In this interaction, Prashant talks about his stint in war-hit Cambodia, work with non-profits and the volatile state of photojournalism
How did you come to choose photojournalism as a career?
I studied in Patna as my father was posted there with the Army then. I went to St Xavier’s and then to St Michael’s. After BA, in 1977, I took a gap year to spend almost a year in Bihar working on a research project on the Naxalite movement. This was my first gig ever.
During my college days in Pune, I had a friend, Kalyan Mukherjee, who had gone off to Chapra in Bhojpur district to teach English. He was also interested in journalism. So, we would go together and do a couple of articles. Both of us then ended up working on a research project for the National Labour Institute on land reforms, basically on the Naxalite movement, which was very prevalent in Bhojpur around 1977-78. That kind of propelled me into photography and that was when I got interested in journalism.
Did you join journalism immediately after this project?
Halfway through my MA in Pune, I started working as a photographer professionally. Then in 1981, I moved to Delhi to try my hand as a freelance photojournalist. By that time, Kalyan too had already moved to Delhi and was working as a journalist. Here we teamed up together to work on a book on the dacoits of Chambal valley. So, that’s my trajectory. That’s how I came into journalism.
Tell us about your journey in the Delhi media space.
In 1984, a senior editor at Patriot, Neeraj Roy, introduced me to the place and offered me some freelance assignments. RK Mishra was the editor back then. I started doing assignments regularly. There was no contract as such, they kept me on retainer. Then they sent me off to Vietnam. In June 1984, I also went to Punjab. And then when Mrs Gandhi’s assassination happened, I was still working on a freelance basis. It was then that Mr Mishra asked me to join full time. So in November 1984, I joined Patriot.
Please tell us about your time in Vietnam.
In 1984, the Vietnamese Army was withdrawing from Cambodia, which had been taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975-76. Vietnam intervened to stop the genocide, drove out the Khmer Rouge and freed people from this tyranny. In 1984, they started phased withdrawal of troops.
They invited media from all around the world to cover the withdrawal. Patriot used to run the Indo-Vietnamese Friendship Society so they asked for somebody from our team too. Although I was just a freelancer then, Mr Mishra sent me.
I spent a month in Cambodia — some days in Vietnam, but most of the time in Cambodia. It was a country that was just recovering from war. Signs of the genocide were very apparent. Outside of the Soviet bloc, no other country except India recognised Cambodia. So there were very few journalists who were visiting or invited. Patriot Publishers ended up doing a book titled The Survivors — Kampuchea 1984.
When you go to shoot in a new city or country, what is your approach? What do you look for?
It depends on what the story is. There can be many different approaches to photographing that story. For example, you could be looking at environmental degradation in a certain location. As a photographer, you could have different approaches. You can be photographing people, the victims, and so it becomes people-oriented. But you could also look at the degraded or scarred landscape and bring out the same story. I mean, you get that sense once you’re there, or if you have studied that situation.
There’s no formula. You have to react to the surroundings, the people and the situation, and also consider the historical aspect because you would not be the first person photographing, you have to know what’s been done before.
Any thoughts on how the recent Russia-Ukraine crisis has been covered by photojournalists?
In general, there’s a lot of material coming out of Ukraine from international photojournalists and also mobile phones (with the people). I cannot make judgments on how photojournalists are covering the war. Photojournalists are given a brief. I don’t know enough about their situation.
You have a section listing your projects on your website. Tell us about ‘Indianisms’ and the idea behind this project.
The idea is taken from the way Indians speak English. That’s what Indianism is. I used it to portray the visual way in which Indians represent themselves. I found that I was always interested in those kinds of images. So, what I do is: I look at my previous work through the years. I look for things that I may get interested in, things that I’ve been photographing, but I’ve not known about.
In 2011-12, I thought that I should now consciously work on this idea. I’ve been working on this since 2012. It’s an ongoing thing.
How did you get involved in the development sector as a photojournalist?
Around 2004, I started doing work with non-profits. There was a kind of logical step-up from the journalistic work that I’d done. I felt that I needed to go that way. Luckily, opportunities came in. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had the AVAHAN intervention on HIV/AIDS in India. So, they asked me to work for them. That was when I started seeing and learning more about the hidden world of sex workers and men who engaged in sexual intercourse with other men. HIV/AIDS was an epidemic at that time.
I’ve also done a book recently, That Which Is Unseen, with short commentaries on what was happening throughout my journalistic career, including why I entered the development sector.
How do you see the state of photojournalism In India? Is the scenario different now?
The situation has definitely changed, in a detrimental way, for photojournalism. When I was working, it was the heyday of magazines and newspapers, which gave a lot of space to photographs. In Patriot, we had huge spreads of pictures.
Now, in the digital age, print media has taken a beating. Many of the magazines closed down. That caused a lot of problems for journalists. You can’t just sit at home and take a picture. You have to go out, money has to be spent. There has to be enough space for pictures. Unfortunately, publications, not only in India but around the world, are not giving that kind of space to pictures anymore. This makes the work of a photojournalist very difficult. The quality of photojournalists has not gone down, but their opportunities have been completely undermined.
There is a great opportunity in the internet space because there’s an endless space for photographs there. But unfortunately, the online space is, again, not monetised properly. So, you may have many news portals, which are doing good stories, publishing a lot. They cannot pay the kind of money that covers travel expenses. Most photojournalists right now in India are very frustrated because they are not getting the opportunity to do the work they should be doing.
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Shruty covers stories related to migration, gender, sexuality, development and education in Delhi NCR at the Patriot.
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