An evening with Raghu Rai
Q. In this era of rapid technological advancement everyone has access to smart phones and mass media where visuals have become a powerful and common source of communication; everybody claims to be a photographer. and photography has become more popular as ever as a” fashionable passion”. So how has this impacted the art of photography and its ethics? And do you think all the technical advancements that make the instruments automatic somehow compromises on the skill and creativity of the photographer?
A. (With a moment of silence) Look, thanks to the technology and smart phones, that there is a camera, and that everybody has a chance to capture their moments with friends and family in such a handy manner that they feel “hey this is so good, let us buy a camera!” and if it promotes their interest on the art of photography, then why not? Now that so many people purchase cameras, explore their skill in photography and calling themselves photographers, there is nothing wrong. Popularity always keeps an art alive.
But you see this art isn’t all about being popular; it always depends on the individual and his” dedication” and “his sense of exploration”. Taking good pictures today is so simple; you put your camera on auto-focus and auto exposure, a well exposed colourful picture appears. So everybody thinks they are great photographers. Everything seems to be so perfectly synchronised! but there is no imagination! That is where the individual loses his signature in the work; there is no sensitivity and feeling that “you felt it and you captured the frame”. so among all this well exposed colourful pictures, there are still few who are sincerely creative and artistic leaving a mark with every shot they capture and there will be the rest of them who continue with their regular notion and misconception of photography.
Q. So don’t you think that the ‘fashionable passion of photography’ that is so popular among the youth today is with its main intention on gathering maximum popularity and likes in social media actually corrupts the purpose and intention of this art? And does a photograph has its sole purpose of being eye catching and beautiful?
A. (Frowns..) Likes and thumbs ups are all child’s play and silly stuff. What is liked is which is commonly seen, known and which is pretty and sweet. and all that is pretty and sweet are “anti- creativity” and photography being fashionable does no harm to the art because, earlier there were very few photographers and maybe a handful out of them would turn out to be really good. But when there are so many people coming forward with this, there would be many more photographers who will be better and who will pursue it as a creative expression.
Q. As so many people are pursuing for this promising career, we see many institutions and universities have started photography as a course with the intention of developing the skill of the students. How far do you think the academic strategy of these courses help an upcoming photographer?
A. The courses are designed to guide you and give you some sense of direction and discipline. But unfortunately most of the photography schools tend to be similar, providing the same old stereoscopic teaching and training everybody to fit inside the same mould. But the problem is, creativity means everybody has to be different. And if you are pursuing photography seriously, your work has to be unique with your own personal touch
Q. Can you please define what a perfect photograph would be?
A. A perfect photograph is that which has something magical (smiles) and something refreshing about it
Q. You are well admired for your thought provoking and powerful lifelike stills from the challenging situations like famine, violence and the communal riots, reminisces of Bhopal gas tragedy and so on, provoking the thought and invoking a deep feeling on the ever relevant shots on socio-political upheavals’; what is your take on the ethical dilemma faced by the photographer when confronted with the choice between capturing an image or saving the life of the subject of that composition, also taking into account the life of the late south African photographer Kevin carter?
A. A photographer is a photographer just like a doctor is a doctor. He is the eye of the masses through which the whole world sees. And sentimentality even in relationships is bad and it spoils the relationships .and when it comes to profession, sentimentality is a “poison”; because it blurs the vision.
Q. People or nature? Which one would Raghu Rai prefer to freeze the moment with his camera?
A. When I’m surrounded by nature, then I choose nature, and when I’m in the daily life situations then every moment of life and its interactions with people and magical expressions becomes important for me.
Q. We have noticed that most of your vehement snaps are toned in black and white. Why do you prefer black and white for your expressions and what peculiar element does the tone have over colour photographs?
A. Colour has this colourful feel about it that it looks frivolous at times. But when you remove the colour and silence the noise of the colours, then you get content. And therefore when I convert my coloured pictures into black and white, it looks as good as it was or maybe a bit more. Because i believe in meaning and content. So when we silence all the noisy colours, the image speaks out. And also, not all people like all colours, colours have an emotional and visual appeal which takes away the depth. But this doesn’t mean that colour photography is bad either. But the thing is, human eye wants convenient things so black and white is convincing for all standards. it is never this verses that either. There are situations where colour won’t work and also situations where black and white will not be enough. Like for instance take the epic film of ‘mughal e azam’, it looks completely silly when it was remade into colour. This is because the emotions and the drama of history is so deep and strong, it may work in colour too, but black and white has the fervent classic strength in it.
Q. What is your opinion on the term photogenic? For you, what would a photogenic subject be like?
A. There is nothing appealing in being photogenic in my opinion. What if you are photogenic and you don’t have expressions? My camera focuses on people who have expressions, body language and emotions. When a person sits like this (crouches down and hanging his head with a dull face) is different from a person who sits like this. (straightens gracefully and throws a sophisticated look on me and laughs.)
Q. What should catch the eye of a photographer? Is it just the beauty and exoticism or something more?
A. People think art and creativity is about capturing beauty; for instance, if a child is beautiful, she is beautiful; if a girl is beautiful, she is a beautiful girl; and if the Himalayas are beautiful, it is beautiful; then what have you done as a photographer? if you take a picture of a lovely child and think it is great picture, it is not! so it is the spirit, energy and the feeling of the girl, the child, and the Himalayas that matters and not the beauty and appearance. Beauty doesn’t mean art.
Q. After achieving such a triumph in your career, do you still have a yearning for that one, “shot of a life lifetime” or your dream shot? And would you share it with us or would that be a secret?
A. One? i have many! (Smiling) i am a hungry man! (Laughs) and i don’t dream about my snaps! Dream comes from memory; and memories are second hand knowledge, and creativity is beyond memory. Creativity never borrows stale fragments of memories from the past. it dwells in the tittles of time between imagination and realisation. Creativity is beyond all knowledge and prejudices. It happens in an honest, clean and fresh space. People misunderstand this and take photographs from their ideas in mind, which eventually become second rate. Creativity is total freshness. And i don’t keep secrets. Sharing something as precious as your knowledge and your experience only enhances its value. And when I am honest with these young photographers, i try to somehow even impel their passion.
Q. What would you comment on the current day media photo journalism? And what is politics of the photographer?
A. As I have said earlier, the digital media has evolved to such a magnitude, that everybody is a photographer now. And sadly the sense of exploration and research, the two main faculties of photo journalism is lacking. So the pictures supporting the news are relevant because the news is relevant at the hour; and tomorrow when the news is no longer anybody’s concern, nobody would really care about the picture anymore. But if you are skillful and focused enough to capture the power and energy of the moment, then that snap would be timeless. And as far as politics is considered, you are supposed to explore the world with your feelings, and the feelings come from the heart. And your brain is the one who plays politics, not the heart. And i believe that the brain has no victory over passion and zeal; and if you invest your heart and soul into your work, there would be no room for politics but only the truth.
Q. And finally, please share with us your driving force that brought you to this discipline and still keeps you going with such zeal.
A. My driving force is the magic of nature which still puts me in complete bewilderment. It is the ever-changing mood and spirit of daily life which is never a repetition of yesterday. if you just like a little child, look at the world with wonder, she will take you to all her mesmerizing little marvels; and if you approach the world with prejudices in mind, you will never find anything new, you yourself will only grow old. And so, Simple humility is the key to knowledge.
(Krishna, who pursues her first year BA English course at Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram, is the daughter of painter-writer couple Prabhakaran and Kabita Prabhakaran.)