Prashant Panjiar is indisputably one of India’s best known photographers, and certainly among its most erudite and articulate. After starting out as an industrial photographer in Poona, self-taught Prashant worked for India’s two best magazines, India Today and Outlook, where he brought a rare editorial streak to photography.
A frequent India contributor to Time magazine, Prashant now runs his own syndication firm, Livewire Images. In 2000, he held his acclaimed photo exhibition ‘Kings & Commoners’, and in 2004 published India: The Definitive Images (Penguin)
“Photography appears to be an easy activity; in fact, it is a varied and ambiguous process in which the only common denominator among its practitioners is their instrument.”
By PRASHANT PANJIAR
To begin with, a word of caution, there are no easy steps to becoming a great photographer. This is one profession where you have to prove yourself, not just to your audience, but also to yourself every time you make an image. And finally, you are only as good as your last picture.
If you aspire to greatness, photography is a ruthless art to follow. You have to constantly challenge yourself, re-invent your work and you can never, never be satisfied with resting on past laurels.
Having said that, I can share a few important steps for you to follow when starting out in photography—particularly photojournalism.
1. Learn the photographic process: It may sound tedious to learn about the photographic process in today’s age of fully automatic, easy-to-use digital and film cameras, in addition to computerized labs that process your films and give you quick prints. But believe me, without this knowledge you will always remain at a disadvantage.
You must know how film cameras function, the properties of film, how film is processed, how different focal lengths, apertures and shutter speeds translate into different pictures, how digital cameras work, what digital images are made up of, how they are to be processed for publication, etc, etc.
However, if you can’t learn about it practically now, then begin by learning theoretically. And when you begin handling the camera apply what you have learnt, practically.
2. Don’t just look at photographs. Study them: Study the works of great photographers, not just photojournalists. Discover how each of them had a different approach that made their work unique. Understand how they communicate ideas, tell stories, carry information and affect the senses of the viewer.
You must study the works of photographers from the early times of photography to now. Then continue right through your career, appreciating the works of your contemporaries and all the new work being done across the world.
See their work, not only to seek inspiration, but also to know the history of photography, to recognize how trends and styles have evolved and to find your own in today’s context.
3. Don’t ‘take’ photographs: Though it is common parlance to use the phrase “take a photo”, and all photographers’ use it from force of habit (including me!), it also has very negative connotations in the context of photojournalism as practiced today.
‘Taking’ a photo connotes that, as a photojournalist, you suddenly arrive on a scene quickly click a few pictures, and then rush away to have the pictures published. Your newspaper sells, you earn money. This is a downright exploitative act.
Great photographers, and great photographs, do not just ‘take’. They also ‘give’. The act of making a photograph is a process. It involves you, the person/situation you are photographing and the viewer of that photo. Each of these has an important stake in the photograph being made.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to change the language you use. But it is important to constantly ask yourself, when on assignment: Why am I doing what I am doing? Is my conduct right while I am photographing? Am I being truthful to the situation I am photographing, especially in the way that I am conveying the situation to the viewer?
Once you become sensitive to these issues, you will find that you and your photographs will actually give back to society, and your work will become more meaningful.
4. As a photojournalist you are the author of the story too! Most photographers who work in journalism never get involved with the story for which they are photographing. Like writers and the editors, photographers too, make the mistake of seeing the writer/journalist as the sole author of that story and believe that they are mere appendages whose job it is to ‘take’ a few pictures and run off to the next assignment.
Develop a stake in the story being done and consider yourself a co-author of the story. Then, with your work, convince writers/editors that you are worthy of being considered so. This means more involvement and commitment to the story you are working on—even if the end result is only one image.
5. The information contained in a photograph is not the most important criteria for judging if it is good or bad: What differentiates a good photograph from others is not just what it shows, but how it does that. Great photographs have an almost magical quality. At first they appeal to your senses, your emotions and only later reveal the meanings and information that are embedded in them.
In the media, you will constantly be told that the information contained in a photograph is of paramount importance. And you will be taught that you must try and record everything possible while photographing. This is a completely out-dated and nonsensical idea. It goes against the very essence of photography, its power to communicate emotions and feelings beyond the reach of words. Besides, imagine how boring it is for the reader to see a story where the text and pictures are telling him exactly the same thing.
6. Create your own style and identity: When you start out in photography you will experiment with numerous styles and genres. This is necessary, and desirable too. You will also imitate the styles of photographers whose work you have liked. This is natural. However to graduate to becoming a photographer in your own right you must not be content with being a clone. You must find your own expression.
There is great merit in being able to do different kinds of photography competently and particularly useful if you are going to work for magazines. However, you must identify what you are most interested in. Once you have discovered the kind of photography you wish to do, pursue it with resolve.
As you progress in your career, you must strive to create your own visual style to give yourself a distinct identity. But always remember, you must constantly reinvent yourself and your style should continuously evolve, or you will find yourself stagnating.
7. Be your own critic: With such little informed knowledge about photography in our country, it is not easy to get due praise or correct criticism for your work. Even if you are doing interesting work, editors and writers that you work with may not understand it and consequently not support it. On the other hand, you might do some competent but mediocre pictures and that may bring you a lot of praise.
If you are serious about your photography and aspire to be a great photographer, you will have to be your own judge and jury.
8. Do not take up photography if you are not passionate about it: This point should have been made right in the beginning. However, since photography is not meant to follow the usual rules I am making this point at the end.
Photography is not an easy profession, especially photojournalism. Job opportunities are few and there are long periods of struggle involved before you can become financially comfortable. It is also a very unforgiving profession.
Photographers are like movie stars: you have two hits and everybody is running after you and then you have two flops and everybody is avoiding you. Recognition can come very late, sometimes not at all. This is not a profession for the faint-hearted and the weak. If you do not possess a passion for the medium do not join this profession.
SOME GREAT PHOTOGRAPHERS TO STUDY
Below is a short list of photographers whose works are worth studying, not only from a historical perspective but because their work has a contemporary relevance. There are many great photographers, old and contemporary, who are left out of this list for you to discover on your own.
Photography books are generally expensive and not easy to come by and therefore I am not recommending a separate list of books to buy. Use libraries and bookshops that allow you to browse through books to see good photography.
Penguin used to have an inexpensive paperback titled “Photography” by Eric De Mare—if you can find it, buy it. Books for beginners on photography by John Hedgecoe are also useful. A lot of photography is now available on the net so log on.
Edward Jean Steichen
W. Eugene Smith
Lewis W. Hine
David Douglas Duncan
Mary Ellen Mark