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From Ganga to Forbes: A Photographer’s Quest for Connection and Change

Pubarun Basu is the first Indian photographer to be a Forbes 30 under 30 honouree. He recently represented India at the Forbes 30 under 30 summit in Singapore

Pubarun Basu from the Young India Fellowship, Class of 2024, is a young photographer immersed in the world of creativity since childhood. Pubarun has discovered a profound connection to artistic expression, particularly through photography documenting the coexistence of people, culture, and environment. He is the first Indian to win the Youth Award in the Sony World Photography Awards. His photographs have been in The Guardian, BBC, CNN, etc. Currently, Pubarun is working on a Freshwater Conservation Project with the National Geographic Society and Nature Conservancy. He has received the support of international organisations to document the marginalised tribal communities of India. He aspires to be able to tell stories from around the globe through his art. 

We recently spoke to him about his Forbes recognition, craft, field of work and ongoing experience at the YIF, Ashoka University. Here is what he had to say:

How did your journey with the camera begin?

I remember the day I first walked with the camera. My dad, an ace photographer himself, had strapped on his Canon 300D with a prime lens over my shoulders, almost as if passing on his legacy. The 4-year-old me knew nothing about this weird instrument but how to look through the viewfinder and press the shutter. Therein began my photographic journey through a cavalcade of experimentations and discoveries in the ruralities of Shantiniketan—a land ripe with arts, crafts, and culture. 

Photography and I, thus, became one and the same. Over the years, I started using photography as a gateway to the world unknown rather than an escape from reality. It was neither a hobby nor a discipline pursued purely out of passion. It was a medium of conversation for me and my Dad—a conversation that took us to many bird sanctuaries, riverine valleys, monumental mountains, and sometimes even inside the darkness of a studio. My knowledge of photography was purely derived from the art of observation—seeing my old man capture the magic in the mundane through his vision. He used to say, “See with your ears, hear with your eyes, and you will be exposed to the universe of small things.” It still rings in my ear.

What were some of the pivotal moments and experiences that shaped your journey as a photographer? How do you go about choosing your subjects? 

I was 16 years old when one of my pictures of the river Ganga got published in the Daily Dozens of National Geographic Your Shot. The editor, David Y. Lee, mentioned, “I love it, Pubarun! I love the story behind this frame, you make me want to go visit. Well done!” I was over the moon. A simple photograph of two men playing carrom by the riverside had invoked a feeling so strong in the heart of a man who shifts through millions of photos every day. I thought to myself, if only I had a story in mind, I would connect my photographs to create a larger narrative on the river Ganga. But I did not need to look for a story, rather, it was always there within. Living by the river all my life, I had developed a spiritual bond with the “river of life and death”. Over the last five years, I had already developed a narrative with my daily visits to the riverbanks at the break of dawn. The story, just like the river, was composed of tributaries and distributaries of the lived experiences of people along the river shores. Publishing the narrative as a long-term project, I got vivid responses from the global community—the river analogy had connected them all to her source. 

Winning the Sony World Youth Photography Award in 2021 was a turning point in my photographic career. It gave me the courage to follow in my father’s footsteps and take up photography as a means to engage on issues that lacked representation in mainstream media. And so I set out on a journey—from the rugged terrains of Meghalaya, where the humble Garos prayed to their deities in Nature, to the land of revolution in Chhattisgarh, where the Ramnamis ignited the fight against systematic caste-based oppression. In my interactions with these diverse cultures, I learnt how to surrender. Letting go of my orthodox knowledge systems. Being a careful listener and an avid observer. Feeling the forces of nature around you, for they were trying to tell me something. All my ego, inhibition, and anxiety seemed to have dissipated into nothingness even before I could take the first shot. Then began the process of documentation. Over the years, I noticed that with the photographs, you bring back a plethora of stories with you, through the connection that you have with the people in your photographs. They serve as the unspoken realities, and you serve as the facilitator. The responsibility you inherit through these experiences is immense.

What were some of your foundational experiences that helped you realise that you want to educate the masses about social inclusion, environmental conservation, and cultural diversity through your photography?

There have been times lately when I have documented the worst of human-led environmental catastrophes, and I had no means to navigate through the emotions I felt at that moment in time. On one hand, I had to complete an assignment for National Geographic, and on the other, I could not escape the lived horrors of the people inhabiting the flood-struck Gangetic plains. Yet, in that moment of uncertainty, I chose to move forward with my “inherent responsibility” as a storyteller. I connected with local activists and learnt about the distinct Anthropocene that the region historically possessed. Translating that knowledge through my photographic narrative, I communicated the problem to major stakeholders at National Geographic, reached out to the environmental policymakers in India with the demands of the locals, and eventually my work got exhibited virtually in the world’s largest climate conference organised by the United Nations. I continue to stay in touch with the locals of Malda and plan on returning this year with the support of welfare organisations to supply relief to the victims of environmental change. As I perceive it, change comes through the small acts of individual responsibility. As I recently read from Satish Kumar’s writings, when you immerse yourself in the spirit of the work, it ceases to be a burden. 

Tell us about your Forbes recognition and experience at the Forbes 30 under 30 Summit, Singapore.

The Forbes 30 Under 30 recognition came as a ray of hope. When I got the mail in the early hours of 26th May 2022, I went down to the river Ganga and offered her my gratitude. What followed was surreal—projects, featurettes, workshops, exhibitions, and so much more. Being the first Indian photographer featured on the list, I received messages from young artists around the globe asking me about my practice. There was nothing more fulfilling than interacting with these budding talents, and that is how I came up with the idea of creating a global community of youth working towards protecting the planet. What started as a personal passion project in Kolkata turned into a Self-Designed Experiential Learning Project at Ashoka University with three other brilliant professionals. During my recent visit to the Forbes Summit in Singapore, I engaged in a deep conversation with the CEO of Forbes Asia, William Adamopoulos, and he was exuberant upon learning about my projects. He called Meng Ru Kuok, Founder of Caldecott Music Group, and said, “Look at this young chap from India! He is working on the river systems of India and creating a water movement across the globe. How so unique!”. 

How is your current YIF experience going on?  What do you aspire to do in the future?

At a time in my life when I was caught amid multiple transformations, I came across the YIF programme. My time at the fellowship has been nothing short of a dream. All the courses have contributed immensely to strengthening my knowledge systems. They have instilled an unwavering courage to experiment with my work and transverse it into streams of diverse disciplines. Inspiration has been abundant not just from the professors but also from fellows. With the current Self-Designed Experiential Learning Module Project that I am pursuing here, I hope to grow it into an inclusive community where the youth can reflect and thrive while addressing adversities through creativity and compassion.

(Pubarun Basu (YIF’24) is a young photographer and literature scholar working towards social inclusion and environmental conservation)

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka