Interview – Mr. Bikas Das – March 2015
Celebrated Photojournalist Mr. Bikas Das is a self-taught professional based at Calcutta. He is a reputed and senior Photojournalist working for the Associated Press/AP since 1989. He prefers to shoot people in natural condition. Anthropology and History are his favorite subjects. Trained mountaineer, loves expedition and high altitude trekking, but finds no time nowadays. Also loves travel and work in rural areas. Exhibitor, Judge and Lecturer. Won Nikon awards two times. Olympus award, UNESCO award 5 times. Asahi Shimbun 4 times. Medals, trophies and other awards worldwide. Works exhibited in 30 countries. Conferred honorary fellow, Hon. FCOS from FotoClub of Sibiu, Romania for excellence in Black & White prints.
We sincerely thank Bikas’da for taking time off for Judging the “Street Photography Competition – March 2015” and the wonderful Interview session.
1. Photojournalism is a highly challenging job. And more so when you are associated with one of the most respectable Photo Agencies – Associated Press. How did you plan your career as a Photojournalist?
BD: Well, during those days in 70’s it was not so easy to get access into the arena of photojournalism. Very limited but stalwart photographers were there in every house and the publication houses were also limited that time. I came from a very middle class Bengali family and doing photography was buying an elephant to them. I was initially doing photography by borrowing camera from a cousin and/or friends, covering marriage, stage and local events like school sports, family photos of known contacts, “annaprashan” etc. and sometimes even took dead body photos at hospitals to earn my livelihood. I had a darkroom at my house, so I started doing printing job for others too. My knack was to photographic exhibitions especially, besides art and painting exhibitions as well at Academy of Fine Arts and Calcutta Information Center, as I was a resident of that area. And of course watching foreign movies in cine clubs was a passion for me. I became a member of Photographic Association of Bengal (PAB) during mid 70’s and went through the works of many stalwarts closely and learnt lessons in dark room assisting the maestros. PAB never conducted any photographic courses and their motto was to take dramatic candid pictures in natural condition, in which I was attracted very much. I was told by a senior PABan, “if you have interest and talent in photography, you can learn it from the dust of this mattress on the floor, sit there”. Since then I was looking to get a chance to step into the arena of photojournalism and came in touch with some of the bright names in photojournalism in the city. And started contributing Satyajug, a vernacular daily as a freelancer in 1978. The challenge was to compete with veterans in news line. By observing my continuous contribution in photojournalistic work in Satyajug, I was picked up by a senior photographer of The Statesman in 1981. That was too as a freelancer. And then I first encountered with AP’s photos in print form. Gradually I started following their style and implied in my works so far I could do within my geographical conditions keeping a silent desire to work for AP one day. Chance came during 1989-90 when AP was looking for a good photojournalist in eastern region of India, based at Calcutta. I was introduced by then AP correspondent in Calcutta who was also the News Editor of The Statesman and a connoisseur of my photography. I was appointed as a Retainer Photographer of AP in 1990, the first ever by any international news agency in eastern India. And life goes on for last 37 years, 25 years with AP.
2. Unlike a typical desk job your work is very different. Please share a difficult assignment / situation you had faced.
BD: Each assignment is a difficult and need a good planning. One has to cope up with the situation in every aspect. Whatever it is, you have to start from zero everyday. Orissa super cyclone in 1999 was a very difficult one so far in analogue era in my life. Travelling on a car in high wind and continuous rain with zero visibility was a thrilling experience. Was looking for a sneak through to Paradip and stuck into a flood for 5 days. Everyday go for a distance, look for the route, take pictures around, come back to a hotel, process the films and send pictures over telephone line. Cash I carried with me was quickly exhausting to meet the hotel expenses, telephony, food and fuel for car. Credit card of a bank I had of no use, as there were no ATMs that time and the hotel does not accept any card. There was a scarcity for diesel all around. AP was asking to spend more days on the scene and travel further but the area was out of bound due to cyclonic storm followed by a massive flood. But I can cherish the memory as I was the first international news agency photographer on the scene, three days ahead of other competitors and my pictures ware played exclusive worldwide, even BBC, CNN and other Indian news channels showed my still pictures on television for three days as backdrop of their news story on cyclone.
3. India had faced the biggest ever blackout in 2012. Your Barbershop photograph was one of the most recognizable image of that crisis. Could you please share your thought about the photograph?
BD: Oh, that was the day. I had seen similar crisis in foreign movies many a times but had no practical experience. Neither had my fellow citizens experienced, I’m sure. While I was transmitting the pictures after the shoot and traveling in twilight in a car, it seemed a ghost city all over. It was difficult to write the captions for my photos on a moving car so asked the driver to park on a side. After a while I suddenly noticed a faint yellow light is coming from a shop. As my pictures on queue to the server I left out my laptop on car and stepped down with the camera. Entered into this barbershop and saw this and thought it would definitely be a different and strong image of the crisis and clicked continuously. I thought it otherwise also, the barber and its client, both has the necessity of service despite a crisis period, too.
4. Street Photography and Photojournalism is similar yet very different. Where would you draw a line between Street Photography and Photojournalism?
BD: It’s a very fine line in between. Both are used for documentation. In my view it is writing a TITLE and a CAPTION respectively. You may put a crunchy Title to differentiate a picture with another of yours but a Caption needs a detailed story inside with Who-What-Where-When. Photojournalists always go with the details about the pictures shot because she/he has the first-hand information about the visual representation of anything to share with rest of the world. Also it might be followed up later on demand of the situation. Street Photography does not need such criteria so far. Street Photography is a new term and short form of Photojournalism.
5. Digital Photography does have advantages over Film but Film is nostalgic. You have been Photographing from the era of Film. Do you miss Film?
BD: Yes, I do, mostly miss my Dark Room. It was real fun with thrill. Five grades of Bromide papers were available in the market to make prints from very thin to moderate hard negatives those days and most of the maestros were successful in that process for years. How can I forget the mixture of chemicals to match with such negatives and papers accordingly? Digital has advantages of course but one cannot rectify an image, which is damn underexposed or damn overexposed. It will become pixelate.
6. You have conducted several Exhibitions at times when Photography was not as popular as this day. And today you visit several Exhibitions. With the easy availability of Photography equipment, do you feel the passion for Photography (in terms of Quality) has lessened?
BD: My words may hurt many but to be very frank, passion is an obsolete word for new gen digital photo people. I admit a fewer exception also. As one can take plenty of shots can also erase from the memory. The thrill has vanished as one can review the shots immediately. Exhibitions become dull with quality and cheap with contents, nowadays.
7. Please share a few words to the newcomers of Street Photography.
BD: Don’t be zealous to fellow photographers. Respect other’s customs and faith. Be cool on the scene. Do not click random, do it precisely. It may reduce your stress on editing table. Be confident about your shoot. Do not review your shot immediately, you may miss an opportunity to grab a better composition/action while doing this and it will certainly drain the battery fast.
8. You have documented Kolkata extensively for over 3 decades. Do we expect a Book or an Exhibition down the line?
BD: I have some restrictions from my employer. May be an exhibition later this year.
9. I understand this is a very difficult question but if you had to share one Photograph that has touched you, which one will it be?
BD: Very difficult. But “Kashmir 1948. Muslim women praying at dawn in Srinagar” by Henri Cartier-Bresson is the greatest one. I will think myself fortunate if I can take such a picture in lifetime.
10. Please share a few words on the project “Streets of Calcutta”.
BD: Doing workshops are good to gain confidence. Foreign and non-resident mentors may enlighten your technical skill only. You are the son-of-the-soil, so know your city first, know the history of your city, walk extensively – smell the odors of each area, make a dry-run before planning a shoot (if possible), watch people on street closely. Consult with city map.