Raghu Rai started a little over five decades back to become the legendary lensman that he is now. When we meet him, he is surrounded by his family members and other admirers on the table, relishing his lunch, at the Panchkula Art and Literary Festival which started on Saturday – nothing overtly remarkable, except his signature flowing clothes. He has just opened the festival in conversation with art patron Diwan Manna, talking about his internal and external worlds, his art, and its many facets.
But it’s a conversation about modern photography in India that gets him into his element, and provides an insight into his expertise as a photojournalist. Times have changed, he acknowledges, and he has been quick to adapt to the digital aspect.
Upfront talking about the sudden boom in photography in the age of social media and a phenomenon called ‘citizen journalism’, Rai says, “Many more people have access to what a camera can do. It can be chaotic, but it can also produce some compelling visuals... Every smartphone has a camera, so people are quick to jump onto the bandwagon, and some of it is very interesting work.”
So does he think that has helped street photography as well? In a way, the internet has helped revolutionise stories on the street, we prod him. There are popular Facebook pages and Instagram accounts of relevant street photography these days.
“Street photography or documentaries, or even photojournalism for that matter, is relevant in the sense that half of India lives on its streets. The purpose of photography is to capture the times we live in. History can be written and rewritten. But photojournalism is a rough draft of history, giving ‘pakka’ (concrete) proof, evidence of who we are and where we came from.”
Renowned for his raw black-and-white photographs, we ask him why this technique is relevant even now, and he says, “Colour photographs tend to lack seriousness. The colours are exaggerated; not real. But, with blackand-white, one can create visual harmony in the sense that the visual noise and distortion in the picture come through like a dialogue.”
It is impossible to ignore French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson in a conversation with Rai. Cartier-Bresson appointed him to Magnum photos in 1977. So what can the young generation of photographers take away from the master’s legacy?
“He was a great master and a great human being. He set many trends and styles, so he is a reference point in the modern set-up. Every form of creativity has a reference point.”
He also talks of having started a magazine called Creative IMAGE for “serious photography”. “We work on themes tying them with contemporary techniques, because that’s what we take away from a reference point, trying to reach photography’s ultimate goal.”
Finishing on a lighter note, Rai talked about what excites him. Is it people, places, objects or a certain idea? “Photography takes me everywhere. What takes away your heartbeat becomes your muse for the moment.”