One Step Ahead

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif greet each other during the oathtaking ceremony of the BJP led government in New Delhi in 2014. Photograph/Neeraj Priyadarshi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif greet each other during the oathtaking ceremony of the BJP led government in New Delhi in 2014. Photograph/Neeraj Priyadarshi

Conchita Fernandes finds out what keeps the versatile and tenacious photojournalist Neeraj Priyadarshi grounded, while always being on top of his game.

Neeraj grew up in a small village in Koilwar, an area in the Bhojpuri district of Bihar. Not far from where he stayed was a bridge. Trains that frequented the bridge would leave the young Neeraj fascinated and introspective. “Every time that I saw it, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful. I felt a kind of certainty that this very train would take me on a journey, far away from my village.” Today, Neeraj Priyadarshi is one of the most prolific photojournalists of our time. During a free-wheeling chat with him, I found myself inspired by his vision.

True Calling
Even as a child, he knew he was not meant for a run-of-the-mill profession. “I first considered a career in writing but my command over the language was not very good. I still felt a strong affinity towards finding something that would require more of my mind, soul and conscience,” he said. Then in 1988, during a French arts festival in Patna, Neeraj found his true calling. “The legendary Marc Riboud’s work were being exhibited, and I saw his image, The Painter of the Eiffel Tower. The spark was lit. I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

The Big Break
All he needed now was a camera. His brother gifted him the Pentax ME with a 50mm f/1.2 lens. He went about making pictures of whatever he thought was interesting, but he found himself being drawn toward street photography. Shortly, he began assisting Vikram Kumar, a freelance photographer in Patna. Here he learned all the nuances of darkroom processes and printing. Soon, freelance assignments began trickling in, and his first breakthrough came along. He was hired by Filmfare to photograph filmmaker Mukul Anand. An image from the day was chosen for a centrespread. “This was the true kickstart to my career in photography,” he said. He soon landed a job with The Indian Express, which he calls home, even to this day.

“For a photojournalist, the essence, the backbone and the validity of one’s work should be based entirely on research, discipline and study.”

On His Feet
Working on the field meant covering a range of events, each with their own set of challenges. One of Neeraj’s first assignments was covering the Bombay riots of 1992. “I was surrounded by a blanket of uncertainty. I was definitely scared,” he said. “I saw bodies around me, people running around frantically. Also, I did not have any transportation and felt exposed and at the mercy of the unfolding situations.” He was also asked to collect the body of a close friend from the mortuary of Sir J J Hospital. This left him feeling devastated, but this was no time for backing down. And so, even in the midst of the tyranny of death, he felt that he was able to define himself as a photographer. Two essential qualities—focus and agility, enabled him to maneuver in between the atrocities he witnessed. But most importantly, he was able to maintain his composure in such a high stress situation. “I have always followed a simple philosophy—no image is greater than your life. Be cautious and smart and always put yourself first,” he said.

Going Unconventional
However, not all assignments are of this nature. Many times, photographers cover standard, unremarkable events, like ribbon cutting ceremonies or peaceful rallies. But even then, Neeraj manages to create stunning frames out of these mundane situations. He believes that just because the moment is unexceptional, doesn’t mean the image needs to be. “Photojournalism requires personality, attitude, strength and above all, a mind and soul that delves into a world that others are incapable of visualising,” he said. This thought is clear in his images. You won’t find him photographing two dignitaries in a handshake or embrace. Instead, he will find a way to visually represent the dignitary’s political personality. Even in the event of a tragedy, he finds a way to subtly convey the unfortunate situation, thus creating a stronger impact. An example of his style would be a sensitive photograph he made during the 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. He photographed mannequins from an adjacent shopping mall that was also affected. They were lying lifeless in the midst of rubble. On closer inspection, you will notice two drops of human blood on one of the mannequin’s hands. It is this inclusion that makes the photograph speak volumes.

In 2010, during his first visit to New Delhi, US President Barack Obama interacts with school children at the Mughal-era tomb of Emperor Humayun. Photograph/Neeraj Priyadarshi

In 2010, during his first visit to New Delhi, US President Barack Obama interacts with school children at the Mughal-era tomb of Emperor Humayun. Photograph/Neeraj Priyadarshi

Finding the Moment
While his assignments take him all over the world, he emphasises that photographers don’t need to go so far for stories. “Stories don’t need to be sought out like treasures from faraway domains. It would be foolish to be enchanted by the prospect of covering dangerous zones, while turning a blind eye to the situation unfolding right in front of home—in your city or state.”

“I am fortunate in 2012. to have supportive Editors like Rajkamal Jha and Unni Rajan Shanker who have always stood by the saying ‘No words can match the right image.’”

Learning From the Best
Even till date, the learning doesn’t end for Neeraj. “I never had the opportunity to study photography, which has been one of the biggest regrets in my life. So, in a way, I am making up for this by constantly meeting photographers and learning about their life and work.” He also maintains a close association with Prashant Panjiar, who continues to mentor him. “He taught me the single most important lesson that I have always adhered to—discipline. To this day, I am very focused and particular about my work. I value people’s time and hold it to the utmost importance. I hate leaving people waiting. Prashant’s advice to me was to always complete a project and move on to the next, and never to leave anything incomplete.”

A New World of Possibilities
The changing face of photojournalism in India excites Neeraj. “This is the age of opportunity,” he said. “Now is the time of limitless possibilities. We have many talented photojournalists doing commendable work in the form of photo cooperatives, online blogs, photo festivals and exchanges. These have opened plenty of doors for our community. However, photographers need to remember one important thing. It is a piece of advice that the legendary James Nachtwey gave me years ago. He told me to always be honest with my subject and myself.” Before we concluded our interview, I asked Neeraj that apart from all the advice so far, what would he personally convey to novice photojournalists. “Always be a social animal,” he said. “Go out there and make friends with writers, painters, poets, filmmakers and those who colour the world with their honest expressions and dialogues. But most importantly, remember that photography is very personal. So don’t forget to fall in love with it.”

Gadgets and Gear

  • His camera gear mainly consists of the C anon EOS-1Ds Mark III, the C anon EOS 5D and his favourite, the C anon EOS 5D Mark III.
  • He primarily uses the C anon EF 16–35mm f/2.8L II USM, the C anon EF 70–200mm f/2.8L IS II U SM and the Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 U SM lenses.

About Neeraj Priyadarshi
He joined The Indian Express in 1991, where he is now the National Photo Editor. Neeraj is inspired by Sally Mann and reveres her photography book What Remains (2003). He loves water in any form and aspires to have a house by a water body. Also, he is keen on authoring books in the future.

Tags: photojournalist, photography, photographer, photojournalism, Conchita Fernandes, Newspaper, The Indian Express, Prashant Panjiar, Neeraj Priyadarshi, One Step Ahead, James Nachtwey, Bombay Riots