Have smartphones killed photojournalism? Indian photojournalist Prashant Panjiar weighs in

Last updated on October 11, 2021 at 3.49 pm

That which is Unseen is acclaimed photojournalist Prashant Panjiar’s new book, which was released in Ahmedabad on September 18.The book is published by Navajivan Trust, which was founded by India’s Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, in 1929, when the country was still under colonial British rule, and has published over 800 titles in English, Hindi and other languages to date.

Panjiar’s exquisitely designed book is a fascinating compilation of back stories of his stellar work in global hotspots, including his daring adventure on assignment during the first Gulf War of 1991 (see The Fastest Guns in the West), which have been evocatively captured through his poignant images and descriptive prose.

Panjiar is also a co-founder and creative director of the Delhi Photo Festival.In 2014, he directed Sensorium, a festival of arts, literature and ideas for Sunaparanta, the Goa Centre for Arts. Earlier, he had served on the jury of the World Press Photo Awards in 2002 and the China International Press Photo Competition in 2005. wknd. caught up with Panjiar for a freewheeling chat on his incredible career as a photojournalist, curator and educator.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

What was the inspiration behind this book?

In 2019, when I was re-organising my photo archive, I began to write snippets, backstories of some of my most important photographs that I have shot since 1981. Vivek Desai, the managing trustee of Navajivan Trust, came up with the germinal idea of the book. Soon, all fell into place. The title of the book is inspired by the 19th century French classical liberal economistFréddéric Bastiat’s famous essay — What Is Seen and What is Not Seen— on home truths about the cascading effects of legislation and how the later consequences are often disastrous. Many of the incidents I covered as a photojournalist have had cascading effects beyond the immediate event. Take, for example, violence in Punjab in the early 1980s that led to Operation Bluestar, the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and years of terrorist violence that lasted till the mid 1990s, or the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, which led to widespread communal violence across the country, and has irrevocably altered the social and political fabric of India.

What was your first photojournalistic work?

My first independent, self-financed photojournalistic work was the now-out-of-print book, Malkhan: The Story of Bandit King. The bookfeatured photographs of Chambal’s bandits taken between 1981 and 1984 by me. Kalyan Mukherjee and Brijraj Singh did the words. The book took a holistic view of social banditry in Chambal in Central India, while focusing on the life of Malkhan Singh, whose surrender before the police in 1982, was negotiated by us.

You pursued photojournalism in an era, which was before, during and after India’s economic liberalisation. Earlier media houses never cut corners for news gathering. Why is there so little spend on it now?

Money for news gathering is certainly in short supply these days. The raging Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the growing crisis. Print journalism is fast losing its mojo. In a pre-liberalised India, newspapers and magazines were pure editorial entities. In a post-liberalised India, media managers treated them as products, as the profile of readers’ outlook went through a radical change. The average reader — largely the new burgeoning middle class — had become more concerned about his own lifestyle amid a changing world view. Earlier, publications had to rely on their staff or commission freelancers for stories. They have multiple cheaper sources available to provide them content in this digital age. As a result, they tend to cut back on the budget for primary news gathering.

Why do you think there is so little coverage of world affairs by Indian media now?

This is a corollary to the previous question. Somewhere along the way media bosses have decided that readers are not that interested in things happening far away and that they don’t affect them directly. So, the space given to world affairs is vastly reduced. And since there is plenty of information and reportage available from agencies and online sources, which can be easily packaged as their own without incurring additional cost, news organisations find no need to send their own reporters and photographers out. Actually, it is the same when it comes to turning a gaze on the Other India — the poor, marginalised people and the country’s hinterland like the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh.

India’s photojournalists are at a crossroad. Perhaps, because of the new-fangled idea of Citizen Journalist and anybody armed with a smartphone is considered to do the specialised role. Do you lament the bygone era?

Yes, I could look back in wonder about the amazing opportunities I got when I started out. Perhaps, that was an ideal world. Now, the media space is shrinking and reportage is taking a backseat. However, photojournalists working for wire services are getting more opportunities. It’s high time for photojournalists, who are staring at an uncertain future, to diversify as our profession has undergone a radical change.

Why is the Indian media apathetic towards photojournalists?

This is largely because, unfortunately, in Indian newsrooms, most photographers never had a voice. Traditionally, news editors called the shots and pictures have often been used only to illustrate or as fillers without much thought put behind them. There have been exceptions to the discernible trend such as Raghu Rai, who as the photo editor of India Today, was a towering personality and ensured that photographs found their independent pride of place in the magazine. I, too, followed a similar work ethic, when I was the photo editor of The Outlook magazine. Today, though many publications have photo editors, their powers and roles are more often than not restricted, and they are still dictated to by those who do the words.

Lastly, how do you see photojournalism evolving in the digital age?

Photojournalists, especially those who work independently, need to reinvent the way they work to make them relevant in this day and age. Nowadays, when news publications are not willing to invest in news gathering, we as photojournalists need to strategise about our own projects. We need to look at collaborations with multiple organisations to fund, provide access and help in the fieldwork. And then find ways to publish the work. Perhaps, this is the way forward.