Supriya Joshi speaks with award-winning photojournalist Arko Datta about his many adventures on the field.
This story was originally published in August 2011.
His journey began with a simple box camera. Arko was only eight when his mother gave him one for his birthday. “Each month, I was given a roll of film which contained only 12 exposures. That was my quota. If I spent all 12 frames, I would get another roll only in the next month,” says Arko, the veteran photojournalist. “I was fascinated with that toy. I loved it. I would hang it around my neck and go around shooting anything!” And this is how Arko Datta, one of India’s renowned photojournalists, began his tryst with photography. Arko has always had a long association with the world of photojournalism. He won a number of awards, one of them being the World Press Photo of the Year in 2005 for his stark image of the aftermath of the tsunami that had hit Southern India in 2004. Yet, he remains humble and grounded, as I found out in a free-flowing conversation with the great master.
Once Arko received his camera, his interest in the art of photography kept increasing at a steady rate. “I made my first prints at home with some chemicals and a table lamp. It was magical to see images forming before my own eyes. Needless to say, my mother was not very happy about the mess I created!” he laughs. “I became my school magazine’s photo editor and would shoot all the cricket matches played there. I received my first SLR, the Zenit, and it is from there that my passion for photography grew,” he says. Arko’s first published photograph appeared in the national newspaper Hindustan Times when he was 13 years old. “I received a cheque from the newspaper which I still have not encashed. I love revisiting the pictures I took as a youngster—they remind me of the fresh perspective of the world I saw from my 12-year-old eyes,” he says.
Arko has fond memories of his first job. He started off as an intern with The Indian Express, a national daily, in 1991. He would be given a lot of local assignments, and he enjoyed every one of them. He remembers, “I would work in the newsroom till the early hours of the morning, developing pictures. There were no mobile phones those days. So if there was any breaking news, whoever was available at the earliest, would go to cover it. Since I would be around so late in the night I usually went on these assignments. In this way, I got a chance to photograph a lot of exclusives apart from the general work I did.” From then onwards, Arko became deeply involved in the aesthetics and art of photojournalism. For him, this field became very addictive. “Photojournalism is extremely thrilling because every day is different,” he says, and since then he has travelled far and wide, worked with several agencies, all for the love of capturing life as it is.
On the Field
After joining the global news agency Reuters in 2001, Arko visited a lot of grief-stricken areas during his assignments. On seeing such pictures, one often wonders how a photojournalist deals with his emotions. “The first thing a photojournalist must keep in mind is that he must be a professional and keep himself emotionally detached,” he advises. Personally, if Arko gets himself too involved in a situation, he finds it very difficult to shoot. Over the years, however, maintaining an emotional distance became difficult for Arko. “I used to feel that my camera was a wall between me and what I was photographing. But gradually the wall started breaking and I started feeling vulnerable. It reached a point where I began to feel what the other person was feeling,” he says. “There is something about crying men that touches me deeply. There had been a fire in a school in Kumarakom (in Kerala) and several children had passed away. During a child’s burial, I saw his father looking at the sky and dropping chocolates in the grave. I made my photographs, but I could not take it anymore. I went close to the man and patted him on his back to offer my condolence and also to give vent to my own emotions.”
A Lucky Escape
What kind of a role does luck play in a photojournalist’s life? Arko narrates a story to exemplify. He was at the Mashkoh valley (Kashmir), and it was his final day on assignment covering a conflict there, which had ended the day before. “There had been heavy shelling. I was apprehensive about going there, but my driver said that the area was fine. When we finally reached Mashkoh valley, there was no one there. All I could see was a single truck, and I told the driver to park the car to the right of the truck. “I was getting down from the car when all of a sudden I heard this huge explosion right behind me. A shell had landed behind the truck and shrapnel flew everywhere. A shell’s killing range is about 100 feet, but this one was 30 feet away from me. What saved me was that truck, which took the majority of the shrapnel. If we had parked on the left, I would not have been here. As it turns out, saying ‘gaadi ko right mein laga do’ (park the car to the right) happens to the be the most important line of my life.”
What Lies Ahead
At this point, Arko focuses mostly on personal assignments. He also heads and teaches at the Udaan School of Photography in Mumbai along with other photographers like Dhiraj Singh, Atul Loke and Bharat Bhirangi. Between hearing stories about shooting various wars around the world, to near-death experiences, I did not realise where the time went by. As I concluded my interview, I asked him what he would like his legacy to be. “Legacy?” he laughs, “I think I am too young to leave a legacy! However, on an individual level, I want to be remembered as an honest photographer, whose work made a difference, even if it was to one person. On a professional level, I hope I inspire the younger generation to take up photojournalism and do it to the best of their ability.”