Obituary

‘Look in the Eyes of People, the Stories Are All Hidden There’: S. Paul (1929-2017)

Shome Basu recollects the time he spent with photographer S. Paul, who passed away at the age of 88 in Delhi on August 16.

Photographer S. Paul. Credit: Shome Basu

Photographer S. Paul. Credit: Shome Basu

“Can you shoot an egg in a white background in B&W?”, asked an ever-enthusiastic S. Paul when I first met him at his beautiful house that looked perfect for a photographer of his taste and aesthetics.

As I started taking baby steps in the world of news photography in New Delhi, I ran to ‘Paul Saab’, as he is lovingly and respectfully called by the fraternity, a special kind of relationship took shape between both of us.

I was awed with every word of his; whatever he said remains with me till this day. It’s another matter that I could never show him the photo of the white egg but he kept asking for it whenever he met me.

I still remember the day when I was getting married and feeling a bit nervous. Paul Saab was there beside us taking some beautiful shots of my wife. He was standing atop a stool while others looked at him in complete awe that a person of his stature can be so unassuming.

More than a photographer, Paul Saab was also a teacher; he saw no distinction between fashion photography, advertising photography, street photography or photojournalism. These were mere fancy terminology for him.

He was an innovator who knew his cameras more than he probably knew himself. He personified his cameras (variety of known and unknown brands) and literally spoke to them in a language that only he knew. Philosophically speaking, it was a symbiosis between the living and non-living. No other photographer had what he had. Unlike many of his contemporary photographers, Paul Saab loved to teach young and aspiring photographers. He had an uncanny quality to weed out the frivolous from the dedicated. But once an aspiring photographer is under his tutelage, he/she is bound to become a photographer of a different colour.

Paul Saab was born in a village called Jhang, now in Pakistan. Post-Partition, his entire family shifted to India. He was educated as an engineer and landed a job in Shimla where he developed his love for photography. Eventually, he got his dream job as a ‘chief photographer’ at the Indian Express in the 1960s and worked there for two decades, dishing out remarkable work while simultaneously changing the language of photojournalism or news photography. At Indian Express, he ruled the Indian photojournalism landscape with pictures depicting the mundane life in a new form which is now called ‘street photography’. Some of this remarkable work, which continues to haunt even news photographers of this age, is his coverage of the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971, Meerut riots, Asian Games, Sikh riots etc.

Paul Saab never sneered at the rapidly changing technology that the world of photography underwent and is still going through at a blistering pace. In fact, he embraced it whole heartedly while producing excellent photos with his innovative and yet simple eyes.

During many of our photography sessions that took both of us to the cramped corners of Delhi to some of the grand historical sites, he used to always tell me one thing: “Look in the eyes of people, the stories are all hidden there.”