The Interview : Raghu Rai
The Wise Owl talks to Mr Raghu Rai, an iconic photographer and photojournalist, whose photographs reflect ‘life’s longing for itself.’ Mr Raghu Rai’s journey as a photographer began as the Chief Photographer of the National Daily, ‘Statesman’. He later worked as Picture Editor of ‘Sunday’, a weekly news magazine published in Calcutta and was also the Picture Editor, Visualizer and photographer of the fortnightly magazine ‘India Today’. He was protégé of Henri Cartier -Bresson, a master of candid photography and the pioneer of street photography.
Mr Raghu Rai has been honoured with the prestigious Padma Shree in 1972, Photographer of the Year (USA) in 1992 for ‘Human Management of Wildlife in India’ published in National Geographic, Academie des Beaux Arts Photography Award in 2019, Creative and Lifetime Achievement Award by the Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Ministry (India) in 2017. Mr Raghu Rai has served three times on the jury of the World Press Photo Contest and twice on the jury of UNESCO's International Photo Contest. He is a prolific master who has produced more than 50 books, including Raghu Rai's Delhi, The Sikhs, Calcutta, Khajuraho, Taj Mahal, Tibet in Exile, India, and Mother Teresa. His photo essays have appeared in many magazines and newspapers including Time, Life, GEO, The New York Times, New Yorker, The Independent among others. The pandemic in no way fettered his creativity. During the pandemic he picked out archived photos and clicked lots more. We will soon have the pleasure of seeing his new creations.
Thank you, Mr Raghu Rai, for taking time out to talk to The Wise Owl. It is an honour to talk to a man who certainly deserves the epithet of the ‘Father of Indian Photography’.
RS: Sir if we can start with the beginning of your creative journey. Your first photograph, ‘Baby Donkey’, was the start of a creative journey that has placed you in the echelons of world-renowned photographers. Our readers and viewers would be curious to know, as I am, what it was about the donkey that attracted your photographer’s eye.
RR: That was my first time carrying a camera with my photographer friend. He was clicking pictures of the village children. We were on the outskirts of the village and the village children followed us, and my friend was taking their pictures. I had a camera hanging on my shoulder, but I was not taking any pictures because I had no liability to take pictures or become a good photographer. I was carrying it for fun’s sake. At a distance I saw a baby donkey looking very cute and funny. I had seen photographs of sweet children and village children taken by so many photographers. So that is a regular kind of subject-matter that every photographer picks up. That was not very appealing to me so when I saw this baby donkey, I thought this would be something very sweet and funny. This is how instinctively I responded to it.
Most of us, most of the time, are programmed human machines. As they say garbage in garbage out, so it is creative stuff in and creative stuff out. Most people make second-hand replications of things, without realising that they are not exploring something different and new. Not that I knew that I have to explore something new, but the baby donkey was very sweet and funny looking, so I took that picture. When I came back, my brother saw the photograph and he said “wow, what a good picture.” I said “really?” I had no idea about it. “kya liya kya nahin liya” (What I had captured with my lens or what I had missed). He (my brother) sent it to The Times newspaper, and they published a half page photograph with my name on it. Everybody said “Wow. Big deal!!’’ So, this is how the accident happened and I said “Alright, let me try my hand at photography.”
RS: So, was it the first time you used a camera? The first time ever?
RR: Yes. Absolutely.
RR: When I started taking pictures on a daily basis, I wanted to do something different and good, something different from what everybody else had done. I was also looking for the images that were already stored in my head, through other people. So, I’d shoot pictures, come back and not really feel happy about them. It took me some time to realise that it was my instinctive response to the subject, baby donkey, that gave me something unique. So, this is where the magic begins.
RS: Did you have no training in composition, lighting, exposure, use of camera, developing techniques? Were you self-taught completely?
RR: No, I did not have any training. My brother Paul was a very good print maker and good photographer, and he would make his own prints, prints that were very beautiful. I learnt all that from him.
RS: What camera did you use back then? Did you continue to use it for a bit?
RR: At that time, it was an Agfa super silette, small camera, a basic camera for amateurs. My brother then gave me an old Nikon camera that I used.
RS: What camera are you using now?
RR: Later I was using Nikon Radius etc. Now I also use Fuji Medium format camera.
RS: There is one photograph of yours which has always remained with me. I was in school, in fact, when I saw the photograph for the first time. I am talking about your photograph of the dead boy staring sightlessly (with open eyes) out of the rubble (Bhopal Gas tragedy). Even now it absolutely sears my soul when I see that. Isn’t it very difficult to remain objective in the face of such tragedy? How did you detach yourself emotionally from such disasters or tragedies? Or did it give you sleepless nights?
RR: No. None of that. You see as a creative person, the centre of your heart should be clean and pure, one that reflects the truth of the situation. You reflect it. You capture it. You reflect it the same way. If you get coloured by emotions then your mind, your spirits get affected by it. So, you have to remain a very clean, honest observer of situations, good, bad or indifferent.
RS: That’s the idealistic Utopian thing to do for a creative person.
RR: If you want to share the tragedy with the rest of the world with the same intensity and truthfulness, then you can’t colour it with your own emotions.
RS: I was looking at a video that showed or at least claimed to show 5 of your favourite photographs. Would you say that you continue to hold those 5 as your best photographs?
RR: I have never ever done that. I am today, after almost 55 years, a product of all experiences big and small. They must have picked up 5 photographs and put them there.
RS: So, let me put it differently. Is there any photograph that gave you extreme creative satisfaction?
RR: No there is no one particular photograph. Every moment, every interaction has its own magic about it, big or small. And I am a product of all those big and small moments.
RS: For a creative person, asking which his favourite work is like asking a father who his favourite child is. All children are favourite.
RR: Children may be 2, 3 or 5 (Laughs). When you see a most beautiful building, it is not possible to say which is the most important brick in this building. All have an equal stature. All are equally important.
RS: That’s a very profound way of looking at things.
RS: Raghu Rai ji, I have seen your collection of portraits of greats like Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi. They are iconic photographs. And I have also seen that your photographs capture the aura of the person, especially in the case of Mother Teresa’s photograph. How did you capture the aura of the person so unerringly? What is the creative process that went into catching this aura?
RR: Every person has some kind of an aura-good, bad or indifferent. And in moments of exploration and revelation; there are moments, there are situations when suddenly that aura begins to reflect itself and that comes with an instinct. It is with an instinctive response to people, to situations that you capture the aura of things.
RS: Probably this instinctive approach is why you, as a photographer, are a cut above other photographers.
RR: It is this instinctive response that leads you to the internal truth.
RS: I don’t know if this is correct or not, but I read somewhere that Satyajit Ray was one of your favourite persons to shoot. Is that correct? Why was that?
RR: Yes, that is correct. Satyajit Ray was one of the greatest filmmakers of today. There were many but he was the only one who knew the language of cinema. It is not just the dialogues that make a film; It is the visual language of cinema and Satyajit Ray knew it the best.
RS: You are a master of candid photography and street photography. Your photographs are absolutely riveting. Were you inspired by your mentor Henri-Cartier Bresson or is it your own evolution as a creative photographer?
RR: Initially, it was my brother Paul who inspired me a lot. He introduced me to music, especially Indian classical music, to poetry, to literature. I stayed with him for about 4-5 years. We used to see these foreign magazines, see the work of Bresson and others. They inspired us. I had my one man show in Paris in 1971 and Bresson was the first visitor to come to the show. He was so impressed that he invited me home and then he invited me to join Magnum. He was not only a great photographer but also a grand human being. That impressed me a lot.
Creativity of someone can ignite something in you but if you follow any individual, you become a second-rate copy of him. I was well aware of the fact. So, when I talk about instinctive response, I mean that an instinctive response is free from the mind, from ideas, free from all those trappings of the mind. So, if you have seen a great picture by Bresson, or my brother or anybody else, it is in your head. But your instinct lives beyond your head. If you are photographing the world by your instinct, then no influence stands in your way.
RS: Yes. Then what you do is original. Distinct and separate from what anybody else does.
RR: I admire several photographers’ work but when I take pictures nobody exists for me.
RS: I was looking at your documentary, ‘Raghu Rai: An Unframed Portrait’, where you are describing your creative process and you are talking about how you enter a ‘very silent zone’, where ‘you become a sensor.’ Could you throw some more light on this statement so that our readers and viewers can connect with it?
RR: ‘Baat wahin aa jati hai’ (It comes back to the same thing). Mind. The human mind is the biggest computer, nature has installed in all of us. And the mind has such tremendous capacity of storing sights, sounds, images, ideas; everything. But when it comes to creativity, that storehouse is extra baggage that tries to dictate you.
You begin with hard work. From hard work come moments of concentration, with moments of concentration there come moments of silence, a bit like meditation. If you ask me, can I meditate, I will say no. However, when I interact with the world and respond instinctively, there are moments of intuitive meditative spirit and that creates silence in you. Silence is when you are free of your head. Head is making noise because it is talking to you, saying, ‘dekho woh achi tasveer hai, woh nahi, yeh aisa hai, yeh waisa hai’ (That is a good photograph or that is not). When you tell your head to shut up and when you disconnect your eye from your head, and you connect your eye to your spirit, to your heart, then the head doesn’t exist. Then Nature begins to provide that meditative silence. This is when the magic begins to happen. This most photographers do not realise. That is the problem.
RS: I have seen some of your photographs where you juxtapose contradictory forces or elements. I remember this one photograph that you had taken where you have deities of Durga and Kali symbolising women power on one side. But in the same frame you have a white saree clad woman, a widow, a victim of society. Please tell us something about the creative process behind creating a frame like that where you juxtapose two such opposing elements.
RR: Life is full of so many contradictions. India is one of those civilizations where centuries have learnt to live side by side, at the same time, and so naturally there are all kinds of contradictions. All kinds of fascinating, strange, opposite, parallel situations in the same space. That is the magic of India.
RS: You have often talked about the ‘decisive moment’ in photography. Again, a very obvious question that I am asking is how do you go about finding that moment? Is it an instinctive thing with you?
RR: Actually ‘decisive moment’ belongs to Bresson. This expression was used by him. But I say, even before the decisive moment happens and the moment after the decisive moment, there are moments and the experience of India is multi-layered, so many moments are living at the same time. So that’s why I try to go beyond the decisive moment. I loved and respected him (Bresson), of course, but as I said nobody exists for me when I am doing my own creative process. ‘Mera dharam meri exploration se related hai, duniya se nahin.’(My religion and dedication is related to my exploration and has nothing to do with the world). It has nothing to do with what others have done.
RS: Please stop me if I am tiring you out but I am so excited about talking to you and learning about your creative processes.
RR: These processes are very important as they come from very close, intense, personal experiences, and they have to be narrated in a very simple language that youngsters can also connect with and understand.
RS: You say that in a photograph ‘either you capture the mystery of things, or you reveal the mystery. Everything else is information.’ Please throw light on that.
RR: Photography, to begin with was a document of people, of persons and places. It is a mechanical process. In any given situation, every situation carries its own aura as I said, its own awe about it, its own silence about it, so when you begin to connect with every inch of space; when I say you try to connect with every inch of space, this process is also very important for young photographers to understand. It is said that we should be living here and now. When you are here and now, you can connect with every inch of space and in that moment when you are connecting with every inch of space, your mind’s noise is silenced. It does not exist anymore in that moment. So, when you exist in the ‘here and now,’ you become connected with every inch of space. Every space has its own expression and its own magic about it, which comes and goes and disappears. So, it is all very related. There is inter-related magical energy that every situation emits.
RS: You have said that to be a great photographer there has to be ‘fire in the belly.’ What would be your advice to youngsters who want to stoke this fire in the belly?
RR: You see the difference is that most people are professionals because this is how they earn their living but ‘jiske aag lagi ho, jo bhookha pyasa ho, woh kaun bujhaye? (Who or What will satiate the hunger and quench the thirst of the hungry and the thirsty? metaphorically speaking) This (satiation of hunger) can’t happen unless you are an explorer. ‘Jisko zindagi jeene ki bhookh lagi ho, nature ko samajhane ki bhookh ho, darshan karne ki bhookh ho. Dekhiye jinko bhagwaan ki, mirabai jaise preet lag jaati hai. Hamari jo preet hai woh dharti se lekar asmaan tak aur mere andar se lekar, beyond this world har cheez ko jaane samajhane ki bhookh hai, exploration ki bhookh hai. (He who hungers to live his life fully, he who wants to understand the intricacies of nature, he who wants to be brought face to face with God, he who craves for an ephemeral beloved like Mirabai craved for Lord Krishna, that is the kind of passion and craving for exploration one must have. My love and craving to explore and understand the world, transcends my ‘self’, transcends the world, as it is a craving and hunger to explore and understand everything about this complex world). It is this hunger that triggers the need for exploration. That is what it is. learn karne ki bhookh ho. (When there is a hunger to learn). If that hunger is not there you are a newsman, a recorder, you are simply reproducing things.
RS: I believe you had started this photo magazine called ‘Creative Image.’ Then you shut it down saying that the photographers of today may be technically perfect, but they lack depth and intensity. In fact, you said that ‘intellect ki gareebi ko kaun sambhale.’ (How can you handle intellectual poverty). What do you think is the reason for this lack of intellect, this intensity in the creative work? Do you think there is way to redress this problem?
RR: ‘Tareeke toh bahut hain, jeene ke bhi aur marne ke bhi.’ (Laughs) (There are lots of ways of living and dying).
(speaking seriously) They are not self-aware people. That is the problem. Self-awareness of every moment. ‘Jisme self-awareness hai, uski duniya jeeti jaagti hai.(For those who are self-aware, the world is a living breathing reality). Even today when I am 80 years old, when I have a camera in my hands, I am so alert and alive every minute, and I am living it. You see if I am shooting for 8 hours or so a day, I might be physically tired a bit but spiritually I am energised and I take a few hours of sleep and I am fresh again and powerful again. Because I’m living every moment of it. I will say, ‘jinko bagwaan ke darshan ki abhilasha hai, unko jab hota rehta hai darshan, toh unme kya pagalpan ki energy hoti hai. Main woh admi hoon. Mughe darshan zindagi ke, nature ke hote rehte hain, har naye pehlu pe. Main woh insaan, deewana, mastana.( Those who have a deep-seated desire to be face to face with God, see (have darshan of) God from time to time, they are caught up in a whirlwind of energy, bordering on madness. I am that man. I see God. I see nature. I see the Universe. I see different and new aspects of life, God and Nature. I am that human being, that man driven by mad passion and that man lost to the material world)
RS: You have photographed some greats like Mother Teresa, Dalai Lama, Music Maestros. Have these great men and women impacted your thinking and life? This probably is a useless question to ask you because clearly you seem to have found your ‘ikigai’, set your goal and achieved it.
RR: There are very few people like Mother Teresa, like Dalai Lama, like my Guruji. They have touched me deep down and I have the blessings of these divine sources and that’s why my exploratory magic keeps happening even at this age.
RS: One last question. Most of your photographs are black and white. Why less of colour and more of black and white?
RR: The colour films used before would exaggerate some colours. And digital technology makes pictures so bright and colourful. That’s why everybody seems to think they are great photographers. The noise of colours is so loud. A painter may take the liberty of painting a sky green, without being questioned. In my space there are all kinds of colours. These colours may not gel with each other. The situation is very interesting. I can’t change the colours and they contradict each other. Each colour has an emotional value, each colour has its visual presence. You cannot control them beyond a point so that’s why when you convert it into a black and white, it silences the noise of the colours.
RS: You have produced more than 50 books. You still say that you have a huge cache of raw photos which are to be curated and placed before the world.
RR: I already have 10 books edited and ready to go. During the two yeas of the pandemic, I dug into my Archives, and I have created many different themes and subjects. I still go and shoot more. Divine blessings are with me, so I take pictures with as much mad passion and energy as I did before.
RS: Wonderful. The pandemic clearly has not fettered your creativity.
RR: There is one more thing I would like to say. During the pandemic I not only looked at my archives, I also tried to grasp and understand the essence of civilization. And I arrived at this conclusion that a religion that is bound and fettered by rules is bereft of compassion; a religion that does not arise from the depths of the heart will have neither tenderness nor compassion. Similarly, a picture that is shackled by rules and formed in the mind, is a picture of the material world; whereas a picture that arises from the depths of your heart will have tenderness, exploration and newness. This is my message to all.
RS: Thank you Raghu Rai ji. It was such an honour to talk to you, to understand your creative processes, to understand how you think, how you approach the world. It’s very inspiring.
Thank you for taking time out for talking to us. It was such a pleasure talking to you. We thank you for this great legacy that you have bequeathed to our country and the creative world. We wish you the very best and hope for more fabulous and telling photographs from the viewfinder of a master craftsman.