India: Photographer Raghu Rai brings ‘margins’ to centre stage

Save the Children CEO Thomas Chandy, Economist AK Shivakumar, Designer Rajiv Sethi, Raghu Rai, Save the Children India Chairman Harpal Singh at the launch of the book

Raghu Rai had good reasons to keep away from photographing India’s poverty, but when he did he worked magic with his lens. The outcome was spectacular photo-book entitled Outside the Margins – but you would expect nothing less from an individual driven by a passion for human connection, which is reflected in every frame you look at.

The project began three years ago as an initial exploration attempting to capture the deplorable conditions of health among women and children in India. Soon, however, we realised that it was not going to be a linear story – there were many more layers to the problem.

Crowded living spaces in Sanjay Colony, North Delhi. (Raghu Rai/Magnum for Save the Children)

Behind the high-class veneer of Delhi lay a much tougher reality for thousands of people living in the city’s slums. As Raghu puts it, poverty paints dramatic imagery – making photographs appear ‘easy’, and many famed photographers have trodden this path. For this reason, he had always chosen to avoid this theme in his 45-50 years as a photographer.

Nagma, three, lives with her mother, Salma in Bhagwan Pura, Delhi. Nearly two million children under five die every year in India. (Raghu Rai/Magnum for Save the Children)

But we wanted people to take notice of the situation, and only Raghu’s lens could work the magic we needed. We had to convince him that this project was not merely to showcase what the people of India’s underbelly go through in their daily grind. Raghu did find his answer in what he saw – despite the fact that he was too perturbed to pick up his camera on the first day of the shoot.

Children walk to school in Sanjay Colony, Delhi. (Raghu Rai/Magnum for Save the Children)

“What I saw in the slums were the glaring needs of people living there. But there I also met this young girl, Sangeeta, [a Save the Children health worker] who became my inspiration – a person full of life and energy, and I could see a spark in her that touched the lives of families she visited.

“That was my moment of realisation that change is possible. There is still hope that if we put our efforts in the right place, things can turn for the better.”

The book has the most poignant foreword by none other than India’s leading social and political activist Aruna Roy. In her words, “Raghu’s photographs of children on the fringes of an affluent society provoke a whole gamut of emotions. These photographs focus on the reality of millions of children, placing them squarely in the middle of the lens; mocking the claims of a shining tinsel India.

“Young children look you in the eye, with a confidence which defies their emaciated bodies and difficult conditions. Children are beautiful. Poverty does not deprive children of their spirit, creativity and fun. … The children in these pictures fundamentally question the myth that India shines. The pictures ask questions that are pertinent and critical. Questions that we need to address urgently, to shape a more just India.”

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