The French Ambassador looks at India, Raghu Rai France, in black, white and gray


American rapper Eminem is perhaps a bit distant from Raghu Rai, one of India’s most famous photographers, and Emmanuel Lenain, French Ambassador to India. Yet his words define, in a sense, the essence of To France/In India — a book of photographs by Lenain and Rai.

Seizing the moment, “trying to freeze it and own it,” as Eminem said, is what both did.

In black and white photos spanning France (Rai’s photographs, taken in 2019) and India (Lenain’s artistic journey through a country hit by the pandemic but vibrant in its plurality and chaos of “jugaad” ).

“Black and white was not an easy choice to represent a country flooded with fantastic colors”, says Lenain. But he chose to do without color, because “it creates an obligation to guess the forms that hide behind the noisy bustle of the streets”.

Paris 1998. Copyright Raghu Rai

Rai, too, prefers the harsh truth that emerges with the medium. “Black-and-white photos can silence the noise of color,” he says.

Despite the lack of color, or perhaps because of it, Lenain’s shots of India during the devastating second wave of the pandemic, his celebration of the country as a living being, even its chaos, manage to capture the extent of its diversity.

“Like anyone living in India at the time, I was deeply moved by the scale of the tragedy. Some of my associates, friends and acquaintances lost their lives,” Lenain says of what prompted him to capture the tragedy as it unfolded.

“I drove around town after work. The land adjoining the crematoria, often car parks, was requisitioned to build makeshift pyres:

Lined up in a perfect geometry, dozens of rectangles of earth and ashes, delimited by a simple edge of raw bricks, so close together that at the height of the cremations, the heat made walking impossible. And just outside, along the sidewalks, logs were piled up for hundreds of yards – preparations for the next day’s battle. In Muslim cemeteries, the bounded sections for Covid victims, created with shovels, stood slightly apart. Everywhere there was the same outburst of grief.

Lenain’s portraits of people at the height of their grief, as they bury and cremate their loved ones, remind us of the humanity of those who, without such records, may have just become another part of Covid statistics .

It manages to portray scale – with a wide-angle, high-contrast photograph of the many pyres constantly burning in a Delhi crematorium. And then it moves to the faces – often emotionally weary and resigned – of those who light the pyres and dig the graves.

While in India, the diplomat became a chronicler of crises, Rai – whose photographs have been emblematic of the greatest titles of contemporary India – imagines a tribute to France.

“Photographing France, for me, was like a pilgrimage,” he says. “It’s the birthplace of the form and Paris is one of the most photographed cities in the world. Marc Riboud, Henri Cartier-Bresson… so many photographers that I admire have captured the city.

So in From France, a girl poses for a portrait for a street artist, while Rai photographs the process, capturing a first-world millennial partaking in analog joy.

A baker, a homeless man, the bodies and smiles of a Pride Parade, the pathos of former artists, Rai’s France is not the pale shadow of itself that many travelers now see, a city in love with its past, a gift shop museum of sorts. In Rai’s eyes, Paris is a city of young people (although there are portraits of artists of all ages, vintage and more or less renowned), of the resplendent queer community and of the hopeful.

Lenain’s portraits of Indian youth, by contrast, show joy, dignity, and despair in equal measure. “His sensitivity, especially for someone who is not a professional, is remarkable,” says Rai de Lenain. “The portrait of the two young women in burqas captures a joy inside the (Delhi) Jama Masjid that I have never seen before; the portrait of the sweeper in Jaipur is wonderfully tender.

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The idea for the book (published by the Raghu Rai Foundation and some of whose photographs are exhibited at the Alliance Française in Delhi until May 26) was born during a dinner at the French Embassy in Delhi in honor of de Rai after being honored as Magnum Photos’ first award-winning photographer.

“The Ambassador asked me if I wanted to see his photos and I could see immediately that he was very passionate…He pitched the idea for this book and over the months and years that followed , I worked with him and the book is the result”, says Raï.

Many of the diplomat’s photographs deal with themes that can be interpreted politically – an abandoned statue of Hanuman on a river bed, crematoriums and cemeteries during Covid, the “Kafkaesque” nature of how the country works. Lenain, however, insists that his column is not political: “There are two different worlds in my life: the world of politics, which can be harsh and cruel at times…and the world of art – infinity, where we try to breathe a small dose of beauty. I really appreciate the freedom that photography offers.


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William D. Babcock

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