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'Every picture for me has a very specific purpose': Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai’s latest book, To France—In India, is an unusual collaboration with the Ambassador of France to India

One of Raghu Rai’s photos of a Pride parade in France. Photo courtesy Raghu Rai and Emmanuel Lenain
One of Raghu Rai’s photos of a Pride parade in France. Photo courtesy Raghu Rai and Emmanuel Lenain

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For more than six decades, award-winning photographer Raghu Rai has shot some of the world’s most iconic photographs of political leaders and landmark events. He’s chronicled some of the worst environmental disasters, including the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, following the unfolding story for more than two decades. In his hands, photographs tell not only news stories but also tales of human rights and social justice. Rai has more than 30 books to his name, on subjects as wide-ranging as the trees of Delhi, and rocks and clouds to portraits of classical music masters, searing photographs that lay bare social injustice, and pictures of monuments that chronicle India’s history. His latest, To France—In India, is an unusual collaboration with the Ambassador of France to India, Emmanuel Lenain.

While Rai has shot scenes of everyday life in France, Lenain’s capture the same in India. Both have chosen to shoot in black and white, and while Rai’s photos date to his pre-pandemic trip in 2019, Lenain has captured life during the lockdown in India. Rai’s compositions are simple yet manage to convey a particular moment and emotion—a musician transported by a tune or a fleeting look of melancholy on a bystander’s face. Lenain’s photographs are celebratory yet disturbing, shot as they are during the second wave of covid-19 in India—people smile at his camera with a gentle resignation, young girls play in deserted public spaces.

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When I ask Rai about the lack of colour in a book about the diversity of nations and life, he explains that photography is not just about light and image—it is “about penetrating life and people’s worlds with depth.” Both photographers seem to have managed that. Mint caught up with Rai at his office in Mehrauli in Delhi to talk about his recent book. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Is there a reason you picked to curate a book of photos about France?

Well, one can do a book anywhere in the world. I can do one on Istanbul, or on New York, but Paris is a place of pilgrimage for me. You know, the first camera was invented there and presented to the world in the 1839. Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was a pioneering street photographer and also my favourite photographer, was from Paris, as well as the person who nominated me to Magnum Photos in 1972. There are so many photographers for whom I have high regard who are from France or were inspired by the country and its spirit. So, my relationship with France has been very precious and that’s why I chose it as the subject for my latest book. I have also visited the country many, many times.

Interestingly, it is not Paris’ most iconic architecture or identifiable monuments—the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre or the Arc de Triomphe—that you have captured. What you have shot instead are a lot of everyday people, everyday scenes, frames that make Paris seem like any other city in the world.

It's the ordinariness of daily life that most of the world lives and that is what I go after. If you can create art through the humdrum banality of daily routine then you have captured the pulse of people and their lives. When you read Ernest Hemingway or watch the films of Satyajit Ray, that is exactly what they base their stories on. Of course, I was staying at a friend’s house in Paris and we were out in the city and saw a lot of everyday Paris. One time, I turned on to the main road and there was this gay procession amidst a lot of action, another time, I walked out and there were topless women. In a sense, it is nature that takes over to start performing for you and I begin taking pictures. Photography is not just about great light and images, it is also about penetrating life and people’s worlds with depth, which is what most people don’t get.

It is unusual for you to work on a book with another photographer. How did you end up partnering with French Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain for this work and how did the idea for you to shoot France and him India come about?

He is a diplomat and a gentleman who has been in India since 2019. I met him at his house one evening and he was talking with me. He said he had been photographing for several years, including while he had been working in India. He asked if I would like to see his photographs. I said, ‘Certainly,’ and so he showed me his pictures. I thought some of the moments he had captured were delicious. His style is so different from mine, in that he’s a diplomat and a gentleman and he keeps a respectable distance camera-wise. I, on the other hand, am a wild bull, which my friend and former editor Aroon Purie will vouch for. It seemed like such a contrast to my approach and I thought that it would be an interesting juxtaposition to see the works side by side, to see the two countries differently. Of course, I am not here to prove anything anymore, but that’s how the book transpired, as a joint effort.

Is there a particular favourite among the photographs you have in this book?

Every brick in this building is important, if you pull out one, it might collapse. Every picture for me has a very specific purpose, otherwise it would not be put into the book. I do have thousands of pictures but I am not the kind who will say, ‘Okay, in this book, I will use 150 pictures, and in the other I'll use 20.’ No, maybe I'll edit out 100 pictures. Then, I begin to look at the selected ones over and over… then again, after a period of time. Then, when the pictures begin to, you know, take a life of their own, and speak to me with the same vibrancy… they make it. I don’t use, nor want to use, everything I shoot.

I’m curious about consent and permission. Do you ask your subjects whether you can photograph them, especially the individuals caught in particular moments, like the picture of the topless women and the man?

Never. By the time you take permission, you spoil the moment, so either you get it or you leave it, and there is no in between. Also, on that shot, there are the nude torsos, then the faces, then you watch the spaces and the hand in the background and of course, the buildings because all this lends to the photo and we all belong somewhere.

What is the next book you are working on? And would you do an anthology of everything or compile the best of your work into one large book?

There are many books, many books, many ideas. The next few ones are on the monsoons, the climate crisis, and on global warming. One big book… hmmm… it would have many, many photographs, a lifetime of images, so let’s see.

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