An image is more than a pretty picture

Raghu Rai recalls his journey in photography during a recent workshop, writes Roopinder Singh

Making images is not about techniques but about attitudes: it concerns your state of mind, how you see the world.

Lamas in prayer during rain. Ladakh. 1975 — Photo by Raghu Rai

RAGHU RAI is engaging, penetrating, philosophical, humorous and humble — a combination of qualities that leave his audience captivated. At a recent lecture-cum-slide-show held in Chandigarh, he explained his journey into photography and through it, life. As Rai shared his experiences, he touched many a chord among the audience that filled the auditorium to the brim.

In two workshops held earlier, Rai told a small group of photographers, selected after a perusal of their work, that his mission was to uproot them from their comfort zone. “I want you to de-programme yourself…approach your subjects with humility, start your day with a prayer. Learn to bow…nature has much to give you…”

It was the initiative of photographer Diwan Manna, chairperson of the Chandigarh Lalit Kala Akademi, which brought Rai to Chandigarh. The cream of the city’s amateur and professional photographers participated in the workshops. Some came with notions of learning great technical tips that would enhance their work; others, like me, had come for the learning experience itself. We got more than what we expected. Rai left us brimming with energy and looking at the world somewhat differently.

“Don’t repeat all good photographs that you have seen before,” said the man who was initiated into the medium by well-known photographers like his elder brother S. Paul, and Kishore Parikh. “When you are sandwiched between two giants, you can either be squeezed, or pushed up,” he commented wryly.

Rai at a session during the lecture-cum-slide show on photography.

“When you share, your creativity and energy multiply,” said Rai even as he lamented the lack of involvement and dialogue among photographers who prefer to work in isolation. He recollected how Paul, Parikh and he would often meet, and the delight they took in showing each other a “different” image — something that stood out and captured the moment.

He told us how it was his brother’s camera and a visit to Yog Joy’s farm near Rohtak that started him off on his journey in photography. “When I looked at the world around me through the viewfinder, the world started becoming more alive, more charged…I saw more of life.”

Even as he asked us to honestly share with those around us, he stressed on the need to look for something that has never been seen before, and to capture it at the decisive moment.

“How you interpret reality is your choice. Begin you personal journey, don’t bother about people, what really matters is how genuine you are. You must have a sense of exploration on a shoot; as you go along, you develop an instinctive feel. Be tough on yourself,” he enjoined.

It is not that things happen in vacuum. You must be aware of the basics and the developments in your field. For purists who swear by the film, Rai said the first time he tried digital photography (with a six megapixels camera while shooting for Geo magazine in Mumbai), he adopted it and has not looked back since, except for using the film in panoramic cameras. He uses panoramic cameras to shoot the “multi-layered experience of India”.

He loves the freedom that digital cameras bestow, their ability to capture images in low light, and most of all, the fact that you can review your work instantly. In the final analysis, he maintains that a camera is only a machine, a tool, and though you must have a reasonably good camera, what matters is how you take a photograph.

A session of the workshop was devoted to analysing photographs taken by the participants, a learning experience that caused many to wince. “Your image must be more than a pretty picture,” said Rai. He analysed each photograph and pointed out flaws with a firm gentleness. Rai did not mince words. He said, “Photo-journalists act as nawabs, during cultural events and public functions. Cultivate yourself into better human beings. Give your own self 100 per cent, mentally, physically and spiritually, to the work at hand, and you will see the difference.” Now, that’s advice all of us can use.

This article was published in The Tribune on Sunday, November 2, 2008.