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Home > News> Talking Point > How this photojournalist's work tells the story of India

How this photojournalist's work tells the story of India

Photojournalist Prashant Panjiar's new book looks back on a nearly 40-year career spent capturing change and continuity in independent India

In 1985, covering the state elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Panjiar heard of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fleeing the war in Jaffna and arriving in Tamil Nadu. He rushed to Rameswaram to capture this. Panjiar writes:...there was no way I was going to get photos sitting on the shore...soon I was in a fishing boat heading out to sea...we waited bobbing about in the waves...distant speck in the horizon became larger and a boat full of refugees came into view. I had my picture.
In 1985, covering the state elections in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, Panjiar heard of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees fleeing the war in Jaffna and arriving in Tamil Nadu. He rushed to Rameswaram to capture this. Panjiar writes:...there was no way I was going to get photos sitting on the shore...soon I was in a fishing boat heading out to sea...we waited bobbing about in the waves...distant speck in the horizon became larger and a boat full of refugees came into view. I had my picture. (Prashant Panjiar; From That Which is Unseen)

It’s a striking cover. A strip of an old Kodak Tri-X negative runs across. Three black and white pictures, seemingly of images 12 to 14 from an old 35mm roll, are laid on this strip, within a ridge. The black and white is in sharp contrast to the chilli red of the hardbound. If you are looking for the title, it only comes to view gently, debossed as it is above the strip of images. The author’s name is even smaller, similarly debossed, above the title. The message is clear: This book is all about the images—not the words, not their author.

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The book is published by Navajivan Trust; 136 pages, Rs. 3,000
The book is published by Navajivan Trust; 136 pages, Rs. 3,000

Indeed, that was one of the main considerations for Prashant Panjiar, the photojournalist-author, as he chose from over a hundred stories for a book spanning his career. Titled That Which Is Unseen, and published last month, the book has many of the iconic photographs that once accompanied stories for the publications Panjiar worked for. Here, though, he is telling the story of his images—vignettes that wouldn’t have made it to the news or the reporter’s story.

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In 2006, Panjiar shot at Bengaluru-based SDTC Exports, the largest exporter of human hair in India. He writes: Inside, women sat on the floor and brushed the hair through giant metal combs to remove impurities. Strands of equal length were collected, bundled and tied together. The best quality was reserved for Great Lengths International, the world’s leading hair extension company…
In 2006, Panjiar shot at Bengaluru-based SDTC Exports, the largest exporter of human hair in India. He writes: Inside, women sat on the floor and brushed the hair through giant metal combs to remove impurities. Strands of equal length were collected, bundled and tied together. The best quality was reserved for Great Lengths International, the world’s leading hair extension company… (Prashant Panjiar; From That Which Is Unseen)

Panjiar’s almost 40-year-long career has spanned publications like The Patriot, India Today and Outlook. As an independent photojournalist in the latter half of his career, Panjiar would often look back at his archive “to assess the work and find answers as to how to go ahead”. In 2017-18, he decided to relocate to Goa. “When I was reorganising my archives (there), I had started posting on social media, short backstories to some of my pictures. There was a bit of response for it,” he recalls.

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Each image would bring a memory to life—some adventurous, some sombre, yet others of struggle and camaraderie. Vivek Desai, the managing trustee of Navajivan Trust and a photographer in his own right, happened to see the posts and in 2019, reached out to Panjiar to turn them into a book.

Industrialist Vijay Mallya, shot in 2003. The image accompanied a scathing story by the writer Aravind Adiga for Time magazine. Panjiar recalls Mallya later exclaiming: I don’t give a shit—publicity is publicity even if it is bad publicity
Industrialist Vijay Mallya, shot in 2003. The image accompanied a scathing story by the writer Aravind Adiga for Time magazine. Panjiar recalls Mallya later exclaiming: I don’t give a shit—publicity is publicity even if it is bad publicity (Prashant Panjiar; From That Which is Unseen)

Divided chronologically into four sections, over 1981-2010, the book tells 59 stories, some with multiple images. Each is barely 500 words—quick and witty.

Panjiar’s oeuvre draws a wide arc, charting the life and times of a country: from following dacoits in the Chambal region to politicians on the campaign trail; from rediscovering forgotten pockets of Anglo-Indian communities to understanding the quieter, harsh realities of child foeticide; from showing starvation and poverty, to cheeky insights into the lives of the rich and famous. His accompanying observations remind us that the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same.

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“The idea was that the stories should interest non-photographers too, and anyone who is interested in contemporary history in India. Whenever a story became too much about me, I left that out."

In January 2001, Panjiar was at the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Slightly unwell, he was running late and lost his way to the place where the media was to gather. He landed up on the side meant for the sadhus. He took his position in, as he writes, knee-deep water, and shot this now-iconic image when they charged in. He concludes this story: For once, being lost and clueless actually paid off
In January 2001, Panjiar was at the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). Slightly unwell, he was running late and lost his way to the place where the media was to gather. He landed up on the side meant for the sadhus. He took his position in, as he writes, knee-deep water, and shot this now-iconic image when they charged in. He concludes this story: For once, being lost and clueless actually paid off (Prashant Panjiar, Outlook; From That Which is Unseen by Prashant Panjiar)
  • LAST UPDATED
    05.11.2021 | 07:37 PM IST

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