"Visual history of tomorrow": Raghu Rai on photojournalism

The veteran photographer, now past his 80th birthday, is currently a judge on the new National Geographic reality show #nofilter by IndiGo, alongside film director Imtiaz Ali

Raghu Rai at his farmhouse in Gurgaon, India (photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)
Raghu Rai at his farmhouse in Gurgaon, India (photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images)


At 80, Raghu Rai says he feels connected to life and nature through photography, a profession he picked up over five decades ago after leaving his "boring" job as a civil engineer.

For Rai, the best thing about capturing moments on camera is coming face-to-face with questions about life and its ever-changing nature.

"I'm more than 80 and I'm still alive and there. I feel connected and I'm blissfully happy... It's been more than 55 years but the most powerful part about photography is — life and nature are ever changing and ever challenging and that shakes you up," the veteran photographer told PTI in a virtual interview.

It was in the early 1960s when Rai said he left his "boring 9 to 5 job" and casually accompanied a photographer friend on an assignment.

The ace photographer said it was a moment of "revelation" when he looked through the viewfinder for the first time.

"When I put on a camera and looked through the viewfinder, suddenly all the energy and concentration came together. This was something that had happened to me for the first time. I could concentrate and penetrate through the world around me. For me, it was a great revelation. That's why I couldn't move to anything else," he recalled.

Rai started his photojournalism career as the chief photographer of national daily The Statesman and later worked as the picture editor of weekly news magazine Sunday. He also worked as a photo editor and visualiser of the fortnightly magazine India Today.

He trained under Henri Cartier-Bresson, considered one of the greatest photographers ever. Cartier-Bresson is regarded as the master of candid and street photography.

Some of Rai's most notable works include scenes from the 1984 Bhopal industrial disaster and documentary series on Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

During his time in Calcutta, now Kolkata, the photographer extensively captured Indian cinema legend Satyajit Ray through his lens too.

Though people mostly write about his artistic work, photojournalism holds a special place for the veteran as he believes it's the "visual history of tomorrow".

"Photojournalism is very precious to me. People talk about art photography, this and that... The purpose of photography is to capture the time we live in... be it a social or a political situation.

"When you capture the essence of any situation at the right time, it is going to be the visual history of tomorrow. History is written and rewritten but visual history can't be re-written," he said.

Rai is currently associated with National Geographic India's photography reality show '#nofilter by IndiGo', as a judge along with filmmaker Imtiaz Ali.

The community building initiative features nine participants who are tasked to capture the essence of India through their lens.

The show premiered on 30 September on all platforms of National Geographic with a new episode to air every Saturday. The programme will see Rai and Ali challenge participants to explore the iconic locations of Delhi according to specific themes.

Rai said the enthusiasm shown by young photographers reminded him of his own rookie days.

"You see your reflection in others in so many situations... That's what connects you with young minds. When we were growing up, we didn't have any such forum. It's so good," he added.

As somebody who started with film cameras, photography in the digital era is "magical" for Rai. He believes technology empowers photojournalists today by giving them much more control.

"Digital age is magical, even for me. Taking pictures with a film camera, being uncertain about results, was a bit mysterious. Today, you click a picture and the ability to see it right now gives you so much control.

"It empowers you to sort of correct your path, gather your concentration and penetrate deeper. It's a great aspect of digital photography. It's like a painter using a brush and colour and knows what is happening on his canvas. It is unique to the digital era," he added.

The advice Rai has for the upcoming photographers is not to click pictures that they have already seen before.

"I believe the human mind has a possibility of discovering something which is never seen before, provided your mind space is clean and you are looking at the world for fresh possibilities.

"It's tough because our mind space is already invaded with ideas, images, thoughts and sounds. That keeps dictating... You need to have the courage to say 'hold on'," he said. 

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