Photojournalist Prashant Panjiar’s Must-Read Art Book

Photograph of Author Allan Sealey by Prashant Panjiar.

We might be drawn to believe that photographers do not enjoy talking—or writing—about their experiences because the camera does that for them. Thankfully, Indian photojournalist Prashant Panjiar is generous and aware that his life and career have been quite extraordinary. In his latest book, That Which is Unseen, Panjiar takes us across almost four decades of Indian history and proves to be one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary photojournalism.

Prashant Panjiar and Navajivan Trust.

Book cover for That Which is Unseen by Prashant Panjiar. Published by Navajivan Trust in 2021.

Panjiar’s interest in photography began in the late 1970s during “The Emergency,” a period in which the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency across the country and suspended civil liberties. When “The Emergency” ended, Panjiar had just started his career.

“Coming out of a period of suspension of freedoms, censorship and repression, journalism in India was booming. [...] there was a sense of idealism that drove most publications,” he recalls. Since then, his works have appeared in some of the most important Indian and international newspapers and magazines, he worked as an editor and as a curator, and co-founded the biannual Delhi Photo Festival.

“I wouldn’t know how to sum up my career except to say that I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else.” He tells Art & Object, “As an individual, one can probably have only limited experiences—a smaller life. But through my life as a photojournalist I have had the privilege to experience the lives of so many and see so much that I have led a really BIG life!”

That Which is Unseen is a journey in space and time across some of the most important events of Indian history such as the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in 1992, the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, and the story of the famous bandit king Malkhan Singh.

Malkhan Singh's gang stops at a mandir and poses for the camera with weapons.
 

Panjiar knows that some of his most famous photographs are now part of the collective memory of his country and the world. When asked what makes an image iconic, he clarifies that “Sometimes it is the sheer power of the image, its uniqueness, its relevance, but often it is just repetition or widespread publication.”

An example of this is his 1997 shot of the Indian flag, a failed Guinness world record attempt of jumping from the Air Force with the largest flag. When the jump failed because of bad weather conditions and the other photographers scattered, Panjiar decided to stay on the airport tarmac a while longer, and when the wind raised the flag, he took a few shots.

A giant flag at Hindon Air Force base.
 

Since Panjiar started his career in the 1980s, the world and the media have increased their pace. They have become faster, seemingly more visible. Yet the photographer is keen to point out: “We live in a world of viral images, not necessarily iconic ones. It is increasingly the responsibility of the photographer to provide context, perspective, nuance [...] the transmission of images is often engineered, motivated and agenda-driven.”

That Which is Unseen offers not just a considerable amount of images—more than 100—but also reveals the circumstances, the feelings, the unseen stories behind the photographs. It is proof not only of Panjiar’s extraordinary career and talent but of the importance of photojournalism, of questioning what we see, of looking for what is hidden. “I don’t know about banality [...] but definitely we have become consumers of images. [...] such consumerism of images is being used to fan radical, uncritical sentiments and beliefs.” Panjiar warns us, “We are consuming images, and information, only to reaffirm what we believe in, not to question it.”

About the Author

Caterina Bellinetti

Dr. Caterina Bellinetti is an art historian specialised in photography and Chinese visual propaganda and culture.

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