"They say a good photograph is worth a thousand words. But a thousand words can be a lot of noise. How about some silence -- a moment in space which is non-negotiable.”- These are the words of the infamous Pakistani born Photographer, Raghu Rai. These very words inspired me to research his ‘moment in space’, and the outcome- incredible. His photographs urged me into writing words about the stories his lens captured, as well an insight into his special work documenting the Bhopal Gas Tragedy.
Raghu Rai was born in 1942, in the Jhang area of Pakistan. He spent some part of his youth in Rohtak and started pursuing his studies for civil engineering. However, he had been initiated into photography by his elder brother, S Paul, and it became his abiding passion since the 1960s. He joined The Statesman as its chief photographer, and was inducted into Magnum Photos in 1977 by legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who saw Rai’s photographs at an exhibition in Paris.
I had the golden opportunity of meeting Mr.Rai in a special interactive session our college had organized. It was solely at this point that his presence so inspirational, and photographs so extraordinary, that it made me value photography in a different light. It made me realize that a moment taken is life long, and to respect that moment was more important than framing a fabulous picture. We had the opportunity to view his personal collection of photographs of Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, and of course the infamous Bhopal Gas tragedy, for which he was the only photo journalist at that point to document this agonizing event, with as much sensitivity as he did.
On the morning after death leaked out of the Union Carbide factory and rolled through the narrow alleys of Bhopal, Raghu Rai was there with his camera recording it all: mass cremations, three-tier burials, overflowing hospitals, a man carrying his dead wife slung over his shoulder, her ‘ghungat’ now a veil of death. One of the most gut-wrenching pictures is a close-up of an aborted foetus in a glass case, taken in such a way that it dwarfs the mosque in the background into a miniature. Another, which sent a hoard of mixed emotions through me was, a sack full of discarded skulls piled up like old tin cans.
The iconic image of the Bhopal Gas tragedy is that of a child’s face. This was one of those situations where such an innocent face with his eyes wide open, looking almost alive, almost dead, was being buried. It was captured, captured not because it would make a good photograph, but because it would stand as a story of disaster, a proof of the ‘mistake’ that killed thousands.
There are photographs of innocent people with touching stories. A picture of a man named Gangaram who had come to Bhopal to get treatment for leprosy at Hamida Hospital, was present when the toxic gas hit the city. The photograph documents the fact that his vision for treatment was crippled and he lay once again dependent on others for survival. An image of a frail worn out looking man standing next to a dog exudes an expression of helplessness and loss.
These photographs give me the vibe of depression as well as awe as they evoke the scene as it were in front of you, as well as leave you mesmerized as to how the framing, composition,
expression, and other technicalities were adhered to with such finesse.
Another aspect to note is that, all Rai’s pictures based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy are in black and white. While researching as to why this was the case, I came across a beautiful paragraph written by him, which explained it clearly. He said “It is always easier to photograph in black and white. Life in colour is the truth, but it is difficult to match them with moods at all points in time. A black-and-white filter, helps create a personal way at looking at things, helps everything blend easily. It is easy on the mind’s eye and viewers like the simple images, rather straight answers in yes and no.” He has visited Bhopal many years after the tragedy has taken place and continues to record the state of the victims which deteriorates as the years’ progress.
The photographs bring forth various questions in our minds. Do we identify with the images in Raghu Rai’s photographs? See links to our own existence? Or are they distant people to be pitied – those who tragedy happens to? Are they courageously fighting for justice or have some succumbed to despair and given up? The photographs form a tale, a tale which holds unanswered questions, and a reminder for us to keep looking for the righteous answer.