At the heart of lens

At the heart of lens

In focus: Even the most sensitive subjects can be captured with tact and patience, says ace photographer Prabhakar Kusuma

Laughing Lambada by photographer Prabhakar Kusuma
Hyderabad-based Prabhakar Kusuma became one among the four Fellows of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS) of Great Britain, 2018, worldwide. He was also the only one from India this year.

In May, there was much celebration among the photographers’ fraternity in India. Hyderabad-based Prabhakar Kusuma became one among the four Fellows of the Royal Photographic Society (FRPS) of Great Britain, 2018, worldwide. He was also the only one from India this year.

For Prabhakar, this honour capped a series of awards and honours he has been receiving over the past two decades. 

There is something both amazing and inspiring in this FRPS story. Amazing because he is an entirely self-taught photographer.

Prabhakar Kusuma​

Inspiring because the set of 20 photographs that fetched him this rare honour from FRPS were shot under trying conditions; he was going through a phase of serious financial problems and had used film rolls that were three years beyond the expiry date because he couldn’t afford new 35-mm films.  

Soft-spoken and reticent, Prabhakar is a native of Warangal city, Telangana. A click of the camera which manages to capture an image for posterity, how an emotion or feeling is reflected in a picture, the fascinating dark-room process by which images come to life... these are what drew him to photography.

'Look There'

Introduction to light

“I grew up in a simple, middle-class environment. I fell in love with photography when I was in 10th standard. I was in my school’s Science Club when my science teacher demonstrated how to develop a photo in the dark room. Also, the term dark room is a misnomer because pictures are developed in red, safe light. When I saw the image emerging on a plain paper in the developer, in the red light, I was thrilled. A picture had emerged out of nothing! I resolved to learn photography. I started off as a hobby photographer in 1973 using the basic Kodak  box camera which gives eight black-and-white frames per roll. I later used Exa German camera and  35-mm film... around 1974. Both cameras were borrowed. Around 1976, I purchased a Canon FTb with a 50-mm normal lens. In 1977, I met my photography mentor, the distinguished photographer Bandi Ranjan Babu, and I also joined the Federation of Indian Photography, which gave me extensive exposure to the trends in the national and international scene.” 

Today, of course, the digital camera and mobile phones cameras mean almost anyone can become a photographer, he says. However, the faculty of seeing (not looking) and finding the right moment is what makes for a good photographer.  The photographer has to acquire it by practice, is his opinion. 

In 1987, he turned professional photographer and has been one since then.

“Though I undertake various assignments for the sake of my profession, my heart is in capturing people and their emotions,” he reveals. 

Along the way, he has collected many honours. The Hon PESGSPC for Outstanding Contribution in International Art Photography, Cyprus;  Fellow of the United Photographers, Hong Kong (FUPHK); Artiste Federation Internationale de L’Art Photographique, France, (AFIAP); and Associate of The Royal Photographic Society (ARPS), London. This last one is a prerequisite for the FRPS and one of the earliest honours he received. He also won the Special Merit Award at the Commonwealth Photography Contest. Among the several noteworthy assignments, he was commissioned to take photographs on various topics in India for the Commonwealth Picture Library (COMPIX) of the Commonwealth Institute in London.

The story of those 20 photographs sent successfully to FRPS, Category: Applied Photography (Documentary), is interesting. Prabhakar says: “This was a phase of much hardship and problems for me. Since I said I like spending my birthday in total silence, a journalist-friend suggested that I visit a home for the destitute. This was in 1993.  I visited the Mother Teresa home, where I was moved by the plight of the inmates and the suffering they had undergone before they found shelter in this home. I realised that there is much pain and suffering in the world, and I am not alone in my distress. It gave me both courage and hope to face my own problems. Photography was not allowed, so I returned with no photos. However, over time, the inmates became used to my presence and were even happy that they were receiving attention. So I began clicking candid pictures by taking the caretaker’s permission. This went on for eight months. I made 300 exposures only. In fact, when I stopped my visits, the sisters from the home came and asked me to visit them again. They said that during my visits, the inmates were happy and eating well, but they were now missing me and did not seem happy. That was the real honour for me, greater than the FRPS!” 

'Hand in Hand'

Prabhakar had used small cameras and minimal equipment since he felt big equipment would intimidate the subjects. Also, he was working with two disadvantages in order to save money.  One, using old Nova Pan 400 ASA 35-mm roll which was three years beyond the expiry date and hence purchased at Rs 5 per roll because he couldn’t afford the brand-new 35-mm film at Rs 300 per roll. Second, he went for the cheaper black-and-white film because he couldn’t afford the more-expensive colour rolls. 

As times change

He adds: “I took eight months for these 300 exposures while in today, people can take the same number in under one minute given that eight frames are possible per second in the average digital camera.” 

Prabhakar further reveals: “During the shoot, I used the available natural daylight, and moreover, these were low-light conditions. I pushed the film to 1600 ASA and 3200 ASA and developed them at room temperature, making corresponding adjustments. FinalIy, I used very dilute farmer’s reducer (a chemical)  that removes the chemical fog that is caused by date-expired film, thus giving a grainy but crisp negative. This also heightened the mood and portrayed the life of the destitutes more eloquently, as did the use of black and white instead of colour. In effect, I converted all my disadvantages into merits.”

Besides photography, Prabhakar enjoys listening to classical music and reading art-related books. 

He also plays a prominent role in the Telangana Photographic Society (TPS), Hyderabad.

He likes motivating young photographers and offers advice about his art to anyone who seeks it.