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Celebrating photography

Friday, August 24, 2018

Self-portrait of Mukesh Parpiani at last year's  World Photography Day program  at Piramal Gallery, NCPA celebrating old photography and the now sadly defunct photography studios. Costumes were provided to families for portraits

August 19 was World Photography Day. Meet three masters from Mumbai, says Ronita Torcato

In January 1839, French Academy of Science announced the invention of the Daguerreotype process – the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera. The man who gave his name to the process and perfected the method of producing direct positive images on a silver-coated copper plate was Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, a French artist and scenic painter.

On August 19, that the French government procured the patent from the Academy of Sciences and offered its free use to everyone as “Gift that was free to the world”.

To mark this occasion, in 2009, Australian Photographer Korske Ara launched an online gallery and in 2010 roped in 250 photographers from all over the world to participate in the first World Photography Day. Since then the movement has evolved into a celebration of photography.

To mark this occasion we spoke to three master photographers from Mumbai about their journeys and their views on the art and craft of photography.

Mukesh Parpiani photographed JRD's empty chair in his forlorn cabin at Bombay House, HQ of the Tata Group after the industrialist passed away in Paris.

The Doyen

The doyen of news photographers in Mumbai, Mukesh Parpiani has done it all. During his stints with newspapers like The Daily, Indian Express and Midday, he lead award winning teams of photographers. His own heart rending  images of the Bhopal gas tragedy, natural disasters, riots, bomb blasts and street life have moved readers. Along the way he has also shot celebrities and A listers from JRD Tata to Amitabh Bachchan.

A series he ran on the  Mumbai police won him national acclaim. (The cops would use his photographs extensively in a coffee table book). His three children, Manisha, Manasi and Kashish edited and published his book on Street Photography as a tribute to their father in  2012. His next book  Faces in Focus is currently on the design desk. It commemorates over 500 celebrities he has photographed over the years. Mukesh  has also organised seven exhibitions of his own photos.

Talking about his news photography stint he says, “Everyday was a challenge. You had to endure endless waiting, sometimes for 24 hours for just one memorable photo.”

As his personal highs, he says, "I remember when during the Gulf War, we learnt US military aircraft were secretly refuelling at Santacruz airport. Not only did we shoot the refuelling process, we also got shots of the crew at Leela Hotel."

JRD with a friend on the beach

He also remembers vividly the day when word came that JRD Tata had passed away in Paris. "A fresh photo was a challenge in the circumstances so I came up with a picture  which no one else did.  I went to his cabin at Bombay House, and shot  that forlorn office to create a  newsworthy picture that spoke for itself. Everyone else produced old mug shots. For me, this image was as challenging as getting pictures of the RBI's secret exports of gold or the casualties of the Pan Am hijack.”

Today, Mukesh works at  the National Centre for the Performing Arts, as Head of Photography and the Piramal Gallery which promotes Photography as an art form. Parpiani has curated at least 20 photo exhibitions each year in the past five years. One of the most recent was an exhibition by  students of Symbiosis school of Photography, Pune where he is also a visiting faculty. Besides the exhibitions, he organises lectures, seminars, and workshops. Currently, Parpiani is curating donated archival photographs of over 300 photographers who have exhibited at Piramal over the last 25 years.

An alumnus of Bombay University, Mukesh studied photography at the the Xavier Institute of Communications (XIC). He defines a good photographer as one who goes beyond the mere act of seeing," he needs to see with his heart, and shoot photographs which make people feel moved and hopefully, reflect on what they have just seen."

Photo warrior

Strapped for funds, Sudharak Olwe had to drop out of engineering and art school to become a full time photographer. He has worked on the staff of:  The Indian Express, The Times of India,  The Free Press Journal, DNA, The Pioneer, Lokmat and cough,cough The Afternoon Despatch and Courier. Since 1988 Sudharak has documented caste violence ("murder, rape, torture") against Dalits in rural Maharashtra. Just two instances: Teenager Nitin Aage from the Mahar community was brutally killed and hanged from a tree for the mere act of talking to a Maratha girl; Sagar Shejwal was murdered by Marathas over a ringtone which praised Dr. B.R. Ambedkar.

Sudharak has also shot the red light district of Kamathipura, the uplifting work of NGOs ("all filled with hope and courage")  inspirational women and the abject conditions of some 40,000 conservancy workers in Mumbai.

Sudharak Olwe being conferred with the Padma Shri by the Indian President Pranab Mukherjee

These men work with bare hands and feet in filthy gutters and sewers, toiling in horrific conditions. ("Their life is a living hell, full of torture and ignorance") Through such pictures, Sudharak has helped focus attention of policy makers, civil society and the general public  on the issue "Because these atrocities deserve intervention and solutions as many victims and survivors are still waiting for justice."

He says it is an uphill and challenging task but "Being a photographer is a challenge in itself. I took up the profession to make ends meet while also having a creative outlet. The most important challenge is how much justice I am doing to the person whose story I am sharing with the world. There are always apprehensions and doubts if the way I am shooting or portraying  can shed proper light on the subject at hand."

Recently, Sudharak started the Photography Promotion Trust with colleagues from India and Europe. They began by partnering with the Seva Mandir and National Foundation of India to conduct workshops for over 80 rural youth producing over 7,500 images about different issues which culminated in an exhibition. Another project involved the children of conservancy workers. Sudharak recalls a worker pleading, “Help our children, don’t let them do this work as I and my father did”. Photography workshops were organised for the children regularly and their results were published in a photo-book elaborating their hopes for a better future.

These two photographs expose the pitiable conditions in which BMC conservancy workers toil

Sudharak’s alma mater XIC stepped in to launch the first free Diploma Course in photography for children of conservancy workers in a bid to offer them an alternative career option. He has just finished documenting  Dhangar herdsmen and  Pardhi nomadic tribals and resumed work on his on-going project on the situation of Dalits across India. "The topics I shoot are sensitive and it is imperative that I use both my sense of empathy and the pursuit of truth in storytelling and maintain a balance. That, I feel, is the single biggest challenge".

For his efforts to use his art and craft to focus on social issues, Sudharak was bestowed with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth highest civilian honour.

The Maverick

One look at Ritam Banerjee’s portfolio and you realise that you are looking at a maverick. But an extremely talented and hugely successful maverick. Never restricting himself to one genre, he has done it all -- advertising, automobile, portraits, fashion, corporate, architecture and interiors, products, travel, industrial, photojournalism and food. He says his inspiration as comes from variety, framing things as disparate as spas and slums, ketchup and cars.

Talking about his photographic journey he says, “All I wanted was a camera but my father had a simple condition -- if you want something you have to earn it. It was only when I scored good grades in my high school that I received my first camera as a gift from him.”

After graduation he freelanced for publications in Pune. After his Masters, he got a job with a Mumbai corporate. “But, soon I got bored of AC cubicles and decided to pursue my passion for photography. I worked for more publications and wanted to do more work. However, I kept getting rejected by everyone. That's when I decided that I might as well be rejected globally. I therefore shared my portfolio with every possible international agency I found on the internet.  I had to borrow my landlord’s laptop for research and emailing, as I didn't even have a laptop then. But I was getting rejected globally as everyone wanted to know what my credentials were. The silver lining was that at least the international agencies were replying unlike local ones. One day, out of nowhere I got a call from Getty Images and I was their first official appointment in India. I have not looked back since. To do what I love, was and is the most important thing,” he says.

Over the last decade, Ritam has worked with corporates and publications across continents. Apart from stills, Ritam has been awarded for cinematography in feature films at several international film festivals.

Often invited to be on the jury at national and international competitions, he has also been in the news for his theme-based calendars and exhibitions across the globe.

Ritam has helped amateurs, professionals and photo-enthusiasts find their own photographic groove through various conferences and seminars. From University of Johannesburg, South Africa to Indian Institute of Technology, several reputed universities have invited him to teach photography. Recently he was invited to speak at the TEDx talk on “The Big Picture”.

Talking about the basics of photography he says, “While taking pictures it is important to understand why the photo is taken. The purpose and the feel of the picture are of the utmost importance. Emotion plays over technology and understanding that is important. When someone sees a picture they don't know the backstory of the picture, they only feel the emotion captured -- whether it’s happy, sad or anything else.”

On capturing the right moment Ritam says, “It is basic observation and focus. When I am shooting for live events or still photography, lighting is of great vitality. But it is no rocket science, lighting needs to be what I call 'Common sense lighting'. It is actually very basic, but since people want their pictures to look extra powerful some of them have unnecessarily complicated this aspect.” On shooting celebs he says, “As much as I enjoy it, be it Brad Pitt or Mukesh Ambani or any one, I treat them as human beings and I am there to take their pictures.”

Ritam is kicked by the spread of photography as a hobby. “I think it is a boon. Because of this everyone has noticed the efforts of photographers and suddenly there is respect for photography as a profession. Earlier, people used a different tone when they talked about this profession.”

By Tanmaya Vyas

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