Born and educated in Mysore, T S Satyan took his first photographs as a high school student. Since then, as one of India’s earliest photojournalists, Satyan’s pictures have appeared in Life and Time, Deccan Herald and Illustrated Weekly of India. To mark the International Year of the Child in 1979, UNICEF sponsored his exhibition of photographs at the UN headquarters in New York. His published books include Exploring Karnataka, Hampi—the Fabled Capital of the Vijaynagar Empire, In Love with Life, Kalakke Kannada, his memoirs in Kannada, and Alive and Clicking. Awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India, Satyan was confered an honorary Doctor of Literature by the University of Mysore.
Because of the tremendous advance in photography and its increasing popularity, pictures from films, television, video and digital media are all claiming our attention. The inventory started in 1839 when the first photograph was taken. Since then just about everything has been photographed, or so it seams. The images seduce us, at times inform us.
Photography gives us the feeling that we can hold the whole world in our hands — an anthology of images. People are always anxious to see other people’s faces. Man is a curious animal and photography helps him to satiate his curiosity.
The camera has helped bridge distances and has enabled us to capture the world’s spectacular landscapes. Without the use of words, photography has unified human history in concentric circles, the family snapshot, the community wedding, the news event, the journey to Mars, all events in a single day — are visually available to millions of people.
Before photography, there was nothing at all for them.
All this is possible because of the magnificent ubiquity of the photographer. Whether you like his presence or not, whether you like his gimmicky ways and comical physical slants at work or not, he exists everywhere, seemingly at the same time.
The pictures you shoot are really your experience captured. The camera is the ideal arm of your consciousness. Looking around with a camera in hand, you are in an acquisitive mood. You photograph whatever you appreciate. By so doing, you put yourself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge, like beauty and, therefore, like power.
You can only shoot everlasting images only if you are visually thrilled with the world and its people. Photography teaches you a new visual code. It changes and enlarges your notions of what is worth looking at, what you have a right to observe. There is a certain grammar and, more importantly, an ethics even in the process of seeing.
You must not look at things casually. Your eyes must be like a microscope. Look carefully. Find out if there is beauty or not. Assess if what you see makes a good and meaningful picture or not. Your eyes must conduct a dialogue with the world. There is beauty all around. And the great motivation is to design and discover this beauty, to communicate this beauty. It is there asking to be communicated, talking to you, challenging you.
Photography is your sadhana. In addition, you must also evolve as a person. If you don’t, then no amount of craftsmanship or technical skill is worth anything.
Always make sure that your images are sharp, clear and uncluttered. Your emphasis must always be on the main subject. You must concentrate on getting that right and, as far as possible, let the surroundings remain as they are.
Compose your shot full frame. You can then avoid cropping the picture while enlarging. Learn to develop and print your own films, especially the black and white ones. There aren’t many processing labs handling black and white work.
You must be a down-to-earth realist. Do not indulge in any gimmickry, do not ask people to pose for you, do not have any pretences. Try to make your pictures as refreshing as possible. Please do not interfere with your subject, do not change anything in the location. Lay emphasis on composition and lighting even in street photography, unless you are shooting a fleeting moment, in which the moment alone seems meaningful.
Review your work from time to time. Study your old pictures and see how you can improve them. To start with, you should be your own critic. What you produce should be to our liking. Discuss your work with experienced photographers.
It takes time for young photographers to develop their vision. They are too easily satisfied, overestimating themselves at the first sign of success. This is not the way to grow and develop, either as a photographer or as a human being. Also, we need much more to explore the creative aspect of photography — an area in which India is far behind other countries.
It is very important that you study the work of great photographers both in India and abroad. Their work can inspire you. The way they shoot may have important lessons for you.
Photography has many dimensions, many branches — industrial photography, fashion photography, advertising photography, portrait photography, photojournalism etc. Travel photography can be included in the latter. Clients look for photographers who have specialised in any one of them. Therefore those who have specialised in any of these are sought after by clients.
Great pictures are not taken, they are made. There is no room for a casual approach to your subject. You must be serious. Spend a lot time with your subject. Establish a rapport with your subject — a smile can take you very far.
You should not be easily satisfied. Then the image transcends the mere documentary. When the image and insight are combined with technical skill, in particular the use of light and composition, it becomes a work of art, with a universal appeal.
Though development in technology has made a great difference, you must not allow the machine to dictate you. You must do photography on your own terms. Evolve a style of your own.
Like any work of art, a photograph well conceived and properly realised, can activate the conscience. It is here that a photographer helps us ‘see’ what the eye has noticed but the
mind has not absorbed. It is here that a photographer can become an artist. Without being preachy, he can sensitise, motivate and subtly show us the need to search our own hearts.
People are the best subjects for your camera. You must have a deep regard for them, also an intense involvement with them. The pictures should reveal your love for them, your anguish meted out to them, and your hope in them. You feel duty bound to record their sorrows in the hope that we may learn from them and correct our ways. This in turn shows up in your pictures. Slices of human life that are gentle and personal make great pictures.
If you find humour in any situation, grab the shot at once before it disappears. Once I photographed the Sanskrit pundit, Lakshmithathachar, at Melkote, his visage one of scholarship and his looks that of a Srivaishnava Brahmin, playing with a laptop computer, while a cow looks on with bland curiosity.
Your pictures are not the result of encounters between events and yourself. They are witness to events, to interesting moments in time and the lives of people you met with. The images you create are not mere interpretations of the outside world; they are interpretations of your personal vision, as much as they are of the hidden life of the subject, revealing your sympathies, your joys and sorrows. This is possible only when there is intense communication between you and your subject.
Enjoy taking pictures. Be aware of the quality of such ‘enjoyment’. Do not be carried away by your emotions. Remain calm while at work and compose your frame in such a way that you get the best out of the situation. Move around your subject quietly. Always keep an eye on the correct light and shade. Keep track of the technicalities. Make sure that you shoot with the correct exposure and the right camera aperture. Your emphasis must be on the main subject. Do not clutter your frame with too many distracting objects. The best picture is a simple picture that tells the story without words.
Your still pictures will be more memorable than the moving images, because they are a neat slice of time, not a flow. Television provides us a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancelling the previous one. But the still photograph, on the other hand, is a privileged moment, a precious document, You can keep and enjoy looking at it over and over again.
In the words of Paul Strand:
“Your photography is a record of your living for any one who really sees. You may see and be affected by other people’s ways; you may use them to find your own.”
To collect photographs is to collect the world. The camera enables us to share memories — memories of people loved, of happy times and of pleasant places visited.
Despite the march of technology and the advent of television, the internet and the digital camera, the basic parameters of good photography remain the same — form, composition, use of lights and the subject matter.
Do not lay much emphasis on equipment. Some of the great pictures have been made by using the simplest equipment. Your vision and the way you empathise with a particular situation is more important than the camera you use. While looking through the viewfinder your right eye looks into the exterior world and the left one looks inside your personal world. Your vision fuses on what you see, where and when and how you feel about it.
There is beauty in everyday life for someone who can see with an acute eye. The photographer must develop a unique way of looking at life and be able to spot the extraordinary in the ordinary. He must be able to record the meaning of life in the common gestures and situations of even ordinary people.
The best pictures are very simple pictures that touch the core of our hearts. Don’t take the seriously the Kodak advertisement that proclaims: “You press the button and we do the rest.” A great deal of effort, both physical and mental, is needed to produce pictures that are truthful, spontaneous and carry a message for the viewer. When an event is unfolding before your eyes, you must know when to click in order to freeze the essence of the situation — the ‘decisive’ moment as it is called. The machine gun approach to photography, by which many negatives are shot with the hope that one of them will be good, is fatal to serious results.
Though a great deal of effort goes into the making a great picture, your art must conceal itself and give the viewer the impression of effortlessness. Spontaneous and truthful pictures communicate instantly. You must emerge as a discoverer, not a mere recorder. That is the hallmark of a great — in contrast to the good — photographer. Going through the pages of a book of great photographs like the ones by Henri Cartier Bresson and others like him, you will find that imagination takes over where pure observation ends. This is as it should be.
Says Henri Cartier Bresson, the legendary photographer:
“I have prowled the streets all day feeling very strung up and ready to pounce, determined to trap life — to preserve life — in the act of living. I have craved to seize the whole essence, in the confines of a single photograph, of some situation that was in the process of unrolling itself before my eyes.”
The great photographer is a dedicated and concerned photographer. When he is at work, something tells him: “You are the camera and the camera is you, inseparable companions with a mission to accomplish — to freeze frame truth and beauty, to be a witness to your time.”
The great photographer must also have a sense of history. He is a witness to his times. He communicates to others using the universal language of pictures that is understood by everyone, everywhere. Using his camera he links the family of man. He is an eye-witness not only of the humanity but also the inhumanity if mankind.
The picture taken in 1972 during the war in Vietnam, of the naked, helpless child, just sprayed by American napalm, running down a highway with outstretched arms and screaming with pain, as though asking the whole world to come to her rescue, continues to haunt us. Anyone who looked at that picture shared the child’s pain, agony and helplessness. Probably, this one poignant picture did more to increase the public revulsion against war than a hundred hours of televised barbarities.
The ‘Family of Man’ exhibit conceived by Edward Steichen of the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the early 1950s, spoke eloquently in simple and graphic pictures that people round the world share the same around the world, sharing common joys and sorrows. Thanks to Steichen’s genius and compassion, the exhibit inspired thousands of photographers round the world.
Today, newspapers and magazines are proliferating. More space is being given for pictures. There is a greater recognition of the importance of a photographer in printed journalism. Though some believe that this branch of photography has come of age in India, I feel that it has not yet attained the status it deserves. We have some great photographers, also some wonderful magazines which respect their work. But they are very few.
Most magazines fill up their pages with pictures of film stars and politicians. We have had some photographers like the late Kishor Parekh and the late Raghubir Singh, whose work received international recognition. With his dozen and odd books on the Indian states, Raghubir Singh was hailed as a visual biographer of India.
Holding the fort today are Raghu Rai. Prashant Panjiar, Dayanita Singh, Jyoti Bhatt, Bhawan Singh, Ram Rahman and a few others.
This is the tragedy of photojournalism in India. It is confined to a limited circle of successful photographers. Until this elitist group grows—with more and more talented youngsters graduating into the circle—photojournalism will continue to be the profitable occupation of the privileged few.
There is an utter lack of interest in looking at contemporary history with a future perspective. We have already paid a price for it. Major personalities and events from our public life have often gone unrecorded in terms of photojournalistic documentation of the land, people, history and culture vis-a-vis the deliberate engineering of social and other changes taking place in the country today.
Photography is history and life. The major contribution of the photographer in this country has been to preserve for posterity the memorable moments of contemporary history which, I think, is the ever lasting aspect of photojournalism.