World Photography Day 2019: What being a photographer and storyteller means in the digital age
World Photography Day 2019: We spoke with award-winning photographer and living legend Raghu Rai on the evolution of photography over the years, photography in the times of social media, and how his various experiences have added to his sense and creativity.Updated: Aug 19, 2019 14:14 IST
World Photography Day, celebrated every year on August 19, photographers across the planet are inspired to share a single photo with a simple purpose of sharing their world with the world. The word photography, usually attributed to Sir John Herschel was coined in 1839. It’s based on the Greek word phōs meaning light, and graphê meaning drawing or writing. Collectively, it means drawing with light. The basic concept of photography dates back to around 5th century B.C. The art was born when an Iraqi scientist developed a device called the camera obscura in the 11th century. It was only around the 17th century that the camera obscura became small enough to be portable.
In the present day, aka the social media age, nearly everyone is a skilled photographer. It’s all thanks to the smartphones we use which is proving to be smarter than the human brain. It locks your object in place, helps you choose the gridlines correctly, get a picture in aperture mode (the new-age portrait mode) and even colour corrects your clicks. The question that arises is, is it you or your phone who is the real photographer?
Take any ‘rare photos’ of your favourite celebrity or your own childhood picture you like sharing every now and then. Nostalgia has found an outlet in the digital age. Speaking of which, the social media universe is constantly brimming with pictures taken then and now. From a simple yet very popular hashtag like #throwbackthursday to the more recent #10yearchallenge that everybody wanted to make the most of - your pictures are a window to your complete being.
It was circa 1996, and thanks to a relatively cushy environment I was growing up in, access to the latest technology as and when it came out was far easier. What piqued my interest the most, however, was my father’s Olympus camera. A prized possession, one could only hover around the camera or its lenses if you had proper clearance from its owner. Funny how material possessions tend to change people. The loss of the Olympus was a difficult one but there was soon an upgrade to a fancy Nikon one. Why am I specifying the brands as I speak? It’s to lay focus on the fact that the era I’m giving a throwback to is one where there were no digital cameras then or a platform to upload any of your work on for everyone’s eyes and probably ‘artistic’ critique at the same time. Users were still using camera rolls where one had a particular count on the number of clicks and then wait for the photo studio to return your developed pictures in the quality you demanded these pictures. It must have been a truly special occasion when a particularly glossy photo paper was used for some of the photos that still adorn photo albums one might have at their respective homes. Truth be told, these aren’t just mere photo albums, it’s the memory of an era.
Yet there is a plethora of talent who has been using social media to tell a story. There are pictures, there are heartwarming captions and more, all amounting to one’s storytelling efforts in their own way. What’s interesting to note is how brands use these platforms so that the audience can hardly peel their eyes from the screen - regardless of its size. This is easily reminiscent of the proverb... “It’s not what you say but how you say it that matters.”
Spend just enough time on your social media feed and you’ll see all the travellers and storytellers who have wanted to leave the mundaneness of their daily lives and set out on the road to self-discovery. But whether you’re going to truly ‘follow your heart’ and take a cue from a somewhat untrue idea of livin’ it up, your social media profile keeps you connected. Sure, everyone’s been talking about how it may be causing more anxiety or other mental health issues when and if you realise you’re not doing enough with your time but there’s a solution for that too. It’s the few responsible storytellers who are using the platforms to give everyone a forum to discuss their own struggles or simply find solace in knowing they aren’t alone in it.
But is traditionally known and appreciated photography finding enough takers via social media? Perhaps not. We spoke with Raghu Rai, one of the significant names in the world of photography, about the evolution of photography over the years, photography in the times of social media, and how his various experiences have added to his sense and creativity. Excerpts below:
How have you seen photography evolving over the years?
Photography was born and brought up in the West and came to India almost simultaneously, but in India, photography like technology and everything else... by the time the world has moved away to a higher level, India is still catching up. It’s now after globalisation that the latest cars and latest technology models are turning up. Otherwise, when they discard their models it comes to India. Similarly for photography also - when the world is discarding and moving away to other levels of creativity, India is still struggling with keeping up. So this is where there is a big loss.
Also, Instagram has brought such frivolity in the field of creative photography that you put your camera on auto-focus, auto-exposure, a flawlessly well-exposed picture appears, so everybody is a photographer. And so it’s free for all, and it’s a freefall. It’s making no sense. In our days to have proper exposure was a big thing for us because we didn’t have exposure metres and things like that. But now everything is on auto, and it’s a flawlessly well-exposed, colourful picture. So everybody thinks they’re photographers and phone is also taking pictures and selling it too. So all these things put together, as they say, more the merrier, the merry is going round and round and taking off in India. Very few individuals behave like an explorer. The rest is a second-hand copy of each other.
Not everybody who is using Instagram to showcase their work is particularly using their phones to click pictures - so what do you have to say on that.
You see clicking pictures with a phone is a fun game that you keep playing. There is no end to playing games but serious work needs meditative explorations and deep understanding of a situation at any given time so that’s where their loss is.
What would be your favourite camera, something you were to recommend to someone who is starting out.
I have always used Nikon cameras - their lenses and their quality is superb. They are user-friendly. That’s what I always use. So naturally, I would say that’s the best camera available today.
Out of your wide array of work, which one’s the closest to your heart?
You look at a very good beautiful building, would you like to ask the architect which is the best door here, which is the best window or the stone here? It’s not like that - I’m a product of various experiences big and small. And even the smallest experience adds to your sense and creativity. So I don’t think and live like that.
This World Photography Day, if you’re making a choice, here’s what we suggest: Just like a picture tells a thousand words, let’s let this medium continue doing that while the social media universe thrives with multiple stories or new-age dastans from its dastangois, which people the world-over can like, share, comment on across their various handles.