S Paul, a visionary, celebrated photographer and powerhouse of enthusiasm, shares some wonderful stories of his life and career with Neha Mutreja.
This article was originally published in November 2009.
What makes an artist a legend is their undying spirit, dedication and passion towards their art. S Paul’s describes his passion for photography in these inspiring words: “Mere andar aag hai kuch naya karne ki, aur yeh aag har din badhti jaa rahi hai.” (“I have this fire in me to create something new, and it grows bigger everyday.”). This internationally renowned photographer has explored several genres like street, fashion, photojournalism, landscape and portraits. Because of his strong technical knowledge, he can bring out a pictorial flavour even in the most ordinary scenes.
From Cinema to Still Photography
While living in Pakistan, a teenaged S Paul loved watching the movies. The thousand moving frames that came together to tell one story intrigued him. “Instead of using so many frames, why not tell the story in one, single, still frame?” he would wonder.
After the separation of India and Pakistan, S Paul moved to Shimla with his elder brother. There, he found a book stall where he bought many photography books. He spent most of his time reading these books, while simultaneously looking for a job. He was finally hired as an engineering draftsman for the Indian government, although he never studied engineering.
“I decide the composition instinctively and exposure instantaneously. I am a really fast shooter. Missing a picture is none of my business. If I do miss, I punish myself.”
Starting Out on His Own
Despite his full-time job, S Paul kept practising photography whenever he could as he felt he had to master the art himself. With a month’s salary, he bought his first camera, a Zeiss Ikon Nettar, and The All-in-One Camera Book—which he read from cover to cover in one night! “After reading it, I felt I knew everything about photography and decided to take some self portraits. With confidence, I took 12 shots. The results amazed me!” he remembers.
About a year later, S Paul decided to submit his photographs to three of UK’s most renowned photography magazines— Miniature Camera, Miniature Camera World, and Amateur Photographer.
All three magazines published his images, which made him the first Indian photographer to achieve this feat. One of these was a landscape photograph titled Tranquillity, which S Paul regards it as his first successful image.
Working at The Indian Express
India, too, was taking notice of S Paul’s work. After quitting the draftsman’s job, he was invited by the Indian government to help build a photography department in Himachal Pradesh. Later on, he worked with the Indian Railways as a chief photographer for two years. But a life-changing moment happened on the last day of his one-month holiday. He was pondering about what to do next, when a postman handed him a letter. It was a job offer from The Indian Express. “Without wasting a minute, I wrote back accepting their offer,” he recalls. He worked there as the chief of the photography department for the next 26 years.
With child-like enthusiasm, he shares a memorable assignment from his days with The Indian Express. “Once I was covering a sports event in Delhi. While the match was going on, an excited fan barged into the field, leaving everyone surprised. While the other photojournalists were still struggling with their gear, I ran with my camera towards the scene and took a picture. When I came back to the stands, I heard a gentleman say that a shot of this incident would surely appear in The Indian Express. He had no idea who was standing next to him!” And sure enough, his picture made it to the first page of the paper the next day.
“ I dedicate time to understand my gear and then try to surpass what it can actually do.”
What Keeps Him Going
It is amazing to see what boundless energy S Paul has, even at the age of 79! “I practise photography like anyone practises music,” he explains. “Skipping a day in music is equal to being six days behind. I apply the same principle to photography.” He is very close to his family and home. “Whenever I travel outside India, I feel very homesick; so I do not it much anymore.” But photography will always have a special place in his life. “My birthday is on 19 August (World Photography Day). I was made for photography!”
S Paul’s Achievements
- He was the first Indian to be profiled by The British Journal of Photography in 1967.
- In 1971, he became the first Indian to win the Nikon International Photo Contest.
- In 2004, B&W Magazine US nicknamed him “the Henry Cartier- Bresson of India’.
- Three years in the making (2004–07) and selected by 47 top judges, The World’s Greatest Black & White Photography book has carried five of his pictures.
Tags: Neha Mutreja, better photography, photojournalist, documentary photography, photojournalism, street, November 2009, Black and White photography, Greatmasters, S Paul, The Indian Express