‘Such images of war can help shape a society wary of war’ An Interview with Raghu Rai

Born in 1942 in Punjab, in undivided India, Raghu Rai was a five-year-old when the horror of Partition drove his family from the comfort of their home in today’s Pakistan to Delhi. It was within the crucible of conflict, displacement and uncertainty that his interest in photography began to take hold. 

Tall and stately, Rai carries his age and the pressures of being India’s most reputed photographer lightly. His iconic presence is accentuated by the stylishly casual manner in which he carries his camera, which is a veritable weapon-like tool for capturing the range of emotions that display the unvarnished truth about misery, deprivation, pain and change. He is most recognised for his profiles of Mother Teresa, Bismillah Khan and the Dalai Lama. Among historical events he chronicled were the Bangladesh War and the suffering of the refugees who crossed into India in millions in 1971. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1972 for making the world take note of the refugees’ plight. His photographic study of the victims of the Bhopal gas leak in 1984 has images that are intuitive, honest, and an important testament to the potency of a chemical disaster.

Rai’s focus is on people and their emotions in various surroundings rather than symmetry or formal composition. An ability to capture the moment distinguishes his work from the ordinary. Like the iconic Henri Cartier-Bresson, he believes in the power of black and white photographs to create a dimension absent in the colour image. It is this timeless quality that paves the way for his photographs to be showcased in international exhibitions or the drawing rooms of the discerning. It was Cartier-Bresson himself, after seeing his solo exhibition in Europe in 1972 on the Bangladesh war, who invited the young Raghu Rai to join Magnum Photos — the world’s premier photographers’ collective. The gesture constituted recognition of the best, by the best.  

Photo by Raghu Rai

The SIGMA team met him in his tastefully appointed studio, which is full of recognition of his achievements, self-portraits and his work on assignment. In a candid interview, he delved into his iconic Bangladesh refugee images, describing how a conflict provides opportunities to a lensman. Rai is a mesmerising raconteur with an earthy style who tells tales of resilience, of shattered lives, and flickering hope and their value for the photographer in him. It is not just his pictures that convey a thousand emotions, his words too weave a vivid tapestry of the suffering and unwavering courage that he witnessed during those tumultuous times. His reminiscences left us wondering whether the photographs are a manifestation of the sensitive sensibility of a photographer or he is merely a medium capturing critical moments forever

During the 1971 monsoon, India witnessed an influx of approximately 10 million refugees from East Pakistan. As a photographer with The Statesman, I was frequently called upon, whenever a significant case or event occurred. I vividly recall the urgency with which I was summoned to Calcutta — where the newspaper’s main office was — and I was fully aware of the gravity of the unfolding situation. At the border, the scene was poignant. There were no official border seals at the time. Jessore town had become the focal point. Thousands, including young children, were undertaking the treacherous journey on foot, only a few were able to secure passage on bullock carts. Their ordeal was harrowing, the atmosphere was one of profound grief and utter silence. The refugees walked tirelessly, uncertain of their destination. Melancholy hung heavily upon them. Many sought refuge wherever they could. I remember large pipes scattered throughout the landscape which became shelters and homes for many families. Small schools had also turned into temporary shelters. The government allowed these makeshift settlements. This was the scene at several border points, and my team and I made multiple trips to document the breadth of the situation accurately. 

Photo by Raghu Rai

During this time, I also witnessed the emergence of the Mukti Bahini, which means ‘Liberation Army’. These were untrained soldiers armed with outdated rifles who were bravely attempting to maintain order amidst the chaos. However, the limited resources made their efforts inadequate to control the escalating situation. When the number of refugees reached hundreds of thousands, the Indian government recognised the need to take urgent action. It extended military aid to the Mukti Bahini. This continued for several months, and I extensively documented all these events, visiting various border areas, and the newspaper published a visual record of the events. The photos attracted considerable attention, particularly when I exhibited them in European countries. However, it was the images depicting the plight of the Bangladeshi refugees that became the primary focus of international media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and French and British newspapers. The recognition these photos received served as a testament to the gravity of the situation and the necessity for urgent global awareness. 

In the meantime, the crisis had escalated further. I recall another momentous incident from that period: when the Pakistani Army attacked our airport. At the time, I was accompanied by a captain of the Indian Army inside the first column. Despite the danger, I remained determined to document the situation. I remember a brief interaction with the captain: “Tumhari tasveer ban rahi hai?” It was imperative that I had the photographs of the crisis ready. It was not a little known endeavour, to say the least.

The war persisted for 12 long days under the leadership of Major General J.F.R. Jacob. In an interview, Gen. Jacob confided in me his fears about the size of the Indian Army compared to its Pakistani counterpart. Given the overwhelming odds, he expressed concerns about the potential consequences if he were captured and/or killed. Nevertheless, the Indian Army pressed forward under his leadership, and Gen. Jacob issued an ultimatum to the Pakistani Army. Within 24 hours, Gen. A.A.K. Niazi of the Pakistani Army expressed a desire for the two leaderships to meet. He had agreed to surrender, although not publicly. Gen. Niazi had another condition — that someone other than Gen. Jacob would undertake the signing of the surrender papers (owing to his religious affiliations). Consequently, Gen. J.S. Aurora assumed this responsibility. I had the privilege of documenting this momentous historical event through the means of my career in photojournalism.   

Photo by Raghu Rai

The approach I used to capture photographs of the crisis was very personal. Having experienced the Partition firsthand, having been a five-year-old refugee from Lahore, I could not help seeing myself reflected in the young children braving the rain alongside their parents. I had also left home to embark on a difficult journey to India during the monsoon. I resonated with them. It was as if I recognised a younger version of myself in their faces: ‘Woh shayad Raghu Rai aa raha hai beech mein.’ I caught a glimpse of my past, and I couldn’t help but find the story of my journey in theirs. The atrocities committed during that time were staggering. Many women were subjected to violence and rape. Like every other person, they were stripped of safety and security. Their stories, too, found their way into my photographs as I sought to capture the unvarnished reality of their situation. There was one old woman who caught my eye, sitting with a very determined expression on her face. Initially, I photographed her from a distance, trying to capture her stoic and strong yet still composure. But, as I moved closer to her, a wave of emotion engulfed her features, and tears streamed down her face. She was a Bengali and I wondered how to communicate with her. 

Perhaps speaking to the old woman might have allowed me to capture the essence of her circumstances far more intimately, were I to foray beyond my neutral perspective. But I do not believe that an artist should be hands-on within the frame of the events being photographed, changing the substance of the events themselves. In times of conflict, someone like me could not make a significant material difference, armed as I was with just a camera lens and my two hands. Saving one life is possible, but the task is overwhelming when one stops to consider that there are millions of people who are suffering and there is limited time to help, or even connect with them individually. There was so much happening around me. Everywhere I looked, there were refugees in dire need of help. The government had set up camps to provide them with aid like rice and other grains. Despite my desire to help, I could do little as a photographer. The most I could do to help was to perform my role as a responsible photojournalist. I did my best to capture the intense suffering of these people, portraying their reality as honestly as possible. That was the best way I could help. Perhaps I could (and did) not intervene in the moment to alter history even by an inch, but when I revisit those pictures, I feel a sense of satisfaction. As a young photographer, I could accurately capture the intensity of the situation, evoking at least some emotion in those who viewed the images afterwards. It reassures me that my work has had a lasting impact. Even now, I’m working on a book with similar subject matter, and I am doing the best I can in my capacity as a photojournalist without crossing any ethical and moral limits imperative to my profession.

During the Vietnam War, photographers often moved the bodies to get better pictures of the horrors and while ethical documentation of war in war zones is not really possible even otherwise, in war-torn situations full of suffering photographers should not manhandle bodies just to get the perfect shot. As a photographer, I didn’t ask these people personal questions about their origins or families. That is the job of a reporter. Instead, I focused on documenting the situation and scenes around me in the most faithful manner I could. We only spent a little time in camps because we were constantly on the move, travelling along the highways and relying on reports from people we encountered. We were like nomads, trying to capture the essence of everything. 

Now, when I flip through my photo album, I see the fruit of my labour — it contains so many arresting pictures. Looking at those photos, I can sympathise with the suffering and pain. Each photograph holds special significance. I see myself as a product of all my experiences, big and small. I don’t measure my work based on the most significant or most important achievement. Instead, I dedicate myself to exploring and understanding the truth. Every truth matters in any situation, which is what I aim to capture. When I think about it, it is a definite possibility that such images of war can ultimately help shape a better and more progressive liberal society that is wary of war. I have no doubt that capturing images of someone like Mother Teresa, who helped the poor and cared for them, could make a difference in the world. My target audience is everyone. I emphasise that I always aim to capture the intensity of situations in the most faithful way possible. I owe everything to the situations I capture, and it’s essential for me to be honest about them. And as for the issue of censorship that is so prevalent nowadays, since I was dealing with a humanitarian crisis, nobody ever questioned anything.  

Regarding technology, back in the day we had very limited gear options. There was only a little equipment available in India. I had one camera and a few lenses. Now, you can easily buy lenses off the shelf. So many options are available, such as different cameras, big lenses, and wide-angle lenses. I only had a standard lens, a wide lens, and one telephoto lens. During the ’70s, there were also import restrictions. It was an entirely different time. The foreign photographers did have two or three cameras usually. Even the negative reels had to be physically sent to Calcutta to be developed. The challenges I faced were a fair number but, all things considered, I think my project turned out quite successful in its attempt to make my audience aware of what was going on. I don’t believe that artificial technology can achieve that kind of pathos that real flesh-and-blood photographers can with the essence of a situation. 

AI is a time-bound concept. It is real-time photography that will remain eternal. It embodies the eternal truth of reality. When people say, ‘that happened’, they acknowledge the authenticity of the captured image. Anything artificial or fake cannot withstand the test of time. When one passes away, along with the people who remembered and praised one’s achievements, nobody is left to witness what one had once created. On the other hand, honest documentation will always inspire a sense of awe. My sponsor for my book on Bangladesh commended me thus: “What an important task you have done for Bangladesh. This cannot be erased from the face of the earth and history. It is a visual history which you have recorded.” How can artificial intelligence ever hope to replicate that? I may not be knowledgeable about AI, but I don’t need to rely on it. I live life to the fullest, experiencing and understanding the world around me. I do not need AI. Artificial intelligence and technology are for those who don’t fully embrace life’s experiences. And I am neither that person, nor that photographer. 


About the author: Born in 1942 in Punjab, in an undivided India, Raghu Rai, was a 5 year old when horrors of partition drove his family from the comfort of their home in today’s Pakistan to Delhi.  It was within the crucible of conflict, displacement and uncertainty that his interest in photography began to blossom. 

Tall and stately, Raghu Rai carries his age and the pressures of being India’s top photographer very lightly. His iconic presence accentuated by the stylishly casual manner in which he carries his camera,  Raghu Rai has used them as tools or weapons for capturing a wide range of emotions that display unvarnished truth about misery, deprivation, pain and change.  He is most recognised for his profiles as the founder of Missionaries of Charity. Mother Teresa, the eminent  Shehnah exponent, Bismillah Khan, and His Holiness the Dala Lama. Some of the events he chronicled include the Bangladesh War and the suffering of the refugees (1971) who crossed in millions into India. He was awarded the “Padma Shri” in 1972 for making the world sit up to the plight of the refugees. His photographic study of the victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy (1984). intuitive, honest, and are an important testament of how potent a chemical disaster can be. Rai subjects are people, their emotions in different surroundings rather than focusing on symmetry or formal composition. He has the ability to capture the moment that separates his work from that of the ordinary. Like the iconic photographer, Henri Cartier Bresson, he believes in the ability of  black and white photographs to lend a dimension that is missing in colored photos and results in creating timeless images. It is for this reason that many of his photographs are found hanging in international exhibitions or the drawing rooms of the discerning. It was Bresson again,who saw his single man exhibition in 1972 on the Bangladesh war, and invited him to join the Magnum photos. This invitation to join the photographer’s cooperative, Magnum, is the recognition of the best by the best.  

SIGMA met with him in his tastefully appointed studio, which is full of  recognition of his achievements, his self portraits and also photographs taken by him during his various professional assignments. In a candid interview, he delved deep into the depths of his famous Bangladesh War Refugee Photographs, sharing with the Sigma team how a conflict provides opportunities to a cameraman.  Rai is a good raconteur who recounts in his earthy style tales of resilience, of shattered lives and flickering hope and what they mean to him as a photographer. It was evident that it was not just his pictures that convey a thousand emotions, but his words also paint a vivid tapestry of suffering and unwavering courage that he witnessed during those tumultuous times. He left us wondering whether the photographs are a manifestation of the sensitive sensibility of a photographer or he is merely an instrument that captures the critical moment.


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