Telling it like it is

Helplessly hopeless South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s image of the 1993 famine in Sudan
Helplessly hopeless South African photojournalist Kevin Carter’s image of the 1993 famine in Sudan


‘Sometimes we need hard-hitting images to shock us’ – Arko Datta | Photojournalist

In an exclusive interview, ARKO DATTA, the award winning photojournalist who chases new dimensions of visual narrative, speaks to Gizala Shabnam about working in the line of fire.

Edited Excerpts from an interview

Telling Arko Datta’s iconic image of Qutubuddin Ansari during the 2002 Gujarat riots
Telling Arko Datta’s iconic image of Qutubuddin Ansari during the 2002 Gujarat riots

According to you, what makes a specific photo stand out from the rest?

The emotional quotient of an image. A picture should make us smile, cry or even shock us and it should be relevant. The lesser the explanation required in way of words, the sharper and more impactful the image. In fact photography is the closest that we have come to creating Esperanto, a global language that the world understands.

Indian newspapers are carrying photos for just formality. Most images have no impact and people turn pages without even looking at them. Indians are not yet into visual thinking, the way, Europe and US are quite evolved.

You have been to various war and disaster affected areas. How easy/difficult is it to keep your emotionally detached when you click the photographs?

Photographing or constantly witnessing human pain and misery isn’t natural. But that is our job. It is very important not to empathise with the situation beyond a certain point as no creative work can be done in an emotional state. In fact, once or twice when I have got carried away with emotions, I couldn’t shoot. I had to wake myself from the stupor to resume shooting.

Photojournalists are often criticized on ethical grounds. Take For instance, the Kevin Carter episode. As a photographer and as an individual, are these criticisms justified?

It is a very unfair criticism. Photojournalists are on the spot doing their job, living the life similar to the subject, sharing the pain and hardship, even if for a short while. Many photographers have even lost their lives while on the field. Sitting in comfortable places and criticising someone is very easy. But how many of them have gone to such areas to help the victims. It is so unfortunate that Carter had to face such criticism after winning the Pulitzer. He just did his job and did it well.

There have been photos that have created a huge impact on the audience and have triggered a number of debates on the systems. However, such implicit/explicit retaliations have been short-lived. What is your opinion?

Well, many pictures have created impact and have remained in our psyche for ages. In fact, the recent heartbreaking image of the Syrian boy has shaken the world out of its complacency –forced governments to change their stance towards migrants. That is the power of images. About being short lived, it is happening everywhere. Movies, music, scandals, scams, etc… nothing lasts in public memory for too long.

What is your experience of capturing Qutubuddin Ansari? Do you think that this picture got the expected and deserved response by the audience?

I don’t expect anything while taking pictures. I like to be just an objective observer. Being a photojournalist, I don’t align myself with any group, thought, ideology or culture. I thought of even discarding my surname. I am just an individual and there is no place for “us and they” in my thought process. Credibility and objectivity are the most important credentials of a photojournalist and I stick to it. My job is to honestly report through images. It is up to the people how they respond.

Even I was in a very dangerous situation while clicking Qutubuddin Ansari. So I was hoping that I wouldn’t be at the receiving end of any sword.

Most of the iconic photos till date have been discussed because of their disturbing and heart wrenching themes. Do you think this will encourage photojournalists to take a more sentimental route?

The most powerful, iconic images are the ones that touch our heart. I don’t see any difference. The iconic “heart wrenching subjects” is the result of the sentimental route taken. The power of images lies in its content – be it action or emotion. Pictures are not to be evaluated by the mind, but felt immediately by the heart. That is the purpose of photojournalistic images. Sometimes we need hard-hitting images to shock us.

In fact, news nowadays has been dumbed down a lot — put on your TV and you will know how escapist we have become as a society.

Other than your work, which iconic image made an impression on you and why?

Recently the image of the Syrian boy. When I saw it, I was shocked and sickened. I am sure all those who saw the image, must have reacted in a similar way.

Before this picture, even I was having doubts about the plight of migrants — but that picture made me realise that there can be no room for any doubts when we talk about humanity.

We can blame whoever we want but not the child, who eventually paid with his life. The way the boy was lying lifeless on the beach makes me shudder.

This is a very powerful work of photojournalism. It changed the mindset of millions.



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