Raghu Rai’s Photography Workshop- Lessons from Life

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

Raghu Rai takes a picture.


Some years ago I attended a Raghu Rai Photography Workshop. It was organized by SPIC MACAY under their beautiful  ‘Meet the Artist’ initiative where every month or so college campuses are introduced to a famous artist. It  is usually a music luminary and big names from shehnai maestro Bismilla Khan to vocalist Shubha Mudgal have played and sang to  largely disinterested audiences.   It was perhaps for the first time that a photographer was invited.  And it sure was a huge draw.

The IIT Delhi campus where the workshop was held began to swarm with a wide smorgasbord of people- students, photographers, hobbyists, parents of students, housewives, few foreigners and general hanger ons like yours truly.  By the time the ace photographer arrived the classroom was bursting at the seams..

Raghu Rai was bang on time. He breezed in with his trademark henna dyed- hair, pathani suit and wide brimming smile.  “What a lovely weather outside”,  he began, taking his seat. It is  beautiful springtime and there is  a  freshness in the air. There are such colourful  new flowers .  The birds are upbeat and chirping all around us. You can feel a great new sexual energy in the atmosphere. It is really wonderful he exulted. The guy next to me who had been scribbling furiously , realized what he was writing and he looked up from his notepad with a   `What’s this crap’ expression.

But Raghu Rai was in full flow. For good fifteen minutes he talked about the weather and the beautiful things he saw on the way to the campus.  He next talked about classical Indian musicians and music. He was shooting the musicians for his book at that time.  He revealed he always wanted to become a musician. ( It certainly showed). He talked about the quirks of some of the musicians he was shooting.  He went into some detail about his numerous interactions with them.

A small boy takes pictures of Naga warriors, nagaland (Sanjay_Austa)

A small boy takes pictures of Naga tribes at the Hornbill festival, Nagaland

By now many people in the room had stopped writing in their notepads and had begun to exchange glances with one another. What the hell was Raghu Rai going on about ? When was he going to share the secrets of how he takes those great photos?  They had not come for a talk on music and weather!

Half and hour had gone by and Raghu Rai had only made passing references to photography.  He was now talking about Satyajit Ray films. The people in the room were now restless. And then someone piped up. `Sir what are your views on the  digital versus the film debate’? And then from somewhere around the room the familiar query , `Sir I am a beginner what camera should I buy’? And then a budding photographer  with mother in tow came forward  to show his photographs.  No he had not brought any prints but proceeded to show the photos at the back of his swanky DSLR.

Isn’t that the general symptom in the photography world today? Everyone is interested in the techniques and the quick know-how’s.  Are we not   merely    breeding an army of technicians? I  hope  photography is something more.  I don’t think  photography is only about  making beautiful photographs. (Unless of course you are a commercial photographer and that’s your job). I think  photography is also a kind of  philosophy.  A way of life where you are somewhat more aware, more sensitive and generally more interested in the world around you. But most of us are happy to cut to the quick and just figure out  HOW  the damn photograph was shot.  The crucial question really is WHY was the photograph shot.  This question is however seldom asked.

Raghu Rai politely saw the boy’s photographs on the LCD and asked him the WHY  question. The boy had no answer. The photographs were beautiful of course. Nice light, great angles, neat compositions and all the elements that make a good photo were there.  Everyone who saw those photos in the room had wowed them. But Raghu Rai said there were “too easy’’.

You will keep bobbing on the surface of the waters at the Dead Sea. The water is very saline so lying on your back is the best way. (sanjay austa sanjayausta@gmail.)

A woman gets the picture shot in the Dead Sea, Jordan.

Anyone who has taken a few photos will tell you it’s not too hard to learn how to take beautiful photographs. There are many bozos on the youtube or at the photography workshops in your city teaching you just that. Photography clubs and forums, on and offline,  mushroom by the day.  But almost  all discussions are centered around technique. If at all there is a serious debate it tends to be pedantic. Hairs are split over photographs that are more gimmickry than works of art. There are regular photo-walks where a battery of photography enthusiasts from posh colonies descend on the squalid corners of their city to shoot   street- vendors, sleeping rickshaw-pullers, beggars and the general hullabaloo missing in their own sanitized neighborhoods.

I think the WHY is the most crucial question especially in today’s world where anyone with a cell-phone camera is a photographer and wants to `capture’ everything around him or her. We surely need to evolve new idioms esp. for street photography in this shutter crazy age. Idioms of all art forms evolve with passing time. William Wordsworth and John Keats were perhaps two of the greatest poets of the 19th century. But if you write like them today your publisher will think you are somewhat looney. Today if you must write poetry it must be more like  Dylan Thomas or Philip Larkings or something new.  Similarly with photography where so much has changed in just one last decade that  we can’t exactly mimic Henri Cartier Bresson as he went about shooting in the streets.

Today almost everyone has a camera and we need to ask ourselves should ever moment of our lives be captured and preserved? Should everything we see be photographed and documented? Worst of all we often do it with a sense of alarming detachment and sometimes crass insensitivity. I think as photographers when you take a picture of anyone it essentially means,`Hey I am glad to meet you and I am interested in you and your life’. But more often one is thinking- `Hey I like this light falling on the top of this guy’s head’.

I had met Raghu Rai almost 10 years before I attended this workshop.  I was interviewing him about Raghubir Singh , Rai’s contemporary and one of the  pioneers of colour photography in the world.  Raghubir Singh had just died and a newspaper asked me to talk to Rai about him. At that time I was only interested in Rai’s quotes on Raghubir. Today I don’t remember the quotes but I still remember Rai’s energy, enthusiasm and infinite curiosity about life.

A lot of photography enthusiasts came away disappointed  from the workshop. They were perhaps looking for a quick formula. But I think what  Raghu Rai taught in that photography workshop that day was invaluable. He was talking about life itself and how to appreciate it.  That is the first and perhaps the only good photography lesson that will stand the test of time.

Gay pride parade in New Delhi, Delhi. Gays have been taking out a celebratory profession every year since 2008 in metropolitan cities in India. Initially the parade has been more of a protest march against article 377 of the constitution where gays are criminalised. Since 2010 when homosexuality was decriminalized it has become more of a celebratory march where gays lesbians and gay rights activists gather in colourful costumes, and sing and dance and give self adulatory speeches. (sanjay austa austa)

A young girl take a picture

29 Responses to “Raghu Rai’s Photography Workshop- Lessons from Life”

  1. Abhinav Anand says:

    Absolutely agree to this!!

  2. Moushumee K Jha says:

    What a beautiful narration of the experience and so very true!!!really enjoyed reading..

  3. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    Sanjay, your article was like breath of fresh air. Dinesh Khanna’s comment about the photograph merely being a language or a means, and not the end in itself hit the nail on it’s head. I too find that the photographs I take, feel, look and “taste” better when I empathize with the subject. You take away a piece of the person in the image, which gives it it’s immediacy, vibrance and resonance.

    This aspect of photography comes with time and maturity, when you wonder why some photographs which are visually stunning leave you cold. They somehow feel contrived, shallow and without the warmth of a story well told. I have subscribed to a newsfeed from Magnum Photos which gives me snippets of work from well known photographers. I am always immediately struck by the fact that how “normal” and ordinary the images first appear, till you realize how often you go back again and again to revisit it and glean another nugget out of it’s meaning.

  4. sanjay austa says:

    Thanks Noni and Abhinav . Moushumee I am glad you enjoyed reading it. And thank you Manjunath. I have seen some of these snippets too. You are right there is always some new meaning when you revisit them. Thanks for your views.

  5. Partha Mandal says:

    The question of Why is seldom asked or discussed, thanks for giving the mantra
    of life and photography..

  6. Suja Mathew says:

    It is not unlike music, which evolves in meaning every time you revisit, based on life experiences you go through. The true meaning of happiness is lost on people who don’t know what pain is…kind of theory.

  7. agree .the vision is really narrowed down to making pleasing images to the eye only.

  8. pankaj anand says:

    Can’t agree more Sanjay. WHY is most important thing in all aspect of life. thanks for sharing 🙂

    PS: I tried to read this article some 5-6 times earlier too ..but because of the problem on ur website .. I couldn’t read it completely 😛

    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks a lot Pankaj. I am glad you found it interesting. I think the problem has long been fixed now Pankaj. But let me know if there are future issues. Thanks again.

  9. Pradeep says:

    Thanks for this post. Indeed, digital age has accelerated a lot of things, including the time one needs to spend on making photos, and not just take photos.

    Like your blog.

  10. dinesh Khanna says:

    Totally agree with your point on Raghu’s approach to Photography and Life, Sanjay Austa . . . a few days ago I had posted this link with the following comment:at one point in the interview he says, ” . . Photography is really not about Photography . . its about longings, dreams and nightmares, hopes and memories . . .” it takes a very evolved Photographer to understand and appreciate this . .http://www.photonet.org.uk​/index.php?pid=550&show=35
    Photography is merely a craft, or at best a language, which gives us the facility to express our views, concerns and vision . . the more involved, concerned and articulate we are about the latter the ‘better’ our photographs will be . .
    I feel more and more strongly what I have said above about Photography being just a craft/language and the subject being far more important. Interestingly, digital has come along and taken away the need to learn the craft as its all pre-packed in the camera or post-packed in PS yet people seem intent on limiting themselves to just learning the language . . rather than using it to tell stories, express views or share emotions . . .

  11. tushar bhardwaj says:

    Great article….never realised that such a great photographer is actualy just a humble being who has such a infinite curiousity for life in general…thanks for writing this article.

  12. Kartikay Rai says:

    Dear Sanjay, bumped into your page (and then the website, blog) through DP. Reading your blog about the “WHY” in photography was an absolute pleasure. I am a newbie trying to find out my own “WHY” as I move along. I could totally associate with what you have written because after getting familiar with the gadget and doing the usual friends, family and places pictures, I have hit a deadlock where I just don’t feel like getting the camera out till I have something to tell. I will of course check out your work, but meanwhile, it would be great to connect with you and learn from your valuable experiences, as and when. Thanks a lot. Kartikay

  13. its an interesting write up sanjay..me too had an experience like the same..i met him kolkata. there he was talking about the life, nature and his experiences which are valuable than anything. that day was like a meditation experience, and it changed most of my ideas and the way of thinking itself.

    i strongly feel that the great lesson to learn from any artist is lies on his attitude towards the life, not on the tools and techniques he is using.
    but still people were asking him the same questions whether digital or film or so..one guy even asked “what camera you are using?” it was so embarrassing, but he dealt it with a gesture of a father or guru towards him..thats what makes him as a great artist.

    when someone asked him “which camera will give him the better shots?”, he gave an amazing answer that ” if you think that you can take the better picture with
    the best camera only, then you cant take a best picture ever in your life..”

    //I seriously think we need some photography schools that teach us how NOT to shoot//

    all these things are being taught them by the mediocre photography magazines.no wonder if someone ask him what shutter speed and exposure you have used to capture this photographs?

    again its a great write up which will help any photography enthusiast to rethink about their philosophy.

  14. ruchika says:

    Joy of photography is way beyond just the technique 🙂
    Beautiful message and touched!
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!!

  15. click here says:

    I experimented with looking at your website in my iphone and the page layout doesnt seem to be correct. Might wanna check it out on WAP as well as it seems most cellular phone layouts are not really working with your site.

  16. Drupad says:

    “And then a budding photographer with mother in tow came forward to show his photographs. No he had not brought any prints but proceeded to show the photos at the back of his swanky DSLR…

    …Raghu Rai politely saw the boy’s photographs on the LCD and asked him the WHY question. The boy had no answer. The photographs were beautiful of course. Nice light, great angles, neat compositions and all the elements that make a good photo were there. Everyone who saw those photos in the room had wowed them. But Raghu Rai said there were “too easy’’.

    ————————————————————–

    That budding photographer was me 🙂

    I just stumbled upon this article today. Going through it, it gave me goosebumps. It felt strange in a strange way, reading being written about.

  17. Drupad says:

    It sure is 🙂

    I really don’t know how to react Sanjay, you’ve left me speechless. When I look back, the interaction with Raghu seemed personal and intimate. I had no clue that I was being observed so intently.

    Thank you for bringing back the memories.

  18. Navneet Kaur Ahuja says:

    You said it well Sanjay.
    Past one week evolved with many photo discussions and there were moments when I heard one statement multiple times i.e. “one should only take beautiful pictures” and every time I interfered (objected against this idea). Photography is not bout making beautiful, good looking photos only.

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