Pablo Bartholomew is an award-winning Indian documentary photographer and photography educator based in New Delhi. He is here for Photo Kathmandu, Nepal’s only international photography festival, taking place from October 21 to November 3.
At the office of photo.circle on October 20, Bartholomew was working with photographs for a slide show for the festival. He has been working in the field of photography for 40 years and his attraction to photography began when he was only seven years old. His parents — Richard Bartholomew, art critic/writer/photographer/painter and Rati Bartholomew, theatre activist/ teacher/ actress/ writer/ director — influenced him towards photography.
He began his journey as photographer by clicking his mother’s picture, characters of her play, buildings, anything while in Delhi. Then he went to Bombay (Mumbai) and worked as a still photographer for Indian and international movies, did corporate photography and worked for advertisements. “Photography is my life and the only thing or craft I know,” he said.
For around five years he wore different hats but his aim was to be a photojournalist. “My ambition was to go into photojournalism and international media. After working as a still photographer for Gandhi by Richard Attenborough I went abroad in search of a photo agency to work with. I worked as India staff for Gamma Liaison, French American photo agency for 20 years. Through the agency, my works have been published internationally.”
He even quit high school to pursue photography at the age of 15 and began photography as a professional at 17 years. “School was boring, teachers were boring and I didn’t feel the need for academic education and degree. I never completed my high school. But being in the family of artists and intellectuals, I have inherited culturally, socially and intellectually from my parents. Because of the richness that existed in my family, I could give a miss to my schooling. And education should be there to make the student an accomplished creative person, but it is not like that with our education system where education has become a business. That’s why people go to Oxford or Harvard that is worshipped as the temple of education. I was lucky and fortunate to have such a family that helped me be who I am today.”
At the age of 20 in 1975, he won his first award for his photo series of morphine addicts by World Press Photo. According to him, the awards he received early in his career were the affirmation that he was doing well and was helpful to reinforce his thoughts about photography. “I needed to prove to myself and my family that without formal education and being into photography I can make something out of my life. Getting awards can make you feel like a superstar or whatever. But superstars also have
to eat and work. You will only be a superstar if you continue to be constructive or productive, otherwise you become a no star. Even in music or movies, it is the same. They have to continue to perform.”
In his 20 years as a photojournalist he captured many historical movements in India along with the South Asian region. “Since 1983, I covered political events, natural disasters and manmade disasters. There was the Punjab movement of Khalistan, they wanted freedom from India, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, the cyclones in Bangladesh, the political career to the funeral of Indira Gandhi, rise of Rajiv Gandhi in Indian politics and many more.”
Photojournalism is wrought with many challenges and one should be mentally, emotionally and physically prepared and be strong enough to continue to work and “strong does not mean you should be like a pehelman (body builder). It means you need stamina. On the job, sometimes you get stranded in a place, you don’t get water, very little food, difficult situations in disasters like cyclones, bullet firing and stone throwing in riots and so on. So having stamina means coping with all these problems and still continuing with your work.”
His photography of friends and family, cities he lived in and their daily life is much more important to him than his works as a photojournalist. “Photojournalism is a part of my photographic work. Before being a photojournalist, I did lots of work for myself. Photographing my family, friends, cities I lived in and the daily life is much more interesting and important as I look back now than my photojournalism years. Because they have lasting quality revealing the culture and time which most people did not know existed in India. There are popular concepts about our country such as India is a country of snake charmers, Maharajas, et cetera that only give you a certain view of a nation. For me when I photograph people around me, their hairstyles, clothes they wore and what they did, talks about a period of life that are not illusions made by westerners but real and interesting.”
So what makes a good photograph? “There has to be a thought, a feeling, a mood, aesthetics and movement — photograph is a combination of all these things. To be an excellent photographer, one needs an understanding of life, that’s what when the eyes mature as you live life. You have to have some experience of life, which means you have to have failure, you have to be hurt, you should know pain and what suffering is, to be committed and continue even in bad period of life. People need to understand the aesthetics of modern art to movies. Basically you have to have a history of many of visual mediums and even literature, to music as everything is connected, to be an accomplished creative person whether a photographer, artist or writer. You need everything.”
For him, life is what death is not: “From the time you are born to when you are not around is to be able to lead it in the most fulfilling manner by contributing to art and craft of what I practice.”
Bartholomew could have chosen other creative venture but he chose photography and he said, “Because it is the most compact and economic medium that can be done on your own. That’s one of the reasons I went to work on films but I really don’t care as there are too many people to create an output. In photography, you can be your own producer, director, photographer and you are usually just working on your own.”
He conducted a workshop on ‘The Past is The Present’ from October 14-18 and a slideshow curated by him is taking place on October 24 at Pimbahal as part of the Photo Kathmandu. About the festival he expressed, “I have been to many photo festivals around the world and I am finding Photo Kathmandu interesting, experimental and an important cultural event for Nepal. It has an international reach for photography.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 23, 2016 of The Himalayan Times.