Index World Press Photo
February 2008 | Edition Nine     
For many years, Kishor Parekh was one of India’s foremost photo journalists though he was not always based in his native country.

He served as an inspiration and role model for many younger photographers hoping to follow in his footsteps.

Pablo Bartholomew was one of them and here profiles the man who pioneered photo stories in the Indian press.

Kishor was a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy. Running into the eye of the storm was his style.

At least that’s the way I remember him from my teenage days in the 1970’s, the man who occasionally took me out from my high school to be his assistant, helping to carry his bags on shoots around New Delhi.

India was a young nation, thirsty for new expression.

For six years from 1961, as Chief Photographer for New Delhi’s premier newspaper the Hindustan Times, Kishor fought for his photos rather than go with the flow at a time when the photographer was just an accompaniment to the journalist. Editorially, images were not valued and he wrestled with all around him to make the change.

Finishing his Masters in filmmaking and documentary photography studies at the University of Southern California in 1960, Kishor had already won numerous awards.

A year later returning to India, he grappled with editors and colleagues to create a space and niche for his photos.

It was unheard for a photo to run across eight columns on the front page. But Kishor won his battles, not because of any personal chemistry with the owners of Hindustan Times but because of reader response to his sensitive images.

Introducing the idea of the picture story to India, he was deeply influenced by the work of Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White.

He was hip and suave and yet a street fighter when needed. In the post-colonial 1960’s with India at war with neighbors China (1962) and Pakistan (1965) and with hunger and famine still dogging the nation – including the Bihar Famine of 1966 - Kishor proved his mettle.

The strong emotional images of the horrors of the famine were used to fund raise with exhibitions in Mumbai (Bombay) and Los Angeles in the US.

He closely documented the political lives of India’s politicians and leaders, photographing first Prime Minister Nehru till his death in 1964.

It was reported that Kishor’s persistence once led to Nehru slapping him down.

Early one morning, when he was photographing Nehru at prayer at the Gandhi Samadhi, the Prime Minister thought Kishor was too close and intruding in a private and solemn moment.

An angry Nehru asked him what he was doing and ordered him to get out. Kishor stood his ground saying this is what people would want to see and that he was doing his job.

The Hindustan Times carried the picture next day and Nehru's office called to request ten copies of that photograph.

When Prime Minister Nehru died, Kishor’s exhibition of images of him became a point of pilgrimage for the nation.

In 1967 Kishor moved to Asia Magazine in Hong Kong and then became Picture Editor for Pacific Magazine in Hong Kong and Singapore till about 1972, capturing picture stories of the region in color. In 1971, India became embroiled in its third battle with Pakistan and Bangladesh was born. Kishor became restless. His wife Saroj remembers a trip to the beach in Hong Kong:

“He (Kishor) liked painting. He was feeling very restless. He said “My country is burning and here I am painting”. He decided then that he had to go to India to cover the war”.

He tried to board a helicopter but was stopped by soldiers.

Recalls Saroj: “As the chopper was about to leave, he broke the cordon and jumped into the chopper. The army Major on board refused to take off. "Shoot me or take me" Kishor said. With extreme stubbornness he managed to convince the Major but (on) condition that once he was in Dhaka he was on his own.”

Bangladesh was Kishor’s highest point. Self-assigned, self-funded, driven by his own instincts, emotions and guts, in a two week period he produced a startling set of images that became a powerful book and statement.

“He spent 24 days sleeping at work and not coming home - processing and printing. He had already lost 15 pounds. And that’s when the book Bangladesh- A Brutal Birth was born. The Indian government, in spite of having hordes of cameramen shooting for them, requested 20,000 copies,” remembers Saroj.

In 1972 Kishor moved back to Bombay (Mumbai) and did more commercial and advertising work. The last time I met Kishor was when he came to my first black and white exhibition of photographs in Bombay, 1981.

He said to me: “I’ll show you young boy, what I am made off, I’m off to the Himalayas to work on a project… I am returning to work that I love, I am still young you know”.

A year later, one learnt, Kishor was no more. He died amongst the mountains on a photographic quest. His son, Swapan, is continuing the family tradition behind the lens.

Says Swapan: “His last picture was that of a flower. He shot the picture, immediately put down his F2 without dropping it and breathed his last. He suffered from a single heart attack and died on the spot”.

I remember Kishor like a wrestler (a pahalwan). His stocky build, his attitude and arrogance, his body language and his speech.

This man personified might, held himself with great confidence but had inner strength and intelligence.

His work was a landmark for Indian photography and through his images he became an inspiration for many of us.

Pablo Bartholomew

Kishor Parekh

Kaveh Golestan (Iran)
Raul Corrales (Cuba)
Max Penson (Uzbekistan)
Mohamed Amin (Kenya)
Sergio Larraín Echeñique (Chile)
Yevgeni Khaldei (Russia)
Eduardo Masferre (the Philippines)
Malick Sidibé (Mali)

Copyright 2008, all rights reserved by the photographers