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Ryan Paul Lobo | Interview
SHAI HEREDIA: Do you feel that making documentaries with National Geographic has influenced your personal photography of people and social structures in India?
RYAN LOBO: Yes, in some ways it has. But National Geographic Television itself has had nothing to do with it. The experiences I’ve had with different cultures and places have.

I come from an upper middle class background, well off, privileged. Having left this nutshell, having travelled to all those countries making my films and experiencing all those different circumstances and versions of humanity, one begins to see things differently once one is back home. The world grows larger and one grows smaller. One becomes more aware of one’s own mortality and the smallness, if you will, of one’s community and its history.
I had the opportunity to field-produce a film on an American supermax prison in Minnesota.

It was one of the most soulless spaces I’ve experienced. A place with very little hope for most of its inmates. The prison guards seemed just like the people from my neighborhood — my parents, friends, neighbours. They went to church, supported their families, then went to work within the gigantic walls of a super secure prison where most of the inmates “just happened” to be black.
The prison, strangely enough, reminded me of my neighbourhood in Bangalore.

The prisoners — black, Native American, and Hispanic, mostly —lived in some kind of limbo, in a world without hope. Once one is part of the prison system in the USA, it’s very difficult to get out.
In India, we live within different walls and the bricks are our histories and class and caste structures. I look at neighbourhoods I come from and see how removed they are from other economic classes and communities.

So, such were the parallels that I observed. In the same way, in India, most of my friends are upper middle class or middle class - I identify with them, empathize with them. We rely on our communities and families a lot in India for protection and support. Communities are very strong forces here and they are separated by invisible walls. What’s interesting to me is that these different histories and philosophies live with each other, independently, alongside and mostly oblivious to each other.

So, yes, my travels do make me see all these lines far more clearly. When I travel and immerse myself in a story, I begin to see all these other systems and societies in other places. And then I come back and, all of a sudden, I start noticing how things are different. I see things I’ve never seen before and I realize I am a part of it all and that I am not really as socially independent as I imagine myself to be. It’s sometimes painful but liberating as well.
SHAI HEREDIA: Your home city — Bangalore — has clearly been a significant character in your personal photography. Stylistically, can you compare the recent series “Traffic” with the earlier “Koshys”?
RYAN LOBO: Koshys restaurant seems to have remained a constant in a very fast evolving city. It represents a Bangalore that has long disappeared. And the attraction to Koshys, for many old Bangaloreans, is nostalgia — the colonial-era bearers, silver pots of tea, high ceilings, the menu — these don’t really exist anywhere else anymore. Sometimes I think that pouring yourself a cup of tea in Koshys is a retreat from what seems to be chaos outside. When the “old” Bangaloreans disappear into the ether, Koshys will too or perhaps it’ll be the other way round.

Bangalore is changing fast and not just architecturally. Hungrier people are at the door. People from all over the country are moving here for work and a better life. At one time, I would think I knew everyone who belonged to a certain English-speaking class, if you will. Now it’s very different. Billboards dot the roads; the traffic jams are horrendous and beneath all these ads for products most people cannot afford, the vast majority of Bangaloreans, the lower economic classes, walk and ride to work every day.

I was surprised at the violence after the death of the Kannada actor, Dr Rajkumar. It was unbelievable! And what intrigued me was where this came from. I don’t think it had anything to do with the man but more to do with the vast majority of Indians awakening now, with whatever’s on offer, to a state of mind where they want more.

Koshys and what it represents will be the first casualty of that awakening.
SHAI HEREDIA: Do you prefer to shoot digital or 35mm? Do you make an aesthetic or practical choice when you decide to shoot in one format and not the other?
RYAN LOBO: I shoot mainly 35mm, but it depends on the project.
I believe that the impact a photograph has on a viewer is most important. It depends on what you want to achieve with your images. I’ve seen images shot with point-and-shoot digital cameras that were amazing. Some photographers own the most expensive cameras but take terrible images.
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