On The Record

Interview with Prashant Panjiar

A Life in Pictures

In a place where photographers are still pigeonholed today, Prashant Panjiar was a trailblazer who rose to be among the top management at a major magazine in India, where he was making decisions beyond ‘which images to use’. Now out of the daily grind, he shares generously his wealth of knowledge and wisdom with anyone who is prepared to accept that he only speaks the truth, and not what’s pleasant to hear. The Founding Advisor of POY Asia takes Daniel Jamang, POY Asia Chief Coordinator, on a personal tour into his mind.

How did you choose to be a photojournalist and a documentary photographer?

I got interested in photography during “The Emergency” which happened in India between 1975 to 1977 when people’s rights and freedoms were suspended. Back then, I was in college and magazine journalism had just boomed. I got influenced by photojournalism work that was published in magazines.

As I was finishing college, my interest in photography grew. My keen interest in society and the arts pushed me further to pursue it as a career. However, it took me a few years until I could take up photojournalism as a full-time career in 1981 when I moved to Delhi.

Arrested dacoits and other criminals lodged in the police lock-up at the Bhind court, 1982. From MALKHAN – THE STORY OF A BANDIT KING, 1981- 84

Can you take us through a brief history of photojournalism and documentary photography in India?

Photography arrived in India around the same time when it was invented in the 1850s. The earliest practitioners were British since India was their colony. Their early ‘documentary’ work of military conquests and the British Raj was based purely on patronage. Some set up very successful commercial studios and a few Indian photographers also set up shop. Some of these early Indian photographers went beyond the studio, travelling to the India princely states for commissioned portraits and also documented the architecture and land for them. One such well-known photographer was Lala Deen Dayal. In a way you could perhaps call this the early documentary photography in India.

In the wake of the freedom movement, we started seeing Indian photographers working in the newspapers and documentary photography.  Mahatma Gandhi’s life was most intimately chronicled by his grandnephew Kanu Gandhi.  Another big figure, Kulwant Roy, was responsible for iconic images from the Indian independence movement.

Soon, the press corps made up of Indian photographers was born.

To begin with photography in India was heavily influenced by pictorialism including early photojournalism.

The history of photography in India is very complex and I do not know much about the early phase in India. I remember in the first few years; newspapers did not give bylines to people. In the 1960s, Kishore Parekh joined the Hindustan Times and brought a new sense of modern photojournalism. He had a rangefinder camera and brought a different sensibility and influenced few others in the industry.

In the 1980s, a lot of changes took place for journalism in India. Offset printing had come in. When I joined the Patriot newspaper in 1984, we had a modern photo-type setting which led to a drastic improvement in the print quality.

During that time, magazines such as India Today and Sunday had strong editorial independence. There were no interference with newsgathering. A lot of attention was given to the ethics and dynamics of journalism. There was a strong code of conduct and we followed the journalistic processes of fact-checking.

By 1986, I joined India Today, and the photo department was led by the legendary Raghu Rai. He is one of the big figures in India. I was very lucky to have joined at the right time. For many years, we had special editions and ten-page spreads in the magazine for photographs occasionally, something unheard of before.

Soon after leaving India Today, I joined Outlook when it was started in 1995 and then continued working there until 2001.

Photojournalism in India was born with the Independence movement and grew with a newly born country from 1947 onwards. But it was actually between the 60s and the 80s that photojournalism really advanced. This was the “Age of Rebellion”, an ideological phase when most people were concerned about the other.

The decline of photojournalism in India began in the “Age of Conformism”. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, with the decline of ideology, conformism took over. During this time, the middle and upper-middle class became more inward-looking. People became more worried about their personal finances, faith, and lives. And today not only photojournalism, but journalism itself is under threat from the regressive right-wing that dominates our society.

In the 90s, with the arrival of satellite television, news channels could publish information without verifying. It became very easy to correct reporting on the television. This was not possible for print media. Soon, editors started insisting on why photojournalists could not imitate how satellite television covered the news in a more hysterical manner.

All these factors combined lowered the value of photojournalism. This resulted in the need to produce immediate images where a lot of times people’s emotions, feelings, and context are removed.

By the late 2000s, with the decline of photojournalism in print, a new style of photography emerged in India that was not defined just by events, but brought in an element of documentary, artistic and personal vision. Luckily this ‘new’ photography is now being recognized.

Scotland, United Kingdom. 1996: Sardar Iqbal Singh, the ‘Lord of Butley Manor’, at his home in Lesmahagow, near Glasgow. This Sikh immigrant bought the castle and ‘acquired’ a title. From KING, COMMONER, CITIZEN, 1981– 2007

India being so diverse in culture, region, language, and ethnicity- how did you manage to get access into the lives of people living across these communities?

During my time with India Today or Outlook, there was a certain respect for the print medium.  Our access to stories depended on it. In most instances, when we said we were from the press, general society doors would open.

Access becomes difficult when it is a story people want to bury, especially when it is investigative in nature.

Over the years, I developed a rule of thumb for myself. In a country like India, which is divided by caste and class, it is important to accord the same respect to everyone regardless of the person’s background.

I’d often ask myself: Can I give the same respect to a woman laborer whom I am photographing with the respect I give to a business tycoon?

This process helps me to be more open towards people and define my photography. In the process of image-making as a photojournalist, three stakeholders are always involved.

Firstly, the person I’m photographing, the society, situation, and context,

Secondly, me or the magazine, publication, and organization that I work for, and

Thirdly, the viewer and reader.

If you’re able to be true to all three of them, you’ll figure out a way to traverse this minefield called India.

I have always been interested in the vernacular imagery of India with all its irony, idiosyncrasies, incongruity, and ingenuity. Around 2010 when I dived back into my archive as a way to find a new direction in my photography I came across many of my images that celebrated this vernacular imagery. Around the same time I had been wanting to experiment with the square format. The 2 trains of thought came together in Indianisms, this photo series I have been working on since then. The series will also incorporate work from an earlier period. From INDIANISMS

What are various ways, techniques you’ve used on international publication commissions where the majority of the editors may not understand the local context?

In the early 1990 to 2000s, I found most of the photo editors that I’ve worked with to be very professional and dedicated. These were magazines of high standard where they did their own prior research. Most international magazines were very sensitive to local issues although they might not have fully understood them.

Back then, I’ve never had a situation where I had to explain the local context at length to international publications. The irony was that I faced more stupid questions from Indian editors.

However, after a point, the cliché assignments kept coming. These were assignments such as What is modern India? For this, the images expected would be Indian youth sipping coffee at a shopping mall. What is rich in India? Bollywood. What is poverty in India? Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying.

By 2004, I was fed up with doing magazine assignments that just wanted photographs of shopping malls, high-rise buildings, and the stock exchange. I knew there were other stories to be told.

Since the Mahakumbh Mela of 2001, held in Allahabad at the turn of the millennium, I have been visiting this largest gathering of humans on the planet for every subsequent edition, in 2007, 2013 and in 2019. Shot entirely on film in the panoramic format the work explores the simple beauty of faith as seen through the pilgrims from rural areas who traditionally throng to this festival. From AMONGST THE BELIEVERS – THE KUMBH MELA AT ALLAHABAD, 2001 – 2019

India being a major attraction for many international photojournalism and documentary photographers, what trends have emerged in terms of insiders and outsiders photographing the same subjects?

There are a lot of conversations and political thoughts revolving around the western gaze and the insider/outsider approach. Although I feel strongly about it, I have a slightly different perspective.

If you look at early photojournalism in India, we imitated the style of Western photographers, me included. Back then, if a coffee table book were to be published, there would be no difference in what Western and Indian photographers were churning out.

However, some photographers emerged in India who seriously started considering the politics of it. They looked at photographic work with a new sensibility and from an insider’s perspective.

Not too long ago, I came across a curator who suggested that ‘true Indian photography’ is that which is based on the performative aspect drawn from the photo studio tradition of India. And therefore all other photography from India is not worthy of being shown as it is not ‘Indian Photography”.  Now, I do not believe in something called ‘Indian Photography’. Have you heard of Belgian or Angolan photography? That’s a pretentious idea. A misnomer. I prefer to use the term “photography from India”.

In countries where certain traditions already exist, there may be a use of a certain language incorporated into their photography.

All said, there was always an irritation on how poverty was depicted and how exotic India was portrayed. It took good photographers using their own universal language to delve into these subjects and portray them with a different vision.

Today, many young photographers in Asia are using their own experiences and personalities combining art, documentary, and other genres to produce photographic work in a universal language. The better photography that is coming out presently is very personalized.

A young mother and her child, watches a family member as he repairs the roof of their rice mill and home damaged by Cyclone Nargis at Thar Yar Wae village, on the road to Bogalay, in the Irrawaddy Division of Myanmar (Burma). From CYCLONE NARGIS, MYANMAR (BURMA), 2008

Is there a new definition of photojournalism emerging from India and Asia with photographers? 

I strongly feel that photojournalism and documentary work intersect with each other and are largely very similar. Photojournalism was earlier often mistaken to be related to only news. But that has been changing over time with its inclusion in the larger category of editorial photography.

Today, there is a crossover happening with different genres of photography. Many photographers have embraced and amalgamated larger ideas into their photo projects.

There is a wave of interesting documentary work coming out of Asia, which is conceptual, personalized, and introspective but rooted in reality. This is being witnessed in the West and Latin America as well. In Asia, we have rich cultural strength that can be brought to these projects.

But unfortunately there is also a lot of  pretentious work going around with photographers copying any current fashion that is in vogue with international magazines.

A doctor attends to a HIV+ child patient who is also suffering from blood cancer in the paediatric ward at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal College & General Hospital at Sion in Mumbai, 2008. HIV+ children are admitted to the general paediatric wards to avoid stigma. From AIDS SUTRA, 2007 – 2008

As a photo curator and educator, can you share your role within the photography community in India?

In 1995, I joined Outlook magazine as an Associate Editor in charge of photography. Soon, I climbed up the ladder to become the Deputy Editor. Although I wasn’t editing copy, I was deciding what stories would get published in the magazine.

So, I’ve had a privileged position in the world of journalism. Very few people across the globe were in that position around that time. That was one of the reasons why I got invited the first time to be on the World Press Photo jury.

During this time, I worked with a lot of photographers and looked at many portfolios. Even after I moved on to do freelance photography, many independent photographers would approach me to show their work and to seek advice because of my reputation as a good picture editor.

I felt I needed to take up that responsibility since I’ve had a good run. When I was starting, I wanted to have the same support. So, this resulted in the idea of the Delhi Photo Festival (2011-2015), which was India’s first international photo festival that gathered a large community of photographers.

Besides photo festivals, I am part of various grants and awards including the National Foundation of India’s Annual Photography Fellowship where I’ve been providing photo-mentoring. I get rejuvenated looking at work from young photographers all the time.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see much work last year.

Ayodhya – In the Eye of the Storm is a portrait of a town that has changed the social and political fabric of contemporary India forever but ironically has itself slid into disrepair, decay and neglect. From AYODHYA – IN THE EYE OF THE STORM, 2002-19

Although there are many full-time Indian photojournalists, they aren’t very visible, especially press photographers. Why do you think this is?

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of frustration among Indian press photographers working in the traditional print media. They aren’t getting the space to publish their work. Some do not even get sent out to cover stories. There is hardly any recognition.

This creates a situation where photographers feel trapped within a small well. Most press photographers I’ve come across do not engage with the world of photography. You won’t see them at exhibitions. Even when there is a good photography show, only a handful would turn up. There is a big need to draw them out.

Even if we aren’t able to energize a whole mass of photographers, it would be great if we can make a dent somewhere for a start. Answering this need, competitions encourage and provide recognition. A small stipend goes a long way.

Gurgaon, Haryana. 2004: Signage and people at a bus stop. From KING, COMMONER, CITIZEN, 1981– 2007

What is your advice for emerging photographers from Asia?

Oh, my advice? I don’t have any advice to give. I’ll come back to the same thing:

Remember why you became a photographer. Also remember that you wanted to be a great photographer.

For emerging photographers, it’s worthwhile to put yourself out there and test your limits. It is important not to sit back and become complacent. If you are competent, people may continue to like your work but you have to remember that mere competence can lead to mediocrity.

You have a new book coming out this year. Tell us about it.

A while back I had begun posting the back-stories of images made during my career as a photojournalist, and the issues they represented, on social media. This caught the interest of a publisher, Navjivan Trust, and while forced to stay home during the pandemic I was able to finish work on the book. That Which Is Unseen contains 60 back stories from my 30+ years in photojournalism is scheduled for release in March—April this year.
Kolkata, 2007: The site for a new suburban city. From PAN INDIA – A SHARED HABITAT, 2000 – 2009

Why is POY Asia necessary and what do you hope it will achieve?

The aim of POY Asia is to better represent Asian photographers and photojournalists across the continent. However, there is a lack of dialogue between Asian photographers. We do not understand or know each other.

If POY Asia can create a platform for photographers in Asia to exchange ideas and collaborate, I believe it’d be a bigger contribution than pushing for stories to be published internationally.

For Asian photographers being published in big Western publications may be professionally rewarding and important. But what about traffic and conversations between us in Asia? Where is that exchange?

There may not be an immediate result but if POY Asia can work on facilitating this, it can be more interesting, and we can learn about each other.

Born in 1957, Prashant PANJIAR works independently as a photographer, photo editor and curator. A post-graduate in Political Science from Pune University, India, he learnt photography on his own and worked on projects focusing on peasant movements and other social issues through his college and university days. Afterwards, he worked as an independent photojournalist for leading international and national publications. Now, as a documentary photographer, he works on issues of health, education and livelihood across Asia and Africa for international non-profit organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, American India Foundation, UNFPA, IPPF & HIV-AIDS Alliance. Since 2011, he has led the curatorial team of the biennial Delhi Photo Festival of which he is the co-founder and co-Creative Director. In 2014 he curated a permanent collection of contemporary photography for the new corporate building of Star TV India in Mumbai. In 2015 as Creative Director he curated, and helped conceive the first edition of Sensorium, a festival of Arts, Literature & Ideas for Sunaparanta, the Goa Centre for the Arts. He was the project curator for Kanu’s Gandhi, the third title in the Nazar Photography Monographs series, and of the resulting exhibition that was on tour from 2015 to 2019. He was also one of the photography curators for the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa for 2016 and 2017. His latest initiative is the multi-disciplinary Goa Open Arts Festival that he co-founded and launched in 2020. Panjiar has served on the jury of the World Press Photo Awards, the China International Press Photo Competition, POY (Pictures of the Year International), Indian Express Press Photo Awards and the National Foundation of India’s annual photography fellowship. Being one of India’s leading photo-practitioners, Panjiar is actively involved in mentoring younger photographers.