Whether it’s the unmistakable silhouette of Indira Gandhi taking a walk in the Himalayas, the portraits of Mother Teresa or a dramatic shot of a Ganpati being immersed in Mumbai, there is something distinct about Raghu Rai’s images. His own mantra — “A photograph has picked up a fact of life, and that fact will live forever” — is perhaps the best way to describe it. Starting this month in Kolkata, and soon to travel to Mumbai, an exhibition of his work, titled Divine Moments, will showcase a few such magical “facts of life”.
On the other side of a telephone line (Rai resides in Delhi), we expect a serious, old-school photographer. But Rai is quite the contrary — a cheerful, at times ascerbic, 70-year-old with a distinct sense of humour.
In 40 years, you’ve been the only Indian photographer associated with Magnum (one of the most prestigious photographic cooperatives in the world). Is there a dearth of talent?
Magnum is not just about news images, but capturing a larger context. Most young photographers today are in a hurry. However, anyone can replace anyone. There are some good photographers — Dayanita (Singh), Prabuddha (Dasgupta), among others... but they are just a few.
You’ve shot definitive images of Indian cities over the years. From a photographer’s perspective, how have those cities evolved?
A bulk of the growth has been haphazard and expressionless. The beautiful heritage architecture forms less than five per cent of a city now. Even Delhi, apart from the old buildings, is like a shanty town. However, the purpose of photography is to capture the time we
live in. I’ve tried shooting inside malls, and that’s interesting. Unfortunately, they are very strict with permissions to shoot there.
Some purists still swear by film cameras as ‘real’ photography over digital. Is it mere nostalgia?
I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. People say, ‘Remember the time when...’ that’s all bulls**t. Film was technology then.
Digital is technology now, and it’s superior. In 2004, I came to Mumbai to shoot for Geo Magazine. I had a six-megapixel camera, which I thought I would try on the first day, and then go back to serious work on film. After that day, I never did.
What do you feel about mobile phone cameras and applications like Instagram?
You can use a knife for a surgery, and you can use a knife to cut vegetables... Everyone has the right to do what they want. It’s the results that matter.
Have you ever used one?
Oh God, no! They are only good for shooting friends’ photographs.
Is the technology ever likely to catch up to professional cameras?
Who knows, someday you’ll be able to install a chip behind the eye, and all you’ll need to do is wink to get a 20-megapixel image.
Why is it that you rarely attend your exhibitions anymore?
Most of the audience isn’t serious; it’s just fashionable people who glance at a work and walk away. Very few have learnt to read a photograph. So, beyond a point, I don’t like sitting in a gallery.