Masterclass: Raghu Rai on Finding Calm in Chaos for the Perfect Photograph

The veteran photojournalist discusses his craft with Ashima Narain.  
Churchgate Mumbai Railway Station
Photo: Raghu Rai

I am called a photographer, and my dharma is photography but I think of myself as an explorer. To me, the best way to explore life is through photography. Life changes constantly, so the more you explore the more you are enriched. Aap jitna karte hai, aapki utni bhook aur pyaas badhti hai (the more you do, the more your hunger and thirst increase).

A photographer’s body language and approach must adapt to the mood of the place. You need to connect, your movements need to become part of the scene so you can become invisible—that’s when you capture moments.

I was born and brought up in India, and for the last 50 years I have explored my country and developed a kind of sensitivity towards the little details of life—I feel and understand subtle nuances, which affects my response to the subject, and makes my work a little more nuanced. I don’t like to think too much about the kinds of pictures I want to make before I get to a place, because any information you receive is second hand. I believe photography is about the instinct that you have, how you experience a place, and respond to it.

To find calm in chaos, I think it’s important to understand the spiritual aspect of our lives. Think of a musician playing to a rapt audience that is connecting with him. Their collective energy and concentration empowers him. Similarly, in my discipline, when you walk into a situation, nature and life start performing for you. Each one of us have music within us, a rhythm that comes alive with life and nature.

When so much is happening around you, immerse yourself in the chaos. Feel the rhythm, connect with the energy of the scene, and the calm will emerge. When it does, seize the moment immediately. That is your moment of honesty. That is your picture.

During rush hour at Churchgate Station in Mumbai (pictured above), people appear and disappear within minutes. It’s like a human deluge. A train arrives, and the platform is full, then suddenly it is empty again. Then another train comes in, and there are hundreds of people. I wanted to capture this so I made the men reading the newspaper my point of reference.  To capture the movement around them, I shot at 1/8th of a second. I didn’t have my tripod so I used an electric box to steady my camera.

There are two growing trends in India: Fine art photography, which seems to be largely about textures and colours—things that we were taught not to photograph in the ’70s, because at the time, pretty and predictable was anti-creativity. The second is archival photography.

While it’s good to have historical documentation, most of these images are not timeless photographs. Just because something is old doesn’t mean it has to be put in a gallery or a book. It needs to have something extraordinary to share. When I edit my work, I am ruthless, because I feel I have a responsibility. It is important that even after 40 years, when I look at an image, it should still hold together. It should have the same level of energy to speak to me again.

If I can be honest with my own work I feel others should be too. If photographers want to shoot pretty, mediocre work, and feel happy about it, they should not ask for my opinion. Photography is my dharam and it is really precious to me. My heart bleeds when I have to unnecessarily hold back. Photography needs to be discussed with honesty, without any bias or prejudice.

Marina Beach Chennai

Photo: Raghu Rai

I took this image at a temple near Marina Beach in Chennai, where people believe they will feel positive vibrations by listening to a pool of water. I thought it would be interesting to shoot.

A lot of people ask me about my faith—my faith lies in the eyes of my countrymen, who I photograph. What I see in their eyes—suffering, happiness or whatever—becomes me and that’s my whole world. My images are moments of fulfilment that carry their own energy and current, and speak to me. If other people enjoy it, that’s an additional benefit.

I’m not the kind of person who carries my work close to my chest. I do it with all my love and passion but when it’s done, it’s finished. Agli dafah aap ko darshan milenge agar aap khali ho jayenge (the next encounter can only happen in a state of emptiness).

It is important to purge yourself, which is not always easy because God has given us nearly infinite memory. We store so much information in terms of sights and sounds—and most of us tap into this when we are taking pictures. You’re placed in a situation and you’re wondering how to take a good picture. You suddenly think of some beautiful picture you have already seen, and you presume this is the best way to capture the situation. I keep telling young photographers, don’t take versions of the pictures that are already in your head. Don’t rip off something that exists—create something different. Playing it safe—technically and compositionally—and remaining in your own comfort zone will always restrict you. You will create sharp, clean, colourful pictures, but there will be no meaning beyond the surface aesthetic.

As a photographer, there are two key rules to remember: Don’t take the steps you have already taken. And don’t take the ones others have taken either. Create something different, unique, something that is yours. There is an entire world waiting to be explored. Travel, understand your own country, enrich yourself with different experiences. Once you start connecting with those energies and changing  equations, it permeates to every aspect of your life.

Lucknow Architecture

Photo: Raghu Rai

Lucknow is a city with amazing architecture. I was shooting everywhere, and then I spotted these boys going up a hill, so I followed them and discovered these minarets and carvings that were almost falling apart. I sat down and waited to see what would unfold. These boys were sitting down, and then somebody else came to have a look, that’s when I had my moment.

It is very important for me that I try to capture the truth. This begins with the physical. The human eye sees everything in focus. So for me, it is very important that every situation that I photograph is in focus. Here too—from these boys right upto the imambara in the distance —everything is in focus. Out of focus for me means—aapke haath mein se nikhal hi gaya (You lost the picture).

Magazines publish images with differential focus—the eyes are in focus, but nothing else. I feel that when you are short of vision, then you look for such gimmicks. Photography is about experimentation, but the image should have the power to stay alive over time, it should have captured the unique.

Instead of playing with form and texture, explore the situation when you are in it. See where it can take you, that is where the creative part comes in. Be inquisitive, that is where the magic lies.

I don’t know how to meditate but making images to me, is a meditative experience, because of the connection and concentration that I feel behind the lens. India is an exotic country for many people. There are so many situations that are vibrant, colorful, and so attractive, and many photographers take these pictures and feel very happy about it. But for me, jo woh dhadkan hoti hai, the heartbeat, that’s where my focus is. If you can find a way to put your finger on it, the calm, the energy, the essence of the moment, will reveal itself to you.


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