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MADE NOT QUITE FRESH

“The story of Bangladesh,” sang Joan Baez in 1971, “is an ancient one again made fresh.” The lyrics are reproduced in Raghu Rai’s BANGLADESH: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM (Niyogi, Rs 1,495), and one is tempted to apply her words, a little perversely, to new photobooks that reproduce older bodies of photojournalistic work. Now that photography is a key player in the market, and tends to move beyond the limits of the medium towards sophisticated forms of conceptualism, traditional photojournalism — the sort that Raghu Rai took with him on several risk-laden trips to Bangladesh during the war — needs two kinds of aggrandizement to make itself heard and seen in galleries, books and the media.

First, scale. The pictures have to look, and actually be, big. The disasters are big, the frames are big, the emotions are big, the prices are big, and so the photographers are big too. They are never less than legends — often more legendary than the genocides or tsunamis they fly to in perilous helicopters to cover. No wonder Magnum is called Magnum. Rai is, of course, very big — India’s biggest. His pictures spill out of opulent coffee-tables into giant billboards. In his shows and books (including this one), they are enlarged so much that they curdle like stale milk and become grainy, or are gutted at one end.

Second, contemporary revivals of older bodies of photojournalistic work need swathes of purple prose as well as supporting materials of a documentary kind to situate the photographs somewhere between history and art, or evidence and emotion. So, lots of heart-rending writing (this book prefers to call it “heart rendering”). The Price of Freedom opens with Rai’s reminiscences of how the pictures were shot (Calvino didn’t quite get to “The Adventure of a Photojournalist” in Difficult Loves), together with a potted history of the Bangladesh war and its aftermath (refugees and wounded soldiers, as HC-B and Bourke-White had realized before Rai, are terribly photogenic). Then there is the famous dissenting telegram sent by the American consul general to Dhaka, Archer Blood (was he named by Henry James?). This is followed by Shahidul Alam’s introduction (called “Humanity Oppressed & Tortured”). Next is a piece called “The General Who Helped Liberate Bangladesh” — written by the General himself (J.F.R. Jacob). Finally, the lyrics of the Joan Baez song and, throughout, descriptive and connective captions and headnotes.

Here is a bit of the heart being rendered, from Alam’s introduction: “The refugee camps, the exodus, the desperate helping the desperate, the sewer pipe homes, the never-ending journey, and the eyes, oh the eyes! Haunting, beseeching, forgiving, groping, longing, swirling in the whirlwind of a poignant tormented history, the weeping, tender, sometimes lost eyes still had an intensity that was hard to imagine, even harder to describe. But that is precisely what the photographs did.”