Raghu Rai: Bangladesh War and Lost Treasures.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Raghu Rai in his studio in Mehrauli, Delhi

Following is an Interview with Raghu Rai on his latest book Bangladesh : The Price of Freedom, I did  for a newspaper. 

‘’I never seem to find something when I need it’’, confesses ace photographer Raghu Rai settling behind a capacious desk at his studio in  Mehrauli New Delhi.  For many decades Rai had been searching for his 1971 Bangladesh war photographs and had given them up for good.  But  when old boxes were dug up in his studio in the process of  digitizing his work ,   his assistance handed him a dusty old packet marked ‘Bangladesh’.

‘’The packet was so tightly sealed  that everything inside  was in perfect condition’’, says Rai.

The packet contained  Rai’s  first and only conflict photographs. He was barely  five years old in his profession then and though some of his war photos were published in significant  papers around the world,  he lacked the confidence to turn them into a book.

But these photographs passed the test of time.  Over the decades, the human suffering they depict is as fresh and compelling. ‘’ When I looked at the pictures today I thought they were potent enough and they deserved to be put in a book’’, says Raghu Rai.

The book, Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom (Niyogi Books), published this year, has over 100 photographs that focus on  human stories, making an interesting contrast with Bangladesh- A Brutal Birth, Kishore Parek’s seminal book on the war, which focuses on the gore.  Parekh,  much senior to Rai, also  covered the conflict  and along with war photographer Don McCullin depicted the war in all its horror. Their photographs dripped with violence and blood at its graphic best.

The movement drew out  the ace lensman Raghu Rai too (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Raghu Rai photographing the Anna Hazare Movement, 2011

While Kishore and Don seemed to be at the war front documenting  the violence, Rai seemed to be interested in those that were left behind  in its wake. Rai’s pictures are of hapless refugees ; most of them weak from walking and hunger, the  girls pregnant from rape, the children wild and confused and the old dazed and traumatized.  The book is a unique war testimonial as it has only two photographs of corpses and only a few others of injured soldiers.

‘’When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated there were pictures of him blown into pieces.  If I was there I would not take the photos that way. I am not condemning anyone else’s work -but at the same time that is not the way I would do things. I would like it to be more symbolic and take photos that bring out the suffering in a subtle way not the brutal way’’ , he says.

Raghu Rai  also has a clear position on the perennial debate on whether the photographer should intervene or be a witness to an unfolding tragedy.  He criticizes Kevin Carter, a member of the mythical Bang Bang Club, who shot the Pulitzer wining ; starving- child –and- vulture photograph in Sudan. ‘’ I believe he left the child there . He did not do anything about it. Alright  you take few quick pictures but you can’t leave the child.  Aisa thodi hota hai.If somebody is shooting somebody and if you intervene you might get shot is another matter. But here in this case – oh my god. That is sinful. And that is unpardonable’’, he says.

Most photojournalists  make a name for themselves covering conflicts across the world. Not Rai, for whom the Bangladesh war remained the only conflict he ever photographed. He admits to being squeamish about blood

 ‘’ Once I was with a doctor friend and there was someone with a bleeding arm.  The doctor said Raghu can you hold it, I will put some stiches.  I held his arm and  almost fainted.  I said I cant take it’’, he says.

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Bangladesh: The Price of Freedom: Raghu Rai

Raghu Rai is also one of the rare Magnum Photographers who hasn’t ventured beyond one country (except perhaps for this book on Bangladesh war) He has remained steadfastly committed to photographing India and India alone producing over 30 books on it.

 ‘’ India is a large enough world for me to carry on. India has everything here. You have people dying of hunger here. We have had wars also. We have almost everything. And also I don’t believe in flirting around everywhere.’’, he says.

India indeed has been a big draw for photographers around  the world many of whom  built their  reputation solely by photographing  India. What perhaps puts Rai apart from the lot is his Rushdiesque depiction of India. Rai is to photography what Rushdie is to literature. There are no neat, studied frames.  His photos radiate the boisterousness of an Indian street with its multitude of elements, all of them falling perfectly in place.  Though just starting out in the profession then, one can see Rai’s experimentation with his trademark panoramic wide shots   in Bangladesh- The Price of Freedom.

‘’I am asked is there any Indian vision?  I say no. There can’t be an Indian vision. I was born and brought up here and I can smell and feel  so many nuances and little  little details that a foreigner may not respond to. So my understanding of a situation will be more comprehensive. But I will not call it Indian vision because photography is a universal language’’, he says.

Refugees taking shelter in the hume pipes. Pic: Raghu Rai

His books and exhibitions have always brought him fulsome praise from critics but does he think he made a mistake by having the exhibition ‘Just by the Way’? For this exhibition Rai had pulled out (besides clouds and rocks) nudes he had shot in the 70’s and 80’s. The photos passed muster only because of  Rai’s reputation. The exhibition was in fact held  under the aegis  of Tasveer, a premier photographer’s gallery,  but as one reviewer  pointed out, ‘’His images (of nudes) look voyeuristic and unaesthetic, harking back to photographs in disreputable men’s magazines 30 years ago’’

Raghu Rai explains, ‘’Not that the work I showed was great work. I won’t claim that. It’s not necessary that every photograph should touch everybody. But certainly I am an explorer and some of my images are strong and very successful some images may not be that strong. It doesn’t matter’, he says.

Rai is now busy putting together a book on Kolkata. He however says he can’t find his photographs of Mother Teresa.  Maybe a little more  rummaging in his studio may find him this treasure as well.

A pregnant girl at a refugee camp. Pic: Rahgu Rai

Old Man takes shelter from the rain. Pic: Raghu Rai

Fleeing Refugees. Pic: Raghu Rai


A mother mourns her dead child. Pic: Raghu Rai


Young and old walk for miles to cross the border. Pic: Raghu Rai


15 Responses to “Raghu Rai: Bangladesh War and Lost Treasures.”

  1. Shambhavi Ratnam says:

    photos are hard hitting…deplorable…

  2. Suman Negi says:

    Thanks for sharing these pictures Sanjay…they speak a thousand words for themselves.

  3. Mahesh Bhat says:

    Kevin Carter did not leave the child there anf go..it was on the edge of a feeding centre and the parent/s had gone inside, leaving the child there momentarily..- apparently

    • sanjay austa says:

      Mahesh , Madhu the best account of how it happened is in the book- The Bang Bang Club written by the photojournalists who worked with him. According to them Carter changed his version of what happened so many times that he could not be relied on. Ironically the most scathing criticism of Carter came from the NYT photo-editor who had published the photo first.

      • Mahesh Bhat says:

        I have photographed in active conflict zones/disaster zones and the aftermaths – It’s a thin red line..to decide ‘ whether the one should intervene or be a witness’ – we cannot really judge a photographer’s actionat that moment, sitting outside that moment. A lot of things go on there and the photographer many a times may not have much time to think, what would be the pressures on her/him we don’t know. So I wouldn’t criticize anyone shooting in conflict zones, I wouldn’t pass a judgement..

  4. Madhu Reddy says:

    Yeah lets not take Carter’s name without really knowing the whole story.

  5. Aleem Shah Mohammad says:

    The photographs seem no different than the India seen by the West. I have heard that Bangladesh also has an other side, that made 02 women lead the biggest political parties of the country.

    Still, awe-aspiring images as ever!

  6. Seema Sangita says:

    poignant work.

  7. Anoop Negi says:

    The uncharitable reference to Kevin Carter appears to be totally misplaced in the article/interview. It does appear self laudatory and self serving to project your own virtues at the expense of some event of which the interviewee seems to know not the truth. Or is it that maybe we do not know the truth and some others know better

    I was reading a long article the other day comparing the photography of Kishore Parek on the Bangladesh War and it would be a great read if I could locate it and link It.

    Let me give that a try.

  8. Anoop Negi says:

    It did not take too long to find the article by Elizabeth Kuruvilla in the Open Magazine. Here is the link to it. Read it for what it is worth in its weight of some frank opinions


    • sanjay austa says:

      Anoop thanks for sharing that link . I had read that piece. But i wonder if one one can see more of Parek’s photos than those few already available on the net. As for Carter perhaps Rai is wrong. But i think the most credible account has to be by Carter’s fellow photographers and they seem to be pointing towards the same thing in their book – The Bang Bang Club.

      • Anoop Negi says:

        Sanjay Austa Pleasure…. Carter has unfortunately exited the scene and left behind a legacy full of controversy but he has for sure made a great mark in the annals of photographic history with a seminal take that defines poverty, warfare, Africa and humanity. The image is not going to vanish in anyone’s mind anytime soon.
        Most photographic takes do get staged specially when it comes to reportage that is going live.The idea is how the viewer sees the frame. If the timely appearance of a vulture from the nearby refuse pits makes a great frame behind an impoverished child, than it is a great story any photographer, editor or media business would lap it up gladly. And they did.
        It is a fabulous photo opp.

        Not only the war or reportage but even in the world of nature photography you will find photos that are kind of unsettling. While Carter did not stage the shot but only misrepresented the setting, take the case of Shikhei Goh who not only staged a rainfall with a sprayer but a live dragon fly on a stick to win the National Geographic 2011 contest.

        Here is a link to the actual photograph with the rainfall and storm of Goh’s chicanery.


        • Mitali Ghosh says:

          My family was suffered in 1948 & 1971 as uprooted from the homeland.It is not possible to anybody to feel or understand the situation either he goes through it.Raghu Dada captured the pain and agony of those people who were slaughtered by the knife of freedom.My pillow becomes wet as I remember my grand parents…

  9. Noni Chawla says:

    An excellent interview.

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