Swapan Parekh discusses his own work.
Kishor Parekh (1930–1982) transformed modern photojournalism in India by demanding greater status for his profession — credit lines, fuller reproductions, and tangible respect for the difficult, discerning, and often dangerous work involved. But his greatest feat was when the 1971 Indo-Pakistani conflict broke out, while he was living with his family in Hong Kong. Although none of the publications for whom he worked there as a picture editor had any interest in war coverage, Parekh was compelled to return to his homeland to capture what would become the inception of the nation of Bangladesh. The tale of his intrepid passage to the front lines, unofficially and at constant personal risk, is proudly told (see video) by his son Swapan — who himself became a photographer, at 16, upon the unexpected death of his beloved father. Armed with a mere 50 rolls of film, at 36 frames each, Parekh helicoptered in, befriended freedom fighters to gain rides further into the fray, and created one of the most iconic visual wartime portfolios of all time — Bangladesh: A Brutal Birth. The dummy of the book was hastily assembled (while, he said, “All I can smell is rotten flesh.”) and brought to India’s foreign secretary, who had 20,000 copies printed as an official government document. The stark black-and-white images are not only an invaluable record of that game-changing South Asian chapter in history, but also stand alone as powerful artistic compositions that frame the misery, carnage, and courage of bloody revolution — with a particular focus on the toll on innocents. Today the books, originally printed for a dollar each, are prized collectibles impossible to find; Swapan’s family owns only two copies.
Last November, Swapan mounted an exhibition of blown-up photographs from the book at the Delhi Photo Festival, along with others by his father from various points in his career. He spoke to us about how loved and revered Kishor Parekh had been by his professional peers and close friends.
He was just special, he had a certain swagger that when he entered a room, people said “Who the hell is this guy?” … The way he dressed, the way he walked, smoked his pipe … He could go in and out of situations. At one moment flamboyant, hard-partying, and larger than life, the next, while on the job, completely inconspicuous in order to shoot pictures undetected. His charisma was his unequivocal allure.
Kishor Parekh would go on to hire Raghu Rai (profiled earlier in this series) and spearhead with others the evolution of the photography scene in India from a prosaic, provincial echo of Western masters to a more dynamic, varied, and authentic stratum of native artists. Swapan would carry that torch in his own fine work, both commercial and personal, though he ventures into original, at times enigmatic, territory more attuned to a global 21st-century sensibility. “Swapan means dream,” he reveals, laughing:
So I don’t know how much of my life has been a dream. … Maybe my life now is an ode to my father. Sometimes I feel it might be unfinished business, that he’s still shooting through me. But definitely the legacy of the darkroom, the film, the processing of good black-and-white prints, that I have to say definitely comes from him.