Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – 18 September 2020

This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – a trip down memory lane with the sharing of my interview with Raghu Rai back in 2012 at what was the last Foto Freo. I hope reading it is as much a treat for you as it was for me to write.

Also, this week, Too Young to Wed (TYTW), the non-profit founded by award-winning photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair has launched a new programme – Resilient Girls – a series of interviews with “female youth leaders worldwide, spotlighting crucial issues as they exchange stories of strength, survival, and perseverance.” The first video features a “conversation-style interview between TYTW beneficiary and Kenyan child marriage survivor Rosillah and Sienna, a second year Harvard student and TYTW’s inaugural Youth Ambassador.” 

Foam in Amsterdam has a number of videos featuring artists and curators. If you’re a fan of Vivian Maier, I suggest you check out “Vivian Maier: In Conversation with Awura Abena Simpe and Iris Evertse”. Simpe is a writer and the founder of Creative Women Collective. Evertse is Foam’s museum teacher. It is in Dutch with sub-titles.

If you haven’t done so already, please watch our new video interview series Photojournalism Now: In Conversation – subscribe to the channel by clicking on the red A. There are interviews with Robin HammondRenée C. Byer and Sean Gallagher – and look out for the next instalment coming later this month.

From the archive: 2012

Raghu Rai – Warm Heart Cool Eye

Magnum Photos Raghu Rai in interview with Alison Stieven-Taylor

Mother Teresa (C) Raghu Rai

At what was to be the final Foto Freo festival in 2012 I had the pleasure of interviewing Raghu Rai. Here’s the story.

March 2012: I arrive for my interview to find Raghu Rai combing his hair and smiling genially in the lobby of a hotel in Fremantle. The weather gods have turned on a fine day and even though the morning breeze is at times cool, especially in the shade, there is ample sun. Raghu tells me he would prefer to do the interview in the park across the road. He wants to ‘feel the breeze on my face, be in nature’. But at the park’s cafe they don’t accept foreign currency and his attempt to gain sustenance is thwarted.

I’m only carrying a notepad, pen, recorder and my room card. We retreat to the verandah of the hotel and I launch quickly into the interview, aware he is hungry. I tell him I’ve already been up for several hours, and taken a long walk. ‘Me, I like to sleep as much as I can,’ he reveals with a throaty chuckle. The old, they like to sleep, is the inference, but this man is a very spritely 70 years old, the glint in his eye still visible, his energy that of a much younger man.

I come to interview Raghu through a series of encounters. After seeing his exhibition My India, I was intent on interviewing the creator of these deeply meaningful and evocative images that capture what we may now call, Old India. Today cities like Mumbai are transformed by the rush to tomorrow, the complex and intense value system of this country less apparent to the western gaze. His black and white photographs demand you slow down and take in all the details, the nuances. These images are multi-layered in content and during my four day visit to Foto Freo 2012, I have returned to the gallery multiple times.

Raghu is of Old India himself and my first encounter with him is at the seminar at which he is speaking. His words fill me with a sense of hope for humanity – I know that sounds extreme, but his words are so heartfelt and uttered with deep integrity and he has such a centered countenance. He is mindful of his existence. When asked by a panel member how he wants to be remembered he laughs and shrugs. ‘Who cares?’ he says his whole face participating in the smile. I immediately like him and am drawn to his philosophy and want to explore the topic further. The only thing to do is figure out how to get the interview as I fly out the next day.

But fate is on my side. That night I am at an exhibition opening. I turn around to see Raghu in his billowing black cape, looking like a holy man his hands clasped in front. Remarkably he is alone. Before others recognise him, I walk up and introduce myself. I talk rapidly, mention the magazine I write for, and that I’d like to interview him, but I leave tomorrow at midday. Breathe, breathe. I launch in again – if you can’t do it now, we could do it by phone, or by email I suggest, but my enthusiasm for those mediums isn’t great and it is obvious in my drop in energy. He prefers face to face, he says, suggesting we meet the following morning in the hotel lobby.

So here we are.

AST: I found your work inspirational when I saw your exhibition and then when you talked yesterday I felt very emotional. I thought wow, there is a lot of heart and integrity behind your work because a lot of your photos are quite confronting in their subject matter. And I wonder if you can talk a little about how you find that balance between photographing the human condition even when it is in a desperate situation and still being so calm?

RR: Well this is the kind of discipline that you achieve over the years – warm heart, cool eye – so that you don’t get excited. To receive anything the way it comes like a clean screen of a television so whatever you reflect is truthful and honest and without being dramatised. Our responses can be very dramatic. The kind of emotions and feelings that you receive, you reflect this, without imposing anything upon it. This is a very important discipline. We say photographers capture the truth, so the truth has to be captured as it is.

AST: Is this something you have learned over time?

RR: I’ll say you keep learning and keep understanding that discipline, but in any given situation – even if you don’t understand many things at times – your human instinct is the ultimate mirror that reflects the truth in its entirety. That’s where the magic lies, you know, because instinct is something more to do with your heart and your spiritual feeling. Most of us, we come from here. He touches his head, referring to the brain as ‘the biggest computer god has installed in all of us. And it has all memories, sounds and sights, so most of the time we connect here (he points to his head again) and we try to analyze – Oh Yes this is what it is. So let’s take this. – And the moment you shut this bloody thing off (touching his head) or you deprogram it once and for all and then you come from here (he puts his hands on his heart) and instinct. Instinct in creativity is the most powerful tool.

AST: And how did you learn to turn your computer off?

RR: You don’t learn, you keep practising, sometimes it works very well and other times you are preoccupied or you have problems or whatever and then it doesn’t work at all. It’s not something that you own, it comes and goes because we human beings get affected by so many things around us. Life is not that simple in terms of going on this creative journey.

AST: Do you think coming from a country like India that has so many complexities in its culture that it enables you to look at things in a more holistic way?

RR: I guess to some extent it does help you with basic value system, but the discipline of the medium, which requires its own kind of practice is one thing and secondly being very instinctive while you take pictures. You know I say why I don’t like to shoot elsewhere in the world? Because I can smell and feel India even with my eyes closed. I can feel the energies criss-crossing my space and it becomes far easier to get to the depth of things. Maybe instinctively I can also, once in a while, do something good (away), but I will not be as centred and as easy as I am back home.

Once Raghu did a month-long project in Mexico with Sebastiao Salgado. ‘I loved being there, but it wasn’t the same as shooting in India. Sebastiao, who travels everywhere, said to me he takes his home with him, in his heart…I want to understand my village to the last detail. These words might sound very heavy, but they are very precious to me in the context of how I feel about photography.

AST: I liked your answer to the question at the seminar about how you would like to be remembered.

RR: (Laughing) Who cares? It doesn’t matter because my life here and now is very precious to me. If I interact with that kind of instinct and intensity I will be a fulfilled human being. It’s that process for people from the East because our philosophy of life is very different.

AST: When you started you were in your mid-twenties. Did you have an idea of the subject matter you wanted to cover or were you open to whatever came your way?

RR No my first few pictures, I never thought of becoming a professional. My younger brother was a photographer and I had met photographers through him, so I thought OK let me play this game. But when I started playing this game – the important thing is the liability of becoming a photographer, of a creative photographer – I didn’t have any such liabilities, I was just having fun with the camera. So that was a very easy period for me and in my first year of photography I managed to take some pictures that even today when people look at them they say are masterpieces of their own kind. Why? Because I was coming from instinct, you know, and responding in a very natural way. And grabbing something, which I thought was so amazing, and had so much feeling already, that’s all.

AST: If I recall correctly, you took a shot of a baby donkey in a village at dusk and your brother sent it to the picture editor of The Times in London. They ran it in the weekend paper.

RR: That was quite a kick for me. Now when I look back I say because I didn’t have the liability, I was a free man. When I became a professional I began looking for good pictures. It changes your attitude, when you are looking for good pictures you are feeling less and thinking more. What a dangerous game it becomes (laughter), but now after so many years one is almost liberated. It doesn’t matter and now I photograph the trees, the clouds, I photograph anything anywhere and it is my own connectivity with every element on this planet that matters in any given situation. It may not matter later on, but just now it does, it’s precious.

AST: So you have the philosophy that we only have this very moment, that this is the given?

RR: Yes, and connectivity is the main thing, with larger spaces, larger experiences. Each time I picked up a camera I could take a concentrated look at the world around me and the world was becoming very fascinating for me. I began a very serious, intense affair with life and nature with my camera, and this is how I started doing photography. Then I started shooting for newspapers in India, but newspapers or magazines, they have their own editorial demands, which teach you to be a little more disciplined. But they also restrict you in many ways. So what I was doing simultaneously was that I was also shooting for myself.

All those guys in the West, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Eugene Smith were at that time a very powerful influence on me because of their strong black and white works. I used to look at those magazines. I used to love many photographers work and still do, but I decided to relieve myself of influences by taking photos that were similar and never printing them, getting them out of my system. The West is too far away and very different from us. The life and nuances of India are very different compared to anywhere in the world.

AST: You had quite extraordinary access to Mother Teresa. What was it like photographing her?

RR: I think that purified me a lot being with her. I’m not the kind who does prayers or goes to temple or the church or anywhere, but it was such a pure powerful experience. You know what she would do? She would not look at you she would look into you. Imagine someone going inside of you, it’s dangerous (laughs). Mother knows everything so you better be good and clean. It was a great learning and I remember the first encounter was in 1970 when she was hardly known. About ten years after I decided to do a book and I went to her. Each time you met her you had to come back to that level with Mother, direct and instinctive. She said to me, no there is no need to do a book. So I explained to her, I said Mother, I have done five books on different subjects and Mother it is not because I want to do another book. She said, what is it? And I said, Mother you know your work has given me the purity and connectivity with the Lord? She said yes. And I said, anytime I am working on any other subject I get this longing that I must go to Mother. She said all right I’ll do the prayers and I’ll let you know. And I said, Mother I have done the prayers.

It took me ten years to understand that Mother served two things – mankind (sic) and connectivity. When she said I’ll do the prayer and I said I’ve done the prayer, she had the same respect for my prayers as for hers. That is something that was so special about that human being, that she valued others’ prayers. The feeling was so intense, for me to do the book that she said, ‘okay we will do it’.

AST: I know you’ve done two books on Mother Teresa. When the second book was finished I believe you went to visit her but by this time she was in grave health.

RR: She was very unwell. I went to visit her and wanted to show her the book. The Sisters said if the doctor allowed her to come out she would and sure enough she did. I sat there for a few hours, and then she came out in a wheelchair. There was such an aura, a spiritual energy around her. I went to her and said Mother I have the book. She took it, flicked through it, said ‘that’s nice’ and gave it back to me. You know, if I have experienced that, when someone asks me how I would like to be remembered, it doesn’t matter.

AST: Are you interested in photographing modern India?

RR: You can’t ignore the changes – those images of India (his), the eternal India, are far deeper in human context. Now all these new elements have come into our culture like the advertising from global brands that are competing for space. It is a mish mash of a nation and a culture, which is also very interesting. Maybe in my country I look at the nuances and details in my culture the same way you see yours, but there is no Indian way of seeing things. If there are 20 photographers shooting the same situation they will all take a different image.

AST: Do you have any advice for those embarking on photography as a career?

RR: I want to uproot you and toss you in the air. When you come down, you don’t put your steps on anyone else’s footsteps and you don’t step on your own footsteps. Define your own approach. Nature will offer you something. Try to discover a moment, rather than allowing everything to happen in your head. Life has so much magic happening all the time, but if we are just shooting with our heads then the world of photography becomes very boring. My personal journey, my exploration, for myself has been to invest my mind, body and soul in my photography.

(C) All images Raghu Rai

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