of more than 3,000 people, Rai focused on the burial of a single unknown boy, his blinded eyes staring blankly out of the rubble. It became a landmark photograph, all the more disturbing for its strange beauty.
Was Rai thinking of his own four children when he was taking it? “No, I don’t become sentimental. At the time you see a tragedy, if you worry about your own children, you get carried away and it’s not a good idea.” But is he never troubled by his role as a detached witness? “It is important to be a witness and at times it’s very painful. At times, you feel very inadequate that you can only do so much and no more.”
Not all of his work deals with such brutal subject matter. Many of his photographs of daily life in India are full of humour and affection. With a World Press Award to his name, countless accolades and two forthcoming London exhibitions featuring his work, wonder what his father would make of him now? Rai laughs. “He lived to see my success,” he says, “and then he was very happy.”