FACE TO FACE
As he turns 80 on December 18, veteran photojournalist T.S. Satyan talks to JUNE GAUR of the milestones in his prolific career behind the camera.
HE recalls how he had always wanted to photograph life, preferably the life of ordinary people, concentrating on their everyday experiences with warmth and compassion. Not surprisingly, his fourth and most recent book of photographs representing his best work spread over nearly six decades was called In Love with Life. Satyan is still active professionally but for the moment he's setting aside his camera to work on his memoirs, the Kannada version of which will be released in Mysore on December 18, when he turns 80.
Satyan has always had an uncanny sense of history and he knows instinctively what moments are significant in terms of the individual. He has always maintained that a picture can only communicate if it grows from love and understanding of people. Many of his portraits of world-renowned personalities have become classics, capturing, as they do, the essence of character. But, as Satyan reminds us: "It is not the rich and famous who dominate my oeuvre. My subjects are ordinary people with whom I am completely at ease. Intimate without being intrusive, I have tried to capture the decisive moments in these people who matter but who do not make headlines."
While he stresses that a sense of human dignity and worth is an essential quality for any photojournalist, his sharpshooter's ability to catch the decisive moment is only one of the factors that account for Satyan's success as a photojournalist.
"I have never let go of the consideration that photography is an art form and a powerful medium of communication. Like any work of art, a photograph well-conceived and properly executed, can awaken those who see it to the plight of the less fortunate." Early in his career, Satyan developed a respect for the discipline of press photography, of having to tell a story crisply in one arresting picture. Satyan went on to Bombay to work for The Illustrated Weeklywhere C.R. Mandy, the editor, gave him a lot of encouragement. At that time, Bombay was bustling with great journalists, R.K. Laxman, Frank Moraes, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, M. V. Kamath and C.R. Mandy. "In those days, society considered the photographer too much of an artist and too little of a journalist. The Weekly, for instance, only published pictures of sites and monuments, none of people. I had seen Edward Steichen's exhibition, The Family of Man, and I had promised myself that some day I would do work like that."
After nine months, Satyan, who hated routine and being bound by deadlines, returned to Mysore from where he began to freelance. He got his lucky break when he met James Burke of Life Magazine at the Mahamastakabhishekha or the Great Anointing of the statue of Gomateswara at Shravanabelagola.
"Sometime in 1952, I was shooting pictures of the Mahamastakabhishekha, working with the 120 mm Argoflex camera I had bought with money gifted to me by Prof. W.G. Eagleton, my teacher at Maharaja's College. James Burke saw me at work and was impressed by my enthusiasm. Eventually, of the 12 black-and-white pictures I shot, seven appeared in Parade and 15 other American magazines and newspapers before Burke's colour pictures did. That was a decisive moment. Later, Burke recommended my name to Time-Life as a fill-in and eventually, I began doing assignments for Life on a regular basis.
Subsequently, Satyan moved to Delhi to chronicle some of the most outstanding events of newly independent India among them the merger of Pondicherry and the Liberation of Goa. For 15 years from 1950 to 1965 Life commissioned Satyan to shoot pictures in India and the neighbouring countries. Satyan also did assignments for the UN and its allied agencies (notably for UNICEF), the Ford Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. Satyan has held photographic exhibitions in London, Washington and Kuala Lumpur and in all the state capitals in India. In 1979, to commemorate the International Year of the Child, the UNICEF sponsored his month long exhibition "Little People" at the United Nations, New York. Satyan's pictures and picture essays have been published in most of the world's major newspapers and magazines. His sense of news and history, and his belief in the social commitment of the photographer, all helped to make his work unforgettable.
"Despite the march of technology and the advent of television, the Internet and the digital camera, the basic parameters of good photography continue to be the same form, composition, use of light and the subject matter."
Among the great lensmen who inspired Satyan was the legendary French photographer Henry Cartier- Bresson whom he met and observed closely at work. "Cartier-Bresson's lesson to me was simply this great pictures are not taken, they are made. I would have to develop the kind of vision that would enable me to see the extraordinary in the ordinary."
Today, many aspiring young photojournalists see Satyan as a role model. In 1999, a Retrospective of his work was held in important cities around India. The art galleries where his work was displayed were often turned into classrooms as Satyan was rushed off his feet with questions. "Photography is history and life," he never tires of repeating. "The major contribution of the photographer has been to preserve for posterity the memorable moments of contemporary history which, I think, is the ever-lasting aspect of photo-journalism."
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