I spent few hours in my friend Milind Nayak’s studio on Thursday. Milind is a painter and our friendship goes back to early 90s. He was painting a large canvas, 6’X6′. We discussed art over tea and I photographed a bit.
In 1998, I had interviewed the legendary advertising photographer Eric Meola for my magazine LIGHT. It was the first interview that I had done over internet from the sole net cafe on Brigade Road. I would send him questions and go there after a few days to check his answers and then again send some more, so on and so forth! I was going through the interview and thought that it is relevant even today. So here are some excerpts.
MB: Let us start with your early years – in school and college – and how you became interested in photography?
EM: My father was a doctor, and one of his patients was an engineer whose hobby was photography – he got me interested in B&W printing. I began saving money and reading and looking at all the photo books I could get my hands on. As photography was not yet an established in terms of college curriculum, I majored in English literature, but continued shooting and took a few college courses in colour and design. In my junior (thirs) year of college I went to New York as I was drawn to Pete Turner’s work. I interviewed with him, and he told me to come back in a year – fortunately when I came back he was in need of a new assistant, and I got the job.
MB: There has been a change in your style of photography over the last few years, from ultra rich colour graphic images to warm, intense story telling images. A planned progression or an unconscious move?
EM: I was fortunate to have a long run with my commercial work, which continues to this day, but I have now forced myself to re-examine my own work – to throw away concepts and precepts. When I first went to Burma tow years ago, my entire life changes – it is, for me, the most incredible place to photograph, and I went wil, literally running after people shooting, not caring if I was in focus or the exposure was right, but still filled with incredible energy. It was as if I had landed on another planet – it was that unusual. And many of these images are the best I have ever taken.
MB: Was there an instant that made you to look at your work differently?
EM : Mahesh, you are right! The most significant moment in my life was when I was at the sacred Shwedegon pagoda in Rangoon. I had stumbled upon a “coming of age” ceremony for a young boy – he was seven years old and was about to become a monk. He was dressed in all material beauty of his “worldly clothing” – bright colours, sparkling in the sun, carried aloft in the hands of his family and relatives. It was indeed a very moving ceremony, and as he was carried aloft in a circle, I began to cry. Suddenly I found myself caught up in the ceremony and I began running in the circle, taking pictures. And then I learned that he would go to his family’s house for his last feast, and then be brought before a monk to have his head shaved, and dressed in robes- he would become Budha. I realised in an instant that I had to photograph this, but did not know the protocol. When I found out that it was perfectly alright to photograph the ceremony, I was astounded – and our car followed the procession through the winding streets. When the time came, my hands were trembling; I made one last photograph of the boy – side lit by the final rays of sunlight. The as he knelt before the monk, I made the most important single image of my life – the moment where the monk begins to shave his head. It was shot at 1/10th of second with a 200mm f2.8 lens wide open. Somehow, it came out incredibly sharp. Until that moment, I had been thinking about a book project that shows the diverse beauty of this planet’s cultures – especially its rituals and mysticism – but that moment it became real, and I realised that I had to pursue the making of the book with all my spare time. The idea first came when I was at the peak of doing my advertising work – I was up night and day, absorbed completely in the intensity and demands of my work. There were always so many details – details of production that sometimes were in my control, and other times, when the client would change his or her mind at the last second, not im my control.
I realised that this could not go on forever, and that there was a reason I had become photographer, and it was simply, that I was in love with light, with the forms and shapes and colours of photography. I began looking at my personal work, and realised that I had begun to photograph a lot of wildlife, and alos that there was a thematic thread to some of my work. I began thinking about the end of the 20th century, and started planning more personal trips. And little by little, I realised that what I wanted to record was the beauty of hose parts of humanity that are slowly disappearing – culture, ceremony, mysticism. And one day, I thought of the title “The Last Places on Earth”. I sat down and simply started making a list of all the places I wanted to visit, and realised that what I wanted to document was the incredible diversity of this planet, and the fact that we are all the same, in many ways. But it was that moment in Burma, the image of the young boy becoming a monk, that changed my life forever.
To view Eric Meola work, please visit – www.ericmeola.com
Most Bangaloreans are aware of the eviction of Ejipura slum in the city. For the uninitiated, it occupied 15 odd acres near Koramangala, one of the poshest areas in Bangalore. And one fine day, it was razed to the ground to make way for a mall (in the future). Photographers, both professional and amateurs, rushed to the spot. Some spent days documenting the collapse and its aftermath. They were posted on social networking sites and people rushed to help with food, water, blankets and medicines. So far so good. I was watching a photographic presentation on this in the recent Open Show in Bangalore. Several other such bodies of work on protests and photography as ‘protest’ came to my mind. They are all important pieces of work, no doubt. But as I looked closely, I realised that we look only at the surface and don’t really go under the hood.
Today, many photographers embrace the dramatic with the aim of eliciting a gasp from the viewer. Kumbh Mela is dramatic and awe-inspiring. But the emotional undercurrents that run through our society are far more important. I was talking to fellow photographer and film-maker Ryan Lobo and he shared about the rage that he sees in people as he travels around the country and what it can manifest itself as.
We never ask fundamental questions. In the case of Ejipura, we did not ask why did the slum come there in the first place? I feel that photographers should ask fundamental questions on the state of the society, reasons of polarisation of wealth and make images that help us think about the possible answers, irrespective of the genre of photography we choose. “We need to change this world of ours – not just accept it. Question it, take our own directions – that is, not just merely in our own interest…” were the words of the great choreographer Chandralekha. That’s what we must do now. A very good example of work that digs deep and goes beyond the obvious is Sochi Project (www.thesochiproject.org) by photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen. Sochi in Russia is just 20 kms away from the conflict zone, Abkhazia. To the east, the Caucasus Mountains stretch into impoverished breakaway Republics such as Cherkessia, North Ossetia and Chechnya. In 2014, the Winter Olympics will be held there and the physical and emotional landscape of the area is changing fast. Hornstra and Bruggen have been documenting this for the last three years.
One of the reasons for the lack of true growth of photographers and photography in India is because of the lack of photo editors. Most publications designate the senior-most photographer as the photo editor and that is the worst thing to do. Photo editors are not photographers, but they like photography and understand the medium extremely well. I had interviewed Laurie Kratochavil, the legendary photo editor, for my magazine Light in 1997. She said, “Photographers can achieve a style by learning more and more about photography not in an intellectual way, but in an emotional way. Because when we look at photographs, it is such an emotional thing. Photographer should put a lot of emotions into their pictures. I don’t tell my photographers what to do, I can only inspire and nurture a photographer to do better photography, guide them towards what they want to do. Frankly, most photographers are the worst photo editors in world. I love and appreciate photography, but I can’t take photographs. I help them weed out what they don’t need in a picture by some constructive criticism. Photographers are magical people. They can capture moments some people saw and most didn’t see. I always think there is a lot of magic in photography and that reach people’s souls.” Her words are still relevant. However, we didn’t have any photo editors in India then, neither do we have any now. An interesting point is that finest photo editors in the world are women. Perhaps, they are more sensitive and better visual- thinkers.
I would urge photographers to dig deep within and frequently question their motive to photograph and to understand what they want to say and why. Photography for me is becoming a vehicle for an inward journey. To know myself and to understand life. In this journey, I hope to seek answers for why things are the way they are.