Capturing history in the making is second nature to celebrated photojournalist Raghu Rai. Rai’s lens has travelled with him to the cataclysmic aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to peaceful Dharamshala to witness the Dalai Lama’s smile; and to Bangladesh, where it documented the political turmoil of the 1971 war. Rai’s penchant for portraying India with blazing intimacy and urgency has prompted unguarded photographs of its icons—from Indira Gandhi after the declaration of Emergency in 1975 to Mother Teresa, rapt in prayer. Rai has now chronicled a part of this journey in his latest book Shri Venkateswara of Tirupati, co-authored by Lekshmy Rajeev, capturing the whirling milieu of faith, architecture, ritual, and human vulnerability and strength at the Venkateswara Temple. Rai spoke to National Geographic Traveller India about the symbiotic relationship between photography and travel, the frivolous nature of smartphone photography, and his eternal muse India.
You travel extensively for your craft. How does travel impact photography?
For me, India is my whole world. And if I don’t travel every nook and cranny, how will I get to experience the real India? When you travel, your mind, spirit and body begin to acquire new dimensions. It energises you, it gives you a new sense of awareness into life around you—essential for a photographer.
You’ve documented almost the whole subcontinent. Did any part of India stand out?
Kanyakumari is the most precious to me, because ye bharat mata ke paun hain (it is the feet of India). I keep going back to the southern-most tip of the country, it gives me the joy of standing next to the sea and feel like I’m looking back at the whole subcontinent. But to be honest, it doesn’t matter where I am—as long as I’m with my camera, I can connect and experience and explore.
Is there any part of India you haven’t yet shot in that you would like to?
I suppose for me that would be the northeast. I haven’t yet captured and documented the northeast states in detail, not the way I would like to.
You’ve taken some historic photographs—from shots of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to Mother Teresa in Kolkata and the Dalai Lama in Ladakh. Did you always prepare en route?
You see, when you’re doing a story for a magazine or a newspaper, then you have to know a little bit about the person and the place that you are going to be visiting. But, you need to leave it at that. Because, it is only once you are there, present in the situation you have to document, that you actually get a feel of it, where you allow the place’s vibrations to touch you, so that what you capture is instinctive, responsive and powerful.
Everyone has a smartphone with a good camera now. Travel bloggers use them to document their jaunts across the world. Do you feel that the ethos of travel photography has changed?
Yes, it has changed, but I’ll say that a bulk of these ‘travel photographers’ are busy taking selfies and ‘self-love’ photographs (laughs). Very few people in this world become explorers, who want to learn, experience and know outwardly things that they can capture. But these people, the self-love travellers, are basically just happy with photographing themselves and their friends. Broadly speaking, there are more ‘worldly’ photographers today than ever before, because of digitisation of technology, but with both travel and cameras becoming more accessible to everyone, the very nature of travel photography has become more frivolous and mediocre.
On that note, you once said that you identify more as an explorer than a photographer. Why is that?
There is a certain level of self-indulgence and frivolity that comes with being a photographer these days. In contrast, being an explorer brings with it the opportunity to stand out, discover and truly experience what you want to see through your lens.
Do you think print photography will ever be restored to its former glory?
A photographer is one who has to have the live photograph in his or her hand, not in the screens of their flashy MacBooks, where the image is edited to look pretty and bright. Unless you learn to hold a print in your hand, you are not a photographer. When you make a print, it means you get to experience that picture all over again, because you’re giving it a physical form. Without that, it’s never a complete photograph.
Photography is heavily influenced by the concept of gaze—male gaze, female gaze, brown gaze, white gaze. What is your view on this?
There is a kind of filter in everybody’s mind, so this gaze you refer to is basically a reflection of that. But a true photographer is beyond the idea of this gaze. His or her instinct and intuitive response is what makes their photographs more inclusive, genuine and truthful. The rest is all polished and tainted. However, that being said, when a woman takes a photograph, the way she looks at a situation she wants to capture, will be entirely different from the way her male counterpart is looking at it. So here, her gaze, would come into play, while taking this picture.
When you’re travelling to a new place without a particular picture in mind, which do you prefer photographing on a whim—people or landscape?
Honestly for me, it’s anything and everything—whether it’s a piece of rock, or the landscape, or the people, or the monuments—it can be anything that nudges me into a new experience. I’m not programmed to have a preference and deprogramming, after all, is the first step to creativity.
It’s a common assumption that the difference between a photojournalist and a photographer is that the former is expected to capture and portray the truth, while a photographer may have the license to embellish it. Could you expand on this?
There are two things to keep in mind here. If you are a documentary photographer or photojournalist, you have to capture the essence of a situation and you can’t alter the content. Your image has to be pegged on the truth and reality of the situation you are capturing. But, as far as colour quality, black and white details or colour contrast is concerned, that is your privilege to alter it, to convey the image more strongly. In terms of any other kind of photography, you could do anything with your camera. There is a whole new generation of photographers, who are into ‘conceptual photography’ and ‘art photography,’ who can take any kind of picture and edit to present it in any which way. But I find that a little limiting. If a picture doesn’t have a soul of its own, a heartbeat of its own, is it even a picture?
It seems like you have always preferred to photograph and capture India over other countries. Why is this?
I think any photographer’s body of work holds a lot of weight in terms of his or her preferences, and mine has mostly been based in India. See, initially, it’s a little daunting to take your camera and go marching into somebody else’s territory, to try and capture their culture. Besides, it is so fulfilling to be enriched by your own country and its culture—it works as a perfect backdrop for when you’re first setting out to capture moments. I have done that enough now, however, and over time, I have gone on to photograph the world beyond India, and enjoyed it, immensely.
Sanjana Ray is that unwarranted tour guide people groan about on trips. When she isn't geeking out on travel and history, she can be found walking around the streets, crying for Bengali food. She is former Digital Writer at National Geographic Traveller India.