Pablo Bartholomew grew up amidst cameras and a dark room at home Image Credit: Dhanushka Amarasekra

New Delhi-based Pablo Bartholomew is a much-acclaimed self-taught photographer who has spent more than four decades traversing places, capturing moments, experimenting with ideas, observing cultures and documenting the changes in societies. The idea behind his passion for photography has always been to excel, beyond an ordinary day’s job.

Earlier this year, his work at the Dhaka Art Summit examined a cross border tribal community’s displacement and separation due to international boundaries. The Chakma people scattered over Tripura, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh states in North-East India, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh and in Chin and Rakhine states in Myanmar, struggle to keep their identities intact within their fragmented geographies.

Years ago, Bartholomew had photographed the Naga tribes, documenting the transition of the cummunity from tradition to modernity. “While working on this project in 1989, I also took photos of ethnic groups in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. That is when I came across cultural markers of indigenous communities and how there is sameness across state and national boundaries. Such realisations shaped and inspires my current artistic practice,” he says.

A girl from the Chakma Tribe and her brother in Pechartol area of Tripura, India. The Chakma people are scattered between India, Bangladesh and Myanmar

He is currently continuing his long-term project on Indian emigrants while discovering his Burmese roots. While he has family links from his mother’s Bengali side with the Chakma community — his mother Rati is half Bengali and half Punjabi; her father hailed from Sargodha which is now in Pakistan. His father Richard Bartholomew was of Burmese origin and came to India in his early teens when the Japanese invaded Burma (now Myanmar). “They were both educationists and I was brought up in an environment where we had enough cultural collateral. My mother being in theatre and father in the visual arts, people from the art fraternity were regulars at home,” he reminiscences.

Born in New Delhi on December 18, 1955, Bartholomew grew up amidst cameras and a dark room at home and so familiarity with the medium came easy. Observing and experimenting, he enjoyed browsing through photographic literature and encyclopedias in his father’s collection. Acquiring early skills from him, Bartholomew was excited when a box camera was handed over to him. “I guess the foundation of being a photographer was laid then as my interest in the medium kept growing,” he said. Watching actors, writers and film directors at his home, he realised that education was not the ‘be all’ in life.

Despite his parents’ insistence that he get a good education, Bartholomew was thrown out of Modern School, New Delhi, in 1970, while he was in Grade 9. “This led my parents to finally reconcile with the idea that there was no point in pressurising me and they let me do what I was keen on,” he explained. His early photographs were of family, friends, people and life on the streets, including the worlds of the marginalised rag pickers, sex workers, beggars and eunuchs.

In 1971, he became a professional photographer and produced a series of audio-visual events based on rock music accompanied with multiple slide and film projections and at times, live performers, naming it ‘Thru Pablo’s Eyes’. To finance his photo documentary endeavours, he worked in the film industry as a still photographer and moved to Mumbai for over a decade. Through friends in the trade, he got a foothold in the Hindi film world and expanded his work into foreign co-productions that came to India. Back then, movies required photographs for continuity, to ensure there was visual consistency in scenes and also for publicity purposes. Bartholomew found the work quite educative and it was a way to learn about lighting on set. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) took him to Kolkata where he met British film producer, director and actor Sir Richard Attenborough who played a small role in the film. Attenborough later hired him for the making of his directorial venture Gandhi (1982).

Memento Mori, Boy with Basket

In between assignments, he ventured into street photography — capturing places and people in a documentary style — and held solo exhibitions in New Delhi and Mumbai. When he had enough money saved up, Bartholomew decided to embark on a voyage through Europe and America to look for a photo agency that could distribute his work. This journey led him to link up with Gamma Liaison Network, a French-American photo news agency. One of his first assignments was for Time magazine in 1983 to cover the Nellie Massacre, a clash between Muslim settlers and Assamese tribals. Book projects such as the Library of Nations and Great Cuisines of the World for Time Life books kept him busy for months in India and China, while there was always breaking hard news in the region which kept him on his toes week to week, making him travel all over in South and South-East Asia, including India, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

Some of his works have been shown at Month of Photography in Tokyo, at Visa pour L’image and the Rencontres d’Arles, photography festivals in France, Newark Museum, Indian Photography and Video Festival and more recently at the Houston Foto Biennale this year. His other projects have included working with his and his father’s photo archives and bringing the work back to life in the form of books and exhibitions such as Outside In: A Tale of 3 Cities... The 70s & 80s. “These gave me the opportunity to record lives around me... of my friends and family. But looking back at it 25-30 years later, a completely different perspective of a certain kind of society comes to the fore,” he said.

Bartholomew’s photo-features have been printed in several publications including: the New York Times, Newsweek, Business Week, GEO, Der Spiegel, National Geographic, Telegraph, The Sunday Times and the Guardian.

Through his camera, he has covered human conditions as well as tragedies. Many of the images shot by him have become iconic. Aged only 19, he won the World Press Photo award for his 1975 series on Morphine Addicts in India. In 1984, he received the World Press Photo of the Year award for the heart-wrenching image of a half-buried child with hollow eyes — the victim of the gas leaked out of the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal. In 2013, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian honours and in 2014 the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, one of the highest cultural honours from France.

Asked about the struggles he faced and the challenges he still has to overcome, Bartholomew responded, “It’s a continuous struggle to keep oneself financially stable. Even after the success and commendations that have come my way, certain financial barriers are still the obstacles that one has to face and overcome.”

He considers the 1985 assignment, commissioned by National Geographic magazine as one of the most difficult shoot that was also fraught with danger. Bartholomew was required to photograph the monumental effort of 15,000 Bangladeshi men who had to physically close the mouth of the Feni River in a span of seven hours. The largest dam in the country was constructed to control flooding and also to create a fresh water reservoir for irrigation. The images were published in the June 1987 issue, under the title They Stopped The Sea. Always on the move, Bartholomew never had the opportunity to go through those photographs again. But 29 years later, he discovered them — boxed and stored on the topmost shelf of a cupboard at his home in New Delhi when he happened to investigated the wall after a leak in the apartment upstairs.

“I was horrified and dismayed to find them largely destroyed by termites, dampness and heat. I tried recovering something from that destruction, but sensing the futility of attempting at preservation, I tried seeing them in a new light, putting my energy into curating them as works that had survived and exhibited them in Dhaka and India. Though one cannot always make out human figures and faces in those images, I feel, there can be great beauty in obscurity,” he said.

Nilima Pathak is a journalist based in New Delhi.