In Conversation with Raghu Rai

The July issue of ELLE has a little piece I wrote on Raghu Rai, who is going to have a mini-retrospective of sorts (as far as I remember).

Here are snippets from my conversation with him. I’ll put up the article once I find it in my archive.

On nostalgia

I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. You know, living in the past is not a very creative process because that pulls you back. But the fact remains that there was greater harmony and greater peace between different elements and situations than we have today. But being a creative individual, all the tensions and charge, the stress and strain, they speak of another kind of energy that needed to be captured. Also you know, every place, every time has its own value and meaning.

The best light

Early morning and late afternoons. In India the light is very strong, the bulk of the months are very hot. Usually, that strong light and sunshine create very deep shadows and you lose and it gives unnecessary contrast. Sometimes it works, according to the spirit and the mood of the place but most of the time, I’ll prefer to have gentle and soft light, where the details are clearly visible and one can capture them and share them and see the highlights without creating any unnecessary contrast.

On the decisive moment

Of course. You don’t plan, you wait for it to happen. When different elements start working together — you see, there are moments. India is such a crowded country and such chaotic and contradictory things happen in any given space and there are moments when the relevant and the irrelevant, they separate themselves for a moment and they merge again, and that’s the moment you capture.
Also the purpose of photography is to capture energy and time that we live in. Planning makes things static. Because life at any given time is not static.

On photographing India

The bulk of India lives in a timeless space. I remember long ago, I think it was early 1970s, when Muzaffar Ali used to work with Air India, and he wanted me to do a calendar for Air India or something like that, and he asked, “If you can give us some pictures where we are dealing with time and space…”. So I told him, “If you ask me, I don’t understand that, this time and space because I always try to live beyond that. So don’t ask me for ideas of time and space.”
You see, the thing is that India also has an ancient civilisation and India having all the religions living here, contrast and contradictions. So India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time. That is what is so magical about this country. This is what comes across in many of these photographs.

On making his subjects more charismatic than they actually are

How can I do that? I wish I was so powerful a man that I could create more than life has. That is precisely where the magic lies. When you capture a moment which is so potent and so dynamic that when you look at it, you wonder how can that be? You see, the problem is that the bulk of the photography being done is very happy easy relaxed, nice images. For me, they are static and they don’t evoke anything in me. For me, this human expression, the deeper reaction, that is what I seek. That has its own current and power. It raises so many questions and answers at the same time. That’s what we are dealing with. The image has to have dynamism and not be a static, pretty one. When you look at it, people wonder how can that be? How can someone capture more than what meets the eye? It’s all there. The mysteries of life and nature have to be captured. Everything else is information.

On photographing politicians

You see, I always, even when I was with a newspaper and even when I worked with India Today for ten years, I always believed — well, let’s begin like this. You know in India sycophancy is a great art. That’s why so much political junk is surviving in this country. Somebody asked me when Mrs. Gandhi was thrown out in ’77, that you know, “she gave you so much, how can you take pictures of Mrs. Gandhi when she has lost the election?” I said, only dogs can be loyal. Human beings can never be loyal. They have to be responsible to the truth of a situation. Because loyalty for me has become a very cheap word in India. My loyalty, I will not say loyalty, my commitment to the situations is as they speak to me. That’s how I will see them at any given time. So that is what really inspires me to do photography. Even if I don’t like somebody or some politician, I’ll never carry that grudge when I go take pictures. I’ll look at that person all over again in that context where he or she is. Because we all have the capacity to change and I know we can do things that we can never even imagine at another time.

On Mother Teresa

Mother was somebody very rare, so rare that you can never come across another person like that. As a human being, as a person with a cause, and she spoke the total truth all the time. It didn’t matter who she was dealing with an ordinary person, an important person, big or small. Her energy, her connectivity with everything never fluctuated. That was something very rare for me. Her power of expression and love also never flickered. That was so magical about her as a human being. But in any given time, she was 100% there. Whether she was dealing with you, an ordinary person, or whether she was nursing an old person or a child, or being with the prime minister.

When I met her way back in 1970 when she was hardly known. When I was working at The Statesman, it used to be one of the most important newspapers, we had an editor. He was very close to Mother. He rang me up one day and said that “Raghu, I have met a great lady and you must photograph her.” And that was in 1970 when I met her for the first time.

On colour photography

Let me tell a few things about colour. Basically there’s everything in colour. You see, every colour has its physical presence. Some strong colours like red or bright orange, or bright purple, will enter your attention faster than other colours. Every colour has its physical presence, every colour has its emotional value and every colour when its put together in any given situation may not gel together.
Then, as you see and capture the reality, we can’t change reality. Like, a painter can paint the sky green and nobody will question it, but in our case, we have to capture it as it is. So the colours may not blend. So the image in any given situation, if the subject matter is serious and you have all sorts of colours peeking out, they don’t work together. But the moment you put a black and white filter, it silences the noise of colours. And then everything gels.

It is more difficult to make a real, meaningful colour photograph than in black and white. Most people are taking colour photographs, but in terms of colour and the vision for colour which speaks out, the meaning comes from its colour content as well as its emotional content. With digital technology what is good is, every colour film used to behave differently in different light and would show you different colours. Even the processing of the film used to be very, very difficult. Different labs would give you different results of the same situation, but in digital technology, you can always desaturate colours, you can control them and tell them to shut up when they make unnecessary noise. All these things are possible today. See, I’ve done many books in colour and many in black and white. Also the fact is earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s and even up to ’80s, it used to be only black and white. I started taking pictures in mid ’60s, so one of the reasons that people remember my black and white photographs is this. Then came the late ’80s when we started doing colour. But then we didn’t have as much control, like the kind we have today.

On Photoshop

It’s not manipulation. Manipulation is something which doesn’t exist and you bring it in. But a technical fault has to be controlled. You see even in black and white, when some areas go too dark, or too bright, you need to adjust that. So that is not manipulation. That is controlling your image quality. That’s the minimum right that we should have.

On Raghu Rai, photographer

You can say I’m very arrogant, but most of the time I don’t read what is written about me. I have given so many interviews on television and I hate to watch myself. I’m not fond of Raghu Rai in that sense. But criticism with understanding is precious. Criticism with lack of understanding, or off-handed nonsense is not acceptable. In any case, I am a very ruthless surgeon myself and I deal with Raghu Rai on very tough terms and similarly I deal with my friends also with that kind of honesty. Sometimes people tell me I’m very cruel, but I say photography is my dharma and I have to be totally honest about it.

On editing himself

I’ll say that 90% of what we shoot is either repetitive or just the process of evolution of a situation. So if I have taken 100 pictures to get to one or if I have taken 20 pictures to get to one, I don’t carry those 19 or 99 pictures with me. Of course the ability to edit yourself ruthlessly is very important for your next journey into situations so that you are critically and analytically dealing with every situation. Otherwise you become a happy snappy good guy, which I am not.

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