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Fawzan Husain | Interview
Fawzan Husain  in conversation with Tariq Ansari

Fawzan, you didn’t start life as a photographer but had some affinity for it as your father was a photographer.

Yes my dad was a photographer and he never went out, always shooting in a studio. That was the last thing I would have ever done.

I remember when you first came to me in 1989 when you were part of the Mid-Day distribution team and said ‘Photography is in my blood, can I be a part of the photo team’. It’s been 20 years now. How has the journey been?

I always enjoyed documenting things and would see them differently from other people. Being in Mid-Day I had access to a lot of newspapers and I would compare pictures of one paper with another. I felt that I could bring something new to the craft which is why I came to you. Then of course, I was mentored by Nikhil Laxman and Carlos Monteiro who pushed me hard and challenged me to do better work. Their pressure really helped in honing my skills. They encouraged me to look at News and features in a different perspective.

You’ve always brought a unique perspective to your work Fawzan. What is it that makes your work special?

I always want to shoot candid shots while remaining invisible to people. I feel that’s my USP. Even when I worked on film sets for my last show, I promised the producer and director that I would work in a very subtle way where nobody would notice me at all. The fun of shooting while being unnoticed is amazing even today. Once you get spotted then everybody becomes very aware. My USP, I would say is to shoot candidly while keeping my-self low profile.

Is that a legacy from your work in news photography? I remember a set of pictures that you did during the Bombay riots. I think you came close to getting killed in those riots!

The 3 yrs training in news photography with Mid-Day really influenced me. Even now, I look at things in a very natural way without any alteration. I try to shoot candidly as far as possible for my personal work, and nobody notices when I take the picture. Of course when I get paid to do assignments then I sometimes have to get people to pose, but never for my own personal work.

What camera are you using now? Has your work improved as you’ve used better cameras?

Right now I am using a Nikon D2X but I have done all my earlier exhibition assignments on a very normal basic camera so I don’t really think it’s about the camera. In fact, I would say more than the camera one has to be particular about the lens you use. Of late I have started using block lenses. Block lenses are fixed lenses with no zoom facility. With these you need to plan ahead in terms of what you want in the frame. With a zoom you tend to get lazy, zoom out and take a larger picture than you want then come back and adjust the picture on a photo editing system. I think with that you lose perspective. With block lenses I need to decide in advance exactly what I want in a frame, fix the lens I need and only shoot that. A zoom lens tends to take away that thinking process.

You seem to make it harder on yourself to shoot. First you insist on naturalness then you use a block lens to limit the image!

It certainly becomes more challenging! I don’t come back and work on the system because I am really poor at it and still haven’t learnt Photoshop fully. My pictures are almost 95% what I want. Very occasionally something needs to be cropped. I believe that I have come to a stage where I shouldn’t be manipulating my images. I shoot what I want, that’s it. I generally don’t go overboard with wide angle lenses. I am very particular about what I want now.

Very choosy indeed! I remember when you first got into photography you spent a lot of time in the dark room learning the basics of developing and printing. All that is gone now and it’s all digital. Do you miss the old days of film or have you become used to digital photography now?

I was the first to jump from film to digital because I realized that it would save me money. In fact the dealer from whom I bought my first digital camera told me that I was the second person in Bombay to buy a digital camera! I was with ‘India Today’ at that time and I told my Editor Prabhu Chawla that if he gave me a digital camera I would save cost of film, printing, physically couriering it to Delhi and the investment would be recovered in 8 months time. He took 5 years to make a decision. I thought that if I go digital I will save money on rolls. Otherwise for every roll I would spend Rs.500 in buying, developing and processing. I have around 4000 rolls of film in my archives. If I had gone digital earlier I would have had a nice German car instead.

Tell me a little bit about your craft. When you prepare for an assignment or even when you are just going out to take a picture what’s going through your head? How do you prepare for a shoot?

I approach my own work as compared to assignments very differently. If I am working on a 2 year project for myself then I prepare in detail on every aspect. For editorial assignments which are only for a day or two you just need to get a gist of what you are going to do and use whatever little knowledge you have on the subject.

Let’s talk about the current set of photographs. This is clearly a project of your own, something you decided to shoot for yourself. How long did you take to shoot the entire portfolio?

In 20 years of photography I have done nine shows so I tend to give two years to one project and then I move on. Faith was also shot over roughly two years.

Why this project? Why Faith? What happened in your life that you said to yourself “this is something that I would like to document?”

When I turned 40, friends started suggesting to me that my time was nearing. Time to undo all the misdeeds of the past, start praying, go on a pilgrimage, perform the Hajj and start worrying about the grave. I have known people who have started praying after 40, almost as though they are saying “Arre now enough. Bahut paap kar liya abhi time hai sudharne ka!”. I started looking at faith from that point of view: what do people do to appease themselves and to feel good about their lives. I started looking in the neighborhood community and then I went well beyond. I realized people do crazy things for faith. This was the same across all religions. As an observer I decided to shoot what represented faith to different people across different regions, and that is where the project started.

As I go through the pictures what strikes me is that when most people talk about faith they will focus on the object of faith and worship. Your pictures are all of people and how they behave in the process of expressing their faith.

I was looking only at people’s association with faith. In Calcutta during Durga Puja I didn’t shoot any of the usual pictures of Durga with the big eyes and so on. I just saw how people were reacting to the Goddess, shot those images and showed them in an exhibition. One Bengali photographer was very upset. He argued ‘How can you have a photograph of Durga Ma without her face!’ Something in my work stirred him, and that to me was part of my success. I portrayed what had to be conveyed but not in the usual way.

As a news photographer you have been in some frenzied situations – in riots and so on. People when expressing their faith in this country can be equally manic and frenzied. How was it to shoot in such circumstances?

It was not challenging for me because as a news photographer I am used to it. A glamour photographer or studio photographer would probably have a much harder time! I went to Ellora on Mahashivratri Day and there everybody gets half a second chance to touch the Shivling and then you have to pull out. You will see one of the pictures where there are two assistants stationed there who catch you by the arm, just push you down and pull you up very quickly. It’s a small place, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet and you have 30 people inside, priests performing pooja and a long queue of people coming in. It’s Hot and humid with hardly any light. First of all being a Muslim to get into that place was difficult but somehow I convinced them about the subject and they allowed me in. It was impossible to stand there even for 10 minutes. I was drenched from head to toe in sweat but even in that situation I managed to shoot
pictures because of my training to perform in the worst of situations. When I showed that picture to people who have tried to go in before, they were amazed. For me it was one point agenda until I got permission.

Apart from the Durga Puja and Ellora photographs do any of these images stand out in your memory as being particularly challenging or memorable?

I did a series on Holi in Brijbhumi. There Holi is celebrated for 7 days - one day for one village and it travels, starting 3 days before the day and ending 4 days after. I traveled all 7 days in Brij and every place was crazier than the previous one. Even just to stand on your own two feet was an impossible task and to get an image in that chaos was very challenging. I knew that Holi is celebrated wildly and I decided to have a look at it. Another trip that is etched in my memory is my visit to Leh/Ladakh. It was so peaceful compared to the city where I come from and I had a great time shooting for this subject.

Do you have a preference between projects that you do for yourself and assignments that you are commissioned to do?

Assignments are my bread and butter. If somebody commissions me for a day, I have to deliver on that day. Projects I do when I have free time and I don’t have any pressure. A project can take two or three years to complete but there is no pressure on that. So these are two sides of my professional life. I have to survive so I take regular assignments. On the other hand I want to leave behind my work of personal projects for my daughters who will inherit and benefit from them.

What projects are you working on next?

I am working on a project about the Bohra community and also on one I call ‘Beyond Silverscreen’ related to Bollywood. For my earlier project on Silverscreen I visited sets and got candid images. For my ongoing project I am looking at people’s association with Bollywood. Yet another project is about mobile cinemas in rural areas where exhibitors set up tents in remote villages and show films for ten rupees.

‘Beyond Silverscreen’ sounds interesting. Like Faith, it’s not only about Bollywood but about how people react to Bollywood in India.

Yes, I’m interested in how people react to Bollywood in their own way. For example if you go to any mela you have large picture cut outs of film stars and people pose next to them. This is how people associate with Bollywood. We used to fly plain white or colored paper kites when we were young. Now every kite has on it a film star. Last year every kite had Aamir from Ghajini and now I am sure it will be either Amitabh or Abhishek from ‘Paa’ or Salman from ‘Wanted’ or the actors in ‘Three Idiots’.

Tell me about some of the photographers you admire

From India I like Raghu Rai. Also Raghubir Singh and T S Satyan- both are no more with us. These people shot with analog cameras without a motor drive but they still managed to freeze frames perfectly. Recently I saw an image by T.S. Satyan of four boys jumping into the water. The symmetry of that image is just perfect. Unbelievable!

There was also a time when you manually calculated F stops and shutter speed depending on time of day and your speed of film. It was a lot of work

Technically, one had to be sound in those days. Digital has changed all that. One can instantly correct a mistake and continue. Back then we had to wait for the results till the next day. There was no going back if one made a mistake. Now alterations can be made post shoot. Computers and Photoshop have become important tools for photographers

How about international photographers?

Henri Cartier Bresson. When you see his work, shot on that small Leica camera you feel humbled. Steve McCurry’ and Paola Pellegrin are two more photographers. Steve has done extensive work in India and I really like his approach. Paola’s documentary style is something I personally envy. I have seen very little of his work but whatever I have seen has really blown me. I relate to the colour and circumstance of shooting in India a lot more as I have direct experience of it.

What is your advice for a young photographer, somebody who has an interest and would like to make a career in it?

Patience. The young generation has this desire of ‘making it’ quickly but in documentary photography it takes years to make a name. Before me photographers have spent 30 to 40 years in the profession to get where they are. I tell young people that if you don’t have patience then don’t get into photo journalism, get into glamour, shoot some nice studio pictures which will make you famous. In Photojournalism you need to have patience. With the low cost of digital cameras and no film cost, it’s no longer about the money but it is definitely about working patiently and in a dedicated way.

What do you want to be remembered for Fawzan?

For my candid images. I am going to hang up my boots in six years time. I have told my wife that after I turn fifty I am not going to shoot actively. I have bought a small place in Dahanu, outside Bombay, where I will get into farming. Over the next few years I would like to build a nice body of work and I would like to be known as the guy who never let anybody know when he shot the frame.