Part 3: Bresson, Talent & Digital Technology
You teach photography a lot, in your eyes is talent born or bred?
One of the organizations here sent me to schools and colleges to speak to children. One of the important things I shared with them was that I have never met a mother who produces geniuses. You know usually people say geniuses are born. (Laughs) Bullshit! I mean it’s within the reach of anybody and everybody but you have to be born out of your gut in order to achieve that level of excellence. And then you have to be reborn everyday of it. Don’t think that you come out of your guts and produce this work and it’s done.
So do you still take commissions these days or is it all personal work?
No, I keep doing personal work and when I take commissioned jobs I work them as personal projects. Without the personal, the personal journey, nothing will have strength.
How do you go about selecting the commissions then?
Well, basically they have to be connected to life and people. Higher level of consciousness. And subjects with more complexities, I love it better because it puts you to better exercise of the mind and the whole gamut of things happening in front of you becomes more challenging.
So if you had a friend who told you his son had ‘gone Photographer’ as your father did, what would your reply be?
Yes. (Laughs) So I would say Wonderful. You see we need poets, we need passionate people, we need mad people to bring about a certain sense of balance and curiosity in this world.
Your brother and son are photographers as well. It was your brother who introduced you to photography right?
So I guess the question is who is the best photographer out of the 3 of you?
No, this is not fair. (Laughs) This is not a fair question. It’s up to people to judge and say. I can’t say that. That’s not fair.
What kind of photography is your son pursuing?
Well, basically documentary photography and also commercial photography because he goes “Dad, it doesn’t get me good money, there’s no point spending time taking the pictures.” And these young guys are very confident and they do it well. But you see this spiritual journey is something very personal and an inner calling, you cannot give it to anybody.
He doesn’t consult you on his development as a photographer?
No, once in a while he comes with a very nice image and then he says “See Dad!” I say ” Yes sonny, you also done it. Very good.” But he does all kinds of work and he’s very happy doing that. But I won’t do that. (Laughs)
What kind of photographs don’t you like?
A) When it’s very trendy. B) When it’s posed and composed. And all that is predictable and pretty.
You probably get asked this question quite a lot – your relationship with Bresson.
You see Bresson was a great man and a great human being also. And let me tell you, unlike some others, even if he saw one good picture from you, he would say “Wow, very good.” And he’ll keep in touch also. He was a very basic, humble human being. To him, everybody mattered.
Do you have any feelings about his last days when he dropped and dismissed photography.
That’s his choice. But the guy had such a massive body of work and a huge journey into creativity in photography that he must have felt he had touched every corner of it. (Laughs) And he feels this is enough for him. That’s his choice you know.
I think it was in 2001 or 2002, we were in Paris. I met him, me and my wife, and he said he was going to Arles, South of France where his farm was. I told him we were planning to go to Arles Festival. He said “Oh really? Why don’t you come to my home and spend the day with us?” So we went to spend the day with him. And by 3 o’clock after a long lunch and everything, he says “Raghu, I have to go to a friend’s wedding and take some pictures and I’ll just come back. Can you wait for me for an hour?” I said sure. (Laughs) He picks up his camera, goes and attends his friend’s wedding, takes some pictures and comes back happily. And he was also doing his paintings and drawings and whatever else.
I have admired Bresson, people like André Kertész, even Paul Strand. But when I shoot, none of them exist for me. So that’s when you have to live your creative life.
Do you paint yourself or dabble in other forms of art?
No, I only listen to a lot of Indian classical music. I do gardening. And I’m a loverboy. I love life.
Tell us about your upcoming Masterclass at Kumbh Mela and what participants can expect.
Not the usual pretty pictures that you’ve seen in one Kumbh Mela and the other one. The idea is to take them deeper into the depths and minds, and the endless faith, that rural India has in religion. And the lives of Babas and Sadus – where do they come from, rather then taking pictures of them running naked in the water and then feeling good about it. They have to come up with something more deep and unique.
Digital photography gives you an advantage. You take a picture and you see it right away and you know where you are going. And so you don’t repeat yourself again when you see you are doing similar things.
I’ve been to a few Kumbh Melas and my own delimna and problem is oh God, there’s so much of it. how to handle it. So you simplify, you be quiet because so much is happening in front of you. So you learn to be the man with the cool eye and gradually start receiving things in a fresh way. As I said, with digital technology, you take a shot and you know exactly what’s happening – where your mind and your eyes are taking you. So let’s start all over again and see where we can go.
And as I said before, he shows me something and no, it’s not enough. “God, this is something I have seen before so I’m not accepting it.” So he opens something else for me. Similarly, young minds who learn to wait and be patient, and connect completely, then Nature has much more to offer. My way of functioning is very practical, it’s born out of my personal experience. And there can’t be a more simplified way of sharing the process of creativity with anybody else.
You seem to be very embracing of digital technology. When did you switch over from film?
I think it was 2003 when I was asked to do a big story on Bombay City for Geo Magazine, France. I had just bought a Nikon D100 camera and it only had 6 Megapixels. And if you wanted to take quick pictures it would not because shooting RAW, you take 2 pictures and the third one it couldn’t digest, so you had to wait. So I put the camera on JPG mode. And I went to Bombay with 3 cameras – 2 film cameras with a whole lot of film, and a new digital camera. And I thought today is my first day in Bombay, let me begin with digital and get my concentration and then move onto film. And from that moment till today, I haven’t been able to go back to using film. And of course, Geo Magazine was very upset because they said my JPGs weren’t good enough for printing. (Laughs) So what we did was we took the JPGs to a printer here who had a great scanner. He enhanced the quality of the pictures.
But that day and today I tell you, this is such a fascinating technology. I am reborn and so happy to be using it. The control, the freedom and the madness it has is amazing you know.
So you’re shooting exclusively digital now.
Yeah, for many years now. I had started doing very good panoramics on India. But unfortunately there is no digital panoramic camera available and I suffer. But I can’t go back to using film.
What are you currently working on?
I’ve just finished editing the book on trees which is going to be the best of my work in terms of creative expression. And I’m working on so many book projects. Each one is precious to me. They were not born out of any editorial need, they were born out of their own conception. In the process of traveling, I conceived them, got pregnant and I’m supposed to deliver now. And that’s the best when you can truly be creative – when there are no parameters, no editorial needs, no dictates and you are coming purely from instincts.
We have a few of your books and they’re all in that same, rather large size. Why?
Well, you see, I have been a very greedy person. The bigger the books, I feel much better. Maybe it’s related to my ego or something. But definitely, when the size is big, you can get into the details of the photograph much better.
But now I have started doing books in a smaller sizes so it’s cheaper and young photographers especially can buy them.
Let me just add, there is no end to these things. But life has been very good. I feel very fulfilled. And there are many ways of doing books, photography and everything else so as long as what we share is precious and magical.
Okay, I think we’ve pretty much covered most of the questions we had.
That was quite a lot. (Laughs) We’ve gone on for an hour.
Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. All the best. God bless you.
READ PART 2: Invisible Interview: Raghu Rai, India – Part 2: Criticism, Religion & Colour Photography
VIEW GALLERY: Photo Essay: The Magical Streets Of Raghu Rai’s India
Raghu Rai interviewed by Kevin WY Lee