In Search of the Calcutta Colonialism Left Behind

OPC member, photo journalist and Indiana University Professor of Journalism Steven Raymer‘s interest in Calcutta began in 1972 when he worked in layout at National Geographic magazine and saw a story about the once-great colonial capital. His interest renewed when he delved into its history, the culture — the city has more than 200 theater troupes and its residents are known for their affection for politics and literature — and most tantalizing of all: the press corps has been focused elsewhere. “It’s nice to have a bit of an exclusive,” Raymer said at his OPC Book Night on February 20. “I had never been to Calcutta and wanted to see it and bring it to the rest of the world.”

He made six trips in five years, partially funded by Indiana University and the rest self-funded that eventually became his new book, Redeeming Calcutta: A Portrait of India’s Imperial Capital [Oxford University Press]. The trips became more difficult for him to make during this time because airlines cut back their direct service to the city. Now, Raymer said, Calcutta is refocusing itself to the South East Asian tourist market and less on the Western world, which only extends the “exclusive” aspect of the city and its charm.

To navigate the city and its many bureaucratic thickets, Raymer did what some journalists might consider taboo: he went to the American consulate and asked for help. “The consulate opened so many doors for me,” Raymer said. “I used the Americans when I needed to fight bureaucracy.”

The press person from Mother Teresa’s Kalighat, the Home of the Pure Heart, a hospice for the sick and dying, gave him the run-around with all kinds of stipulations for photographing and time limits. He enlisted the help of the consulate general who arrived to the hospital with two American military personnel and the doors to the hospice were opened and exposed not a decrepit hospital but one with many European doctors-in-training who are required to volunteer their services in under-served regions in the world in order to complete their medical degrees.

Raymer also volunteered to give lectures at universities and met local journalists, which gave him greater insight and sometimes even pointers on where and how to shoot certain locations. Raymer said this type of partnership is a necessary ingredient for jumping into an assignment where so many variables are unknown to the visitor.

The people of Calcutta were not always enthusiastic participants in Raymer’s project, however, and were sometimes hostile when they saw a camera. Raymer said this dates to colonial times and how Calcutta is often portrayed in the media as a poor city with subjugated natives. He was sensitive to this history and knew that being Western put him as an immediate and obvious outsider. Still, he contends that the outsider status enabled him to see the city with fresh eyes, and an enthusiasm about Calcutta’s architecture, people and history that a local might overlook. “I could go to a mosque and say, ‘this is all in good faith,’ without being a Hindu or a Jain without so much baggage as a local,” Raymer said. “I brought an emotional distance and persistence.”

Photos from the book were projected during the talk with Ruth Fremson, staff photographer for The New York Times who traveled extensively in India from 2005 to 2011, served as the interlocutor.

One photo was of people on a bridge, but it was the story behind the photo that made it all the more amazing: one million people cross the bridge daily and so many people spit on the bridge that the acid from their saliva has weakened the entire structure to the point of collapse. The book is filled with photos that one would instantly recognize as the complexity, chaos and beauty of an Indian city, and so the book designer suggested a catch-your-breath photo. Raymer selected a photo of a doorway that allowed the eye and mind to rest on a few simple objects.

Raymer said his initial plan with shooting Calcutta was to preserve a time in history, but when he met with the city’s people and saw that so much of India exists with manual labor while a strong push is being made by large, Western retailers, the photos and book became more about documenting the human condition.