First you see the policeman stepping on to the zebra lines and holding up his hand to stop the traffic. A signboard across the road reads, Caution: Marina Ground Renovation Work Under Progress. And then you realise that just like everybody else in that scene, you have been oblivious to the two mostly naked urchins crossing the road. But the photographer forces you to eventually see them.

A video that played during ‘Magic Lantern,’ a recent exhibition of photojournalism at the fineart gallery Art Houz in Chennai, includes a clipping of documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt describing a good image. The best are the ones without models or artifice, he says, where all you need to do is just look and capture a decisive moment.

The picture of the urchins by K.V. Srinivasan (a photojournalist at The Hindu) and the others that were shown did just that, conveying a sense of news in everyday life and the ironies that escape the eye.

While photojournalism almost always comes packaged with the news, now you are forced to wonder what the stories might be. Weave your own tales from the elements in the photographer’s frame.

H.K. Rajashekar’s (India Today) photo of a lone lady squatting on the platform of a suburban train station as a train looms in, is possibly a play on the loneliness of the city life. Or of how little-used the MRTS sometimes is. As a viewer without a newspaper in hand, you can create your own photo caption.

Best photos

The best photos have an intuitive feel to them, and a sense of not being staged. These include L. Anantha Krishnan’s (Eenadu) picture of folk artists drenched in body paint, being readied for a temple celebration and Shanth Kumar’s (The Times of India) images of the hustle and bustle of a fish market and the early morning sun glinting against the ice as workers haul out chunks.

Particularly engaging were V. Ganesan’s (The Hindu) photo of a girl and a boy dressed for school, hardly noticing another child their age walking past with vessels and a thick rope slung over his shoulders; P. Ravi Kumar’s (The New Indian Express) picture of migrant workers from the North-East asleep on a railway platform, arms and legs over each other in the crowded space and B.A Raju’s (The Times of India) artistic composition of jallikattu in progress — bulls with colourfully pointed horns clearly having fun attacking a police shelter as fighters cower behind it.

A news consumer spends more time on a good photo than on a fleeting image on television, says D. Krishnan, veteran photojournalist and Photo Editor at The Hindu. So a news photographer’s brief is to know the reader’s mind, be his eye, and capture exactly what his audience would like to see. While appreciating the exhibition’s intent, Krishnan’s only gripe was that it focused mostly on street images and didn’t represent enough political and sporting events , the mainstay of photojournalism.

Anita Mahadevan, who curated Magic Lantern, said that participating artists were asked “to just send in their most creatively satisfying work.” The social commentary and street photography wasn’t intentional, and neither was the absence of photos in politics and sports “We just didn’t receive many,” she said. While praising the “wry, cerebral humour” in the work displayed, she said that plans are on to take the exhibition national next year.

The gallery also featured some of the best work of Surendra, a political cartoonist with The Hindu. A good cartoon, he says, when laced with the artist’s wit is often “better than the news story”. With a few sure strokes of the cartoonist’s pencil, the powerful are reduced to caricatures and pettiness described in ways words rarely do.

Wrapping up the show were serigraphs (screen printed art) by R. Jacob Jebaraj that integrated text and images, quite like a newspaper does. An entertaining addition was “Alice-in-Media-Land” by Joyston Vaz, a graffiti artist. His cut-outs from newspapers and magazines and mannequins were the visitors’ paintbrush and canvas, which they used well — to funny, and occasionally risqué, effect in the crowd-sourced creation.

(This article was published on November 9, 2012)
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