Interview with Chandan Khanna

Chandan Khanna is a photojournalist working with  Agence France-Presse from New Delhi, India but currently stationed in Haiti covering the civil unrest. When not covering topics for the AFP, Chandan is an avid Instagrammer. Covering issues close to his heart while capturing moments of everyday life around the world. Chandan has covered topics from India’s rape issue to India’s first Kumbh Mela accepting transgenders to participate.

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An Indian naked sadhu (Hindu holy man) sits inside his tent among the Juna Akhara (a sadhu order) community at the Kumbh Mela festival in Allahabad – The festival attracts millions of Hindu pilgrims to the sacred confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers over 49 days between January 15 and March 4. Copyright Chandan Khanna

What made you get into photography?

I dropped out of college because I wasn’t happy with studying business. Although my parents wanted me to join their business, I asked them for one more year to do something I like. At first, I wasn’t sure what that was, but after my friends reminded me of how keen on photography I was, I decided to pursue it.

I signed up for a one-year photography course with the basics and creative aspects. That was at the Sri Aurobindo for Arts and Communication in Delhi. With photography, you have to roam around, which I love doing. That aspect really pushed me to go through with it. I figured out the rest after that.

I then met my mentor, you could also say my idol, Kevin Frayer. He had just left as chief of photography at Associated Press in India. I wouldn’t call it assisting but I accompanied him for about a month.

Other than that, I hung out with other photojournalists. That’s where I learned the most. I was trying to copy their assignments and schedules and get practical knowledge from that. I went to press conferences, protests, anything that was newsworthy. I did my own stories. That’s how I built my portfolio and learned the trade

In photojournalism, ethics come first. I don’t see anything ethical in selling stuff for brands that you don’t even believe in.

What are your thoughts around photojournalism today?

I’ve seen tremendous growth since I started in 2014. I’d say there are twice as many with Instagram being so popular. But the quality has decreased. There are fewer jobs for proper photojournalists because everyone thinks they’re a photographer now. But you’re not a photographer until you discover the manual mode on your camera.

Another aspect is so many good photojournalists I know are influencers now. In photojournalism, ethics come first. I don’t see anything ethical in selling stuff for brands that you don’t even believe in. You’re doing it for the money.

I know photojournalists who don’t have any money. They have to borrow equipment to shoot stories they believe in, to make some money to at least pay their rent. That’s a big challenge.

As for the issue of female photographers, it saddens me to see so few female photographers. There are barely any female photojournalists and none with the big agencies in India. I don’t understand why, because female photographers could shoot so many stories that men don’t have access to.

All the President’s men: on parade with India’s elite bodyguards. Copyright Chandan Khanna

How did you land a job with AFP?

I got my job through an opening at AFP. There are rarely any “openings” at news agencies and it happens every six or seven years. It’s a very competitive market. I was the first “outsider” because I didn’t come from another agency. I was like a free agent.

I’ve been working with them since 2014. That year I got a call from AFP photo chief for South Asia, who wanted to see my work. He really liked it and that’s when I joined AFP.

I always wanted to work with a wire agency, because I love to travel and I wanted to cover serious news and find stories. I knew I wanted to work for one of the three major agencies: Reuters, AP or AFP.

What is it like working for AFP?

AFP works two ways. Either you’re stationed in one of the main offices like Delhi, Beijing or Washington and editors send you out to do certain assignments, a lot of times abroad. Or, you’re stationed somewhere like Haiti, where we don’t have an office. That’s where I am stationed right now, and I work from home. I don’t have specific assignments. I go out by myself and find stories to photograph. I’m telling them what’s happening and what we need to report on, not the other way around. In the main cities with offices, it can be both ways.

What are you currently working on?

In the past two months, I covered protests, senate distrust and the parliament. But there are enough days where there’s nothing happening. During that time, I do my own stories and photo essays. For example, I just finished a story about Muslim minorities living in Haiti. I accompanied them through Ramadan. And a couple of weeks back I did a photo essay about a hospital, where the junior doctors and assistants were on strike, leaving the hospital without anyone to take care of the people.

A child holds her mother at the pediatric ward during doctors strike at a public hospital in Port-au-Prince – Intern Doctors in Haiti are on strike to protest several months of delays in the payment of their salaries. Copyright Chandan Khanna

What’s the most memorable story you’ve covered?

The fun one I really liked covering was Victoria’s Secret backstage. That was very interesting and cool. And I loved photographing one of my favorite Tennis players, Roger Federer when he played Nadal in the finals of ATP. It was a different energy and photographing people you grew up watching was out of this world.

On a serious note,  I will always remember crossing the North Korean border from China. -18 degrees and then getting stuck in front of a North Korean soldier, suddenly hearing the loud noise of a drone passing by just above me. I will remember that for a really long time. It was extremely scary.

I was stuck in Delhi’s oldest mortuary, locked inside a soundproof freezer with dead bodies for 25 minutes, until someone found me.

Have you been put in any compromising positions where your life was at risk?

Last week I got caught up in a huge protest at the parliament in Haiti. Senators were breaking tables and chairs. I went there without my bulletproof vest, gas mask or helmet. Because it was just a small protest. After a few minutes of shooting though, there were hundreds of protesters storming the parliament. I was stuck inside. Then gas guns started getting fired and people were throwing rocks. My nose and eyes were watering and burning like hell from the tear gas. All I could do was wash my face out with Coca-Cola. Those were three really scary hours.

Another time I was stuck in Delhi’s oldest mortuary, locked inside a soundproof freezer with dead bodies for 25 minutes, until someone found me. I was lucky, they would have closed half an hour later and I don’t want to imagine having had to stay there overnight.

Laxman Raika 75, a farmer smokes a traditional pipe in a village called Rani some 130 km south of Jodhpur Rajasthan, India. Copyright Chandan Khanna

How do you manage to take care of yourself emotionally & physically?

I did a hostile training that is mandatory for people who get sent to places like Haiti. What keeps me going is my family. My parents and my sisters. I’m very family oriented so they give me strength. A lot of things stay with you but I have a great support system whenever I need it. Although it’s hard sometimes, I’m very proud of the work that I do.

You also mentioned wanting to raise awareness about India’s rape issue, what compelled you do this?

I covered a rape story in Varanasi, India. One of the pictures was of a mother of a rape victim, who got detained by police because she was protesting women’s empowerment. The stories women have told me will never leave me, and I did not publish the story in the end, because it was just horrifying.

Eid Mubarak. Copyright Chandan Khanna

Any other larger global issues you’re covering?

I’ve covered water pollution in three countries and will continue that in Haiti. I’m doing a story on Muslim minorities all over the world. I’m doing that because there’s this sentiment that Islam is related to terrorism and I don’t think any religion is directly connected or responsible for terrorist activities. I try to cover that everywhere I visit if I can.

Humanity is the same, wherever you are in the world. People’s hopes and despair are the same.

What do you do to get people to open up to you during a tragedy/difficult time?

Humanity is the same, wherever you are in the world. People’s hopes and despair are the same. 80% of the time, when I approach a person, they want to talk about their hardships. They’re open. If they’re not comfortable sharing, I respect that. I respect their emotions. It has to be consensual.

Holi 2018. Copyright Chandan Khanna

Can you tell me more about the Kumbh Mela festival you covered?

I’ve watched the Kumbh Mela parade every year, as far back as I can remember, being a small child.

This year was so special, because, for the first time, the transgender community was allowed to take part in the parade. The Indian populations have always looked down on them, never accepted them. So, this was unusual, but all the more beautiful.

I went to the settlement and met with Laxmi, who is head of the transgender settlement and asked her for permission to cover the story. She was kind enough to allow me to do so. I was the first international photographer to be granted that permission. Of course, we also asked the other transgender people in attendance. Again, it’s all about consent and people wanting to share. It was really nice to see them as a part of us which in India we have never accepted before.

I saw people coming and worshipping them, touching their feet, seeking blessing from them. It was such a beautiful moment for me. And I remember after a couple of weeks my story got published everywhere. People were going crazy for this settlement. They were lining up to seek their blessing. I remember my mom giving me a call. I was back in Delhi and she said: “Is there a way I can go and meet Laxmi and see her?” I was so happy. I called the person in charge and I told them that my mom is coming. “So, if you can, please take my mom to the main place and let her meet Laxmi.”

What motivates you to continue taking pictures, is it economical, politically, intellectually or emotionally driven?

It’s an emotional thing. I’m an emotional person and I get very moved by such topics. It’s a very innocent inspiration. I learn about something and I want to go see it, photograph it, research more. I want to “feel” the stories inside of me. That’s what motivated me with my story on rag-picking children in Delhi, which was supported by Save the Children.

An Indian Hindu sadhu Niranjan Baba begs for alms in the old quarters of Allahabad. Copyright Chandan Khanna

The best picture of your career?

Maybe the one I’m taking next?

Any final words of advice?

Stay real and follow ethics. Respect privacy and respect consent. And every story matters.

Thanks so much, Chandan!