| The veteran war photographer rests after the photo session. Pictures by Sachin
Q) You have covered wars in the Nigerian state of Biafra, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Lebanon and Congo, to name a few. Besides your work on landscape in the UK and India, you have focused on the AIDS crisis on the African continent. What inspires you to keep shooting even at this age?
A) My passion. I love my job and it keeps me going. I started my career 48 years ago, when you were not even born (smiles).
Q) Capturing images of bodies and injured people is common during war. But did you ever help any injured person while on assignments?
A) It’s a common question that I have been asked by many. Some people have also termed me inhumane for taking photographs of the dead and the injured during wars. But tell me one thing: How could I help them? I am not a doctor. I am a photojournalist. I only know how to do my job. Could I offer treatment to people when they needed? No, I could not. But it is also true that many times I have lifted injured people and tried to provide them with medical help. But I could not help whom I photographed. I can recollect one horrific instance. I found eight injured people inside a truck. Their eyes were wide open and they looked helpless. Some army personnel had put them inside a truck in which they kept bodies. I screamed and asked the army men to remove the eight from that truck. I told them that they were alive and their eyes were wide open, only to realise that they were actually dead. I cannot forget the incident.
Q) You have covered several wars. Which one was the cruellest?
A) That’s a good question. A war is a war. It will never give you happy memories. A war only conjures up images of sufferings of thousands — of explosions, of bloodied people lying all around, of people crying over the death of their near and dear ones. I have had several such horrible experiences. I can recall two incidents that had shaken me from within. In the Biafra war in 1969, I saw bodies of around 800 children. Most of them had died following starvation. People used to dump bodies of their children and relatives while leaving camps. I almost cried at the sights of the children’s bodies.
The images reminded me of my children whom I had left behind at home in England — they were healthy and safe. I realised my children were far lucky than the ones in Biafra. The experience of the war in Bangladesh was also haunting. Around 10,000 people had taken shelter in a camp in Dinajpur. I was in the camp for around 10 days. It was raining. People were lifting bodies and some were running to help the injured, gasping for breath in that “monster rain”. It was a “monster rain” because things were getting difficult because of the downpour. People were finding it difficult to help the sufferers because bodies were getting heavier… Everything was getting blurred and people were finding it extremely difficult to rescue the injured. I, too, tried to help some injured and lost two of my cameras in the process.
Q) How do you describe a bombing?
A) You cannot listen to anything. Everything blurs before you. In simple words, it is hell on earth.
Q) Was your family happy with your job?
A) My married life was never happy. I got married five times (chuckles). My first wife died at a very early age. The remaining were failures. When you go for such assignments (war photography), you leave behind family members you are supposed to take care of. Every time I used to bid goodbye to them, I used to think it was the last farewell. Would I see them again? This was the question I used to ask myself every time I left for assignments. It was a mental battle. But then it was my job, I have to move ahead and leave behind my emotions because what I was doing was close to my heart. Yes, my family life was devastated because of work.
Q) Tell us about your first assignment?
A) It was not actually an assignment. It was 1940, the time of the Second Word War. The German Air force had bombarded London. I was in London (Macculin was born in London) then. I had got the call from within that I needed to shoot the event. I was young and had picked up a camera on my own wish.
Q) What’s your biggest achievement so far?
A) That I am alive (chuckles). Survival is the biggest achievement for any war photographer. I don’t believe there is any way to ensure safety in war fields when you are amid continuous bombardments with guns targeted at you. Obviously, when you come back home safe, it’s your biggest achievement.
I have won many awards, but you cannot find any war photograph in my house. I don’t want to celebrate people’s sufferings.
Q) Do you get nightmares?
A) That’s a tricky question. (Speaks after a long pause) I used to have nightmares initially — I would see that my face had been blown off or I am at the gunpoint. But these nightmares were part of my initial career. I don’t wake up to nightmares anymore. I am concentrating more on landscapes now and have got my peace of mind. Everyday I wake up at my home in the morning and capture nature with my camera. I love doing this. Even at the Quila House today (Friday), I woke up at 6am and visited the banks of the Ganga to take some photographs. It was very pleasing. But to be honest, you can never have a complete peace of mind in your entire life as a war photographer. There is no guarantee of peace anywhere. See what happened in Hyderabad (refers to the last week’s bomb blasts). Almost nobody could anticipate that such an incident would happen. No one can have complete peace of mind in today’s scenario.
Q) You keep visiting India. What is the best thing you like about the country?
A) I just love its people, its culture, its tradition — everything. Women here dress up from top to bottom. They look very pretty. The family culture and the bonding are much better than what it is in our country. People are religious. I am visiting the Quila House for many years. Bal Manohar Jalan, the father of Aditya Jalan who owns the Quila House now, used to treat me like his son. It seems that I have become Manohar’s second son, though he is much younger to me (chuckles). I do not think you can find such love and affection in any other country.
Q) Do you have any hobby?
A) I love to collect bronze artefacts and have a nice collection at home. I got to see some very interesting antiques, mostly made of bronze, at the Quila House.