PHOTOJOURNALISM IN INDIA TODAY

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A year after the daguerreotype and calotype were invented in France and Europe, photography was introduced in India in 1840. In truth, it was a tool used by colonialists to document the native Indians. However, not much remains of the photographs of the 40s; hence the history is rather linear. What survives of the 40s today is just a fraction of the photographs taken at that time. One of the earliest surviving photographs from India is a street scene from Uttar Pradesh, taken by an unknown amateur around 1843-45 from a collection of family photographs resting in the Getty Museum right now[i].   From 1850s onwards, the history of Indian photography would get more complex with numerous works being available: from pictorial photography to studio photography in the metros like Calcutta and Bombay to work of travelling photographers. Willam Henri Pigou, Linnaeus Tripe, Dr. John Murray and Samuel Bourne are celebrated amongst the earliest of the photographers documenting India in the 1850s. This decade also saw the flourishing photographic societies: first, in Bombay in 1854 and in Calcutta and Madras in 1956[ii]. The earlier of the native photographers was Ahmad Ali Khan, the most accomplished in Lucknow before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, documenting the pre-Mutiny life in the city. Some of the later photographers included Lala Deen Dayal[iii] and Abbas Ali.

In 1856, Reverend Joseph Mullens complained to the Bengal Photographic Society that photographers in Bengal were being timid. Most of the photographs that were taken by them were either shot from the balcony or the roof[iv]. In his words, a ‘more complete and systematic photographic endeavor to document the perfect specimen of all the minute varieties of Oriental Life; of Oriental Scenery, Oriental nations and Oriental manners’ was needed the most. It would take half a century more for the evolution affordable and mobile technology. While previously, Samuel Bourne and John Murray’s work were mostly possible due to official support, things would change drastically with the onset of the twentieth century. Photographers took to the street.

The key moment in the history of Indian photography in the midst of a technological transition was Lord Curzon’s decision that the 1903 Delhi Durbar be covered by a large number of visual journalists[v]. Curzon’s intention was to direct the world’s attention towards Delhi. Sixty-four newspapers would cover the event. It was a turning point, like the Hindenburg incident. However, the impact of mobile technology in the photographic circle is best observed in the photographs of Narayan Vinayak Virkar, who is best remembered in India for his photographs of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre on 13 April 1919. On that Sunday, Brigadier Dyer shot at a strong Indian crowd protesting against the British.[vi] NV Virkar, a young photographer who studied photography in Lahore and worked as a X-Ray photographer, arrived at the scene soon after the massacre and took photographic evidence of one of colonial India’s most tragic incidents[vii].

Indian photojournalism flourished in the last decade of the Raj with the introduction of newer and lighter cameras like the Rolleiflex, the Speedgraphic, the Leica, and the Contax that allowed photographers to be far more mobile. The rise of the press owned by both Anglo-Indians (Times of India, Statesman) as well as nationalists (Bombay Chronicle, Leader, Bande Mataram, Hindustan Times), provided a powerful boost to this kind of photography. Images of nationalist leaders that had so far been censored by the British government could now be printed for greater public access[viii]. The good times gave birth to iconic photographers like Sunil Janah, T.S Satyan and Homai Vyarawalla, amongst numerous others.

In an interview taken by me, Kushal Ray of Drik India laments the early practice of not giving credit to photojournalists by the newspapers. This has led to the Indian media having a vast image-bank, mostly comprising of works by unknown photojournalists. Kushal Ray’s article on photography in Bengal is quite informative and there’s a part dedicated to Sunil Janah, the most famous of the earlier photojournalists. An excerpt is presented below:

Sunil Janah, who began his career in 1940, is arguably the foremost photographer of his time. He captured an India in transition; his work scanned peasant and labour movements, the horrors of Partition, and the rapid industrialization and urbanization that followed India’s independence. He had the vision of an artist, which distinguished him from the photojournalists of his time. Janah’s oeuvre is an important heritage, valued by collectors.

Homai Vyarawalla, Janah’s contemporary was introduced to photography by her boyfriend Maneckshaw[ix] and many of her earlier works were published under his byline. Beginning her career in Bombay during the World War II, Vyarawalla shifted base to Delhi around Independence recording key political and social events till she laid down her camera in 1970, after the death of her husband and frowning over the lack of decency in the new generation of photojournalists[x]. Homai Vyarawalla is regarded as India’s first woman photojournalist, whose 10,000 odd photographs document a young India. Kulwant Roy was born in 1914, one year after the birth of Homai Vyarawalla. He joined the Royal Indian Air Force, where he specialized as an aerial photographer; after his stint with RIAF, he captured some noteworthy images documenting India’s past. In 1958, Roy decided to go on a photographic tour around the world. He kept sending back negatives to India, only to discover on his return in 1961 that they have been stolen. Brokenhearted, Kulwant Roy spent the later years roaming around garbage dumps looking for his lost negatives. He left his archive with his young nephew Aditya Arya and today they survive in the Aditya Arya Archives[xi].

Kishor Parekh (1930-82) can be regarded as the father of modern Indian photojournalism and is responsible for changing the face of the field. Pablo Bartholomew writes in ENTER[xii], a publication of the World Press Photo Education Department:

For six years from 1961, as Chief Photographer for New Delhi’s premier newspaper the Hindustan Times, Kishor fought for his photos rather than go with the flow at a time when the photographer was just an accompaniment to the journalist. Editorially, images were not valued and he wrestled with all around him to make the change…

…It was unheard for a photo to run across eight columns on the front page. But Kishor won his battles, not because of any personal chemistry with the owners of Hindustan Times but because of reader response to his sensitive images.

Introducing the idea of the picture story to India, he was deeply influenced by the work of Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White.

Two photographers born in 1942, Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh began their respective journeys as photographers in the sixties. While Raghubir Singh is regarded as one of the pioneers of color photography in the world, Raghu Rai is probably India’s most acclaimed photojournalist. His work on the 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy and its aftermath can be regarded as one of the most important documentary projects in India. Another photographer associated with that same tragedy, Pablo Bartholomew won the World Press Photo of the Year for his photograph of the unknown child being buried after the gas disaster[xiii]. In the first edition of Delhi Photo Festival, Dayanita Singh talks about the male-dominated world of photojournalists in Delhi in the eighties and how interesting her journey as a photographer had been. Dayanita’s most important work is probably on her dear friend Mona Ahmed, a work I consider supreme in the documentary genre[xiv].

Fawzan Husain, one of the leading photojournalists of today confesses to Tariq Ansari in an interview[xv]:

I was the first to jump from film to digital because I realized that it would save me money. In fact, the dealer from whom I bought my first digital camera told me that I was the second person in Bombay to buy a digital camera!

Digital photography would bring in a photographic revolution in India, as in other parts of the world with the turn of the century. By 2009, a middle-class family possessing a dSLR was as common as possessing an air-conditioner. With the internet, having visual access to great images is not at all difficult today. The Delhi Photo Festival, in many ways has created renewed global interest in Indian photography, including photojournalism. The biennial festival, which started in 2011, is an initiative to bring photography into the public space, thereby creating awareness of photographic arts and initiating dialogue amongst its many practitioners and lovers[xvi]. It is hailed as one of the most important photo festivals of Asia, after Chobi Mela in Bengladesh and the Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia. The media too has had a makeover with different newspapers and magazines publishing photographic essays in the country. The Hindu and MINT regularly publishes photo-features. Magazines and journals like Motherland, The Caravan, Fountain Ink, The Sunday Guardian publishes photo-stories in every issue. PIX: A Photography Quarterly is curated by Rahaab Allana, famed curator of Alkazi Foundation of Arts. Its exhibitions amongst others, is one of the more interesting spaces for photography in Asia.

To many Indian photojournalists, the cyberspace is the new playground. Galli Magazine and Aksgar are important e-magazines dedicated to showcasing interesting work. Bartholomew.tv is the website of Richard and Pablo, chronicling an intimate India since the 50s. Fabien Charuau’s Send Some Candids is one of the most interesting curatorial projects that India has witnessed in recent years. Fabie revealed to us, a new genre of candid photography in India, sourced from Indian porn websites. Thousands of Indian men across India surreptitiously take pictures of women with their mobile phone cameras and post them on these sites. Fabien’s project is a shocking exposé about the crisis of Indian masculinity with the evolution of technology.

In Dylan’s words: The Times They Are a-Changin’

As Indian photojournalism evolves with time, it would be interesting to observe how things change for Indian photojournalism and how the young Indian photojournalist finds a distinctively Indian voice, like Raghubir Singh or Pablo Bartholomew or Sohrab Hura.


[iv] Anon. To the Members of the Photographic Society of Bengal (Calcutta: 1857)

[v] Christopher Pinney; The Coming of Photography in India

[vi] Wikipedia

[viii] Uncovering histories: iconic and not so iconic images and their little-known authors | Marg

[xii] ENTER | Edition 9

[xiii] 1984 Bhopal Gas Tragedy by Pablo Bartholomew

[xv] FAITH: Photographs by Fawzan Husain | Tasveer Catelogue

[xvi] DPF Website

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