Raghu Rai: The Art of Mindfulness

Words: Mark Edward Harris

A year later, in 1966, he went to work for The Statesman newspaper as its chief photographer, moving a decade later to work as picture editor for Sunday, a weekly news maga- zine published in Calcutta. Impressed by Rai’s work hanging at Gallery Delpire in Paris, the legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson nominated him to Magnum Photos, with Rai becoming a member of the esteemed photo cooperative in 1977.

In 1980 Rai joined India Today, contributing photo essays on cultural, political and social themes until 1992. This included coverage of the 1984 chemical disaster at Bhopal. His long-term study on its ongoing effects on the lives of the victims resulted in his book, Exposure: A Corporate Crime. His other books include Raghu Rai’s Delhi, The Sikhs, Calcutta, Khajuraho, Taj Mahal, Tibet in Exile, India and Mother Teresa.

Rai’s influence and his legacy extend beyond his work. In 2016 he established the Raghu Rai Center _for Photography in the North Indian state of Haryana. Offering courses in documentary, creative, portraiture, fashion and still life, its mission is to provide direction and technical skills to new generations of Indian photographers.

In one of your books you wrote, “The camera has become an instrument of learning and magic for me.” Can you elaborate?_

After high school I had a bit of romanticism about life, music, nature, but never thought of doing photography. My brother, 11 years older than me, was a photographer. I went to stay with him in Delhi. I borrowed a camera from him thinking I should also take pictures, because everybody around him was a photographer of some kind. I went to shoot with one of his friends, and when the first roll was processed he saw the photographs and said one of them was amazing and sent it to The Times, London. They published a half page with my name on it. Everybody thought it was a big deal, so I thought I should indulge in it some more and continued taking pictures. My father wanted me to be a civil engineer, but that didn’t excite me. I wanted to be a musician, but I was not allowed. When I picked up the camera and looked through the viewfinder, all my energies were focused on what I was looking at. That was something very different for me. The camera was an instrument to have a closer look at life.

What was the subject matter of your earliest published photo?

It was a baby donkey. We had gone to my brother’s friend’s village. He was photographing the children, and in the field I saw a cute little baby donkey standing like a statue in the early evening light. Luckily the exposure was okay. It was with an Agfa Super Silette with a fixed lens. I had no training. I had no idea what a good picture was. Initially, whatever I did, I did instinctively. That’s where the magic got captured.

_For a long time you had a one-camera, one-lens approach to photography. _

It went on until I had the resources to buy more cameras and lenses, but finally I’ve come back to one camera and one lens. For me, you should not look like someone carrying two or three cameras and a camera bag, and the moment people look at you they say, “Here comes a photographer.” I don’t want to look like a photographer. I want to look like somebody who walks in and walks out. I’ve always used Nikons during my career and now I’m using a Nikon D850 with their 24-85mm f/3.5-4.5 lens, which produces a deliciously beautiful quality. In between I was using two cameras, because during the film days there was a need for black and white and color. But now I carry only one camera, because with digital you can convert your files into black and white. The 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, whether it’s Nikon, Canon or anybody, is so bulky and heavy. I’m a very quick, candid photographer. I don’t want to miss my picture.

Since your brother S Paul was a photographer, did he teach you the technical aspects of the camera once you began taking the craft seriously?

He was working with one of the newspapers in Delhi, The Indian Express, so I started going to his office and watched him edit his film and work in the darkroom. I set up my first darkroom in my bathroom. I would load a roll of film into my camera, shoot the whole day very carefully, come back in the evening and very quickly develop the film, have something quick to eat, and then start making prints. I could not wait to see my results, whether I was later working with India Today, India’s leading magazine, or when I was doing it for myself. Now I have a very good lab and very good assistants. They know the moment I walk in from a shoot they have to download the cards and have it ready, because I can’t wait to see the shots on my computer.

That sense of magic has never left.

No, in fact, it’s gone wild. With the tools that you have you should explore, explode and go beyond every time you’re trying to do something as if you’re not going to get another chance the next day. Living in the now is the most important principle you have to apply in documentary photography. If you are not living in the now you’re missing the magic of the moment and what it has to tell you.

You started off with the donkey shot. When did the camera become a tool for deeper exploration and a career?

Within three or four months of taking that shot I joined one of the important newspapers in Delhi, the Hindustan Times. The senior photographer there was Kishor Parekh, who had studied at the University of Southern California. He was a brilliant photographer. Kishor was 10 years older, my brother at the Express was 11 years older, and both of them were very good, established photographers. So in between these two big guys, these major forces, was where I was sandwiched and sprouted out. We have five or six important newspapers in Delhi, including The Statesman, where the chief photographer was retiring. So after a year with the Hindustan Times I resigned and moved on to The Statesman as their chief photographer in my mid-twenties. It was such a nice game to be playing for daily news pictures with my brother on one side and Kishor on the other. They would come on the same assignment as my “enemies.” I would go wild, exploring and searching and not resting at all.

Some of those assignments were “grip and grin” photo ops such as government officials greeting important dignitaries. In one instance where Indira Gandhi was waiting for the arrival of Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, you showed how even in these situations you could return to the office with something out of the ordinary.

Precisely. We were 15, 20 photographers in Indira Gandhi’s office waiting for Kosygin to arrive. He got delayed, and Gandhi went to the door to see why he had not turned up, and suddenly he stepped out into the corridor. These are the moments I would grab.

Most photographers on that type of assignment would be focused on getting the standard shot at a press conference and then running back to the office. How did your long working relationship with Mother Teresa come about?

When I was with The Statesman, a newspaper started by the British, our head office was in Calcutta. They used to be very powerful and practiced honest journalism to the last detail. We had an editor named Desmond Doig, born in India of Anglo-Irish parents. He was also a very good writer and designer and would also make very good sketches and drawings. In 1970 he met Mother Teresa when she was hardly known. He rang me up: “Raghu, I met this great lady. You have to come to Calcutta and we’ll do a feature on her.”

Was she receptive to the idea of being photographed along with the people she was working with?

When I met Mother for the first time she was simple, gentle, loving, but very tough and dedicated to her work. She was not fond of writers and photographers running around. She was a very focused, concise person. She said, “When Christ was suffering, I wasn’t there to look after him, to serve him. So anyone suffering is my Christ.” So beautiful. When someone has that kind of connection, oh, my God! It can take you anywhere. She was from Albania. She came to Calcutta as the principal of a Loreto school, and every day when she was walking to her school she would see poor people suffering on the streets. At that time Calcutta was the poorest of the cities. She spoke to her seniors in Albania, saying, “How can I teach and how can I go on living in this luxury when I see so many people sleeping on the streets with no food and nothing much to cover themselves. My calling is to serve them.” She started with a one-room space with a veranda that was available to her.

How did you manage to build a rapport with her?

Mother was nursing some people here and some people there, and the sisters were coming and going. I was going “click, click, click.” She found it very annoying. She said, “How many more times will you go on clicking?” I said, “Mother, how many more times will you go on praying? This is my way of praying, and my prayers are an exploration to be closer to what is magical.” She then said, “All right.”

Did any particular days with Mother Teresa stand out?

Easter Day. The chapel must have been full of 200 sisters, and there was a priest with the statue of Christ. The day before she was hesitant to have me there on Easter. But I explained, “How can I not photograph this?” She said, “Okay, come at 6:00 tomorrow morning,” and warned me to be particularly quiet that day. She took me into the chapel, and we sat next to the wall because it was already full. After awhile she goes into prayer, then into meditation, and is looking so amazing. I couldn’t take the picture from the side, so gradually I moved. I finally got into the right position, took my pictures and came back to my seat. After the prayers were over all the sisters were kissing the feet of the Christ, then going out. Then Mother gets up. She used to walk very slowly. I got up and moved very slowly taking pictures. Then we went outside and I said, “Mother, I’m very sorry. I couldn’t keep my promise.” Mother held my hands very tightly and, looking deep into me, said, “God has given you this assignment, you must do it well.”

You have also worked with another spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

His Holiness is very different. He knows he needs all of us because of his being in exile and the Tibetan cause needing to be publicized. They want to go back to their homeland. I had a French publisher and I suggested that we do a book on Tibetans in exile. He said, “Start your work, and let’s see where it goes.” So I went to Bodh Gaya in 1985, and they said, “His Holiness is preparing a mandala for the prayers and nobody is allowed to go in.” I said I already knew him, I had first met him in 1975. So they allowed me to shoot under one condition, that I shoot through the curtains. As I opened the curtain a bit he saw me, gave me a warm smile and extended his hand. So naturally I had to walk in and kiss his hand. I asked, “Your Holiness, can I take a few photos?” He said, “Sure, sure.”

Over the years I’ve done many cover stories on him. He lives in exile in India in the Himalayas. Every time I would go up there to do a story I would explain who it was for, and he would say, “Sure. Let me know what I can do.” He did meditation early in the morning, which was an amazing experience. He loves gardening. One time he said, “My big heater isn’t working,” so he opened it up an
d started repairing it. He used to watch the TV serial Mahabharat. It was first screened in 1988. So he watches TV, he does various things. I was very surprised. He’s given me anything and everything. It’s been wonderful.

In another of your books your response to the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words” is “Many words is a lot of noise,” and that you “appreciate the silence.” It feels like a bit of Buddhist philosophy applied to photography.

The greatest movie that I see or the greatest book I read will be the one that restores silence in me rather than creating questions and turmoil. In Bodh Gaya where Buddha received his enlightenment, there was a little platform where he [the Dalai Lama] was to sit. He got delayed, and there were several hundred people there waiting. They began to chat with each other. By the time he arrived he must have been an hour and a half or two hours late, and everyone was chatting. He walks up to this platform. There’s so much noise. Somebody comes up and offers him a rose. So he stands there and he looks at the people, and as people begin to see him, the silence begins to travel. In a few minutes there is complete silence. He stands there and watches. These great saints and souls, even their looks have the potency to heal you, to bless you, to restore you. This is what is believed in the East. He looks at every single one of them, then kisses that flower and leaves it on the stage. So what has he done? He’s restored silence in everybody. Especially in this digital age, we should embrace the silence.

You’ve worked seamlessly through perhaps the biggest transition in photography since its invention with the move from film to digital.

Digital technology is great. It gives us amazing freedom to explore, to capture, to go on endlessly without worrying about any technical aspects. At the same time it has also diluted photography. Present trends in the world are very frivolous for me. This fast-food generation is out to grab everything and anything, trying to be different for the sake of being different. It’s very chaotic. It’s the inner journey and the inner explorations that give depth in the world of creativity.

I feel God has installed the biggest computer in every one of us. And this most terrific, unbelievable computer’s storage space can be expanded to anything. It’s a storehouse of ideas, pictures, sounds. What is bad about this big computer is that we can’t reformat it. When your sensor is freed of influences it will reflect something that is refreshing and honest. And creativity lives beyond ideas, concepts and philosophies. Philosophies are born and realized later. First it’s a moment when you make yourself available to the situations mentally, spiritually and physically. That’s when the whispers happen, when nature begins to speak, when the signals from daily life begin to rejuvenate you and tell you another kind of story. That is the process that a creative person _lives for. So when you are going through a moment of revelation, if you have the ability to click simultaneously, that is the magical moment you’ve caught.

People with big minds and big ideas have started churning up stuff from their heads for the sake of doing something different, and that has a very small mind space. But to truly explore something different that intuition provides, like Henri Cartier-Bresson did or even Ansel Adams did in his landscapes…they_
were not planned to the extent where they did not allow nature play its part.

In other words, as Mary Ellen Mark once told me, “You can never do better than reality.”

Precisely. Let’s not forget that photography is the youngest art form, and some of our ancestors took us to the inner depths of things. Now we are on a backward journey. We think we ourselves have become so important. The idea of “me” doing this is more important. In any art form you have to be educated as to what has been happening in the last few centuries and what is happening today and where are we going tomorrow. But many of these guys are self-indulgent, and the new ways of doing things are becoming either bland and expressionless or ruthlessly aggressive in their approach.

Photographers should maintain a sense of humanity. We are humans first before we are anything else.

Absolutely. And of course Indian people follow Western trends. You see, I would rather be a secondhand portrait of myself than be a third-rate copy of a Western master. I’ve admired Lee Friedlander, Minor White, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, so many other photographers. But when I’m connecting here and now there is no space for anybody else to come in.

Cartier-Bresson was one guy who had the intuitive power of connecting with cultures in any part of the world. His intuition put him in touch with what was most essential and characteristic of a person or a culture. India is an amazing country for photographers because the visual experiences are mindboggling, especially to the Western world. But he was one guy who was always intuitive, and what he captured in India will stay alive forever. But those kind of intuitive powers very few photographers have. He was almost writing a visual history wherever he went. The magic happened only when his intuition told him something. That ability is vital for street, documentary, photojournalism. The origin of an image has to come from the immediacy and the magic that is unfolding for just now. It won’t be repeated.

’ve started The Raghu Rai Center of Photography with your son, Nitin Rai, as director and you as mentor-in-residence.

You know why? Every cell phone has a camera, and when people shoot with a cell phone and they’ve found that they have some good moments they begin to buy cameras. So now there are so many young people doing photography. We thought we would create a center where we would bring out the best in them to become creative explorers. Tomorrow, if you don’t want to do photography, you want to do painting, you want to do writing, you know what creative expression means in daily life.

_ photographs © Raghu Rai / Magnum Photos. You can see more of Rai’s work at: magnumphotos.com/photographer/raghuprai, and learn more about his photography school at: raghuraicenterforphotography.com_

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6 Photo 7 Photo 8
Dockyard, Kolkata, India, 1990