Back in Mumbai for his annual holiday, Jay Ullal is a busy man. Tending to the garage, lying unattended for almost nine months. Cosying up his home rising above the sands of Juhu beach. And savouring Gomantak cuisine at his favourite restaurant in suburban Mumbai. Like always, the world renowned photographer has a lot of catching up to do in his home country.
"I give full credit to my wife for whatever success I have achieved so far," he says of his wife who left her career with UNESCO in Delhi almost 35 years ago to help her husband pursue a career in photography. Since then, Ullal has had a long association with news photography. A career and passion that saw a formal end when he retired in 1997 after a 30-year stint with Stern -- the German magazine.
"But I am not over yet," he says purposefully, "There's no retirement for photographers -- Stern has asked me to continue contributing to the magazine by doing four features for them a year." With fond memories of the publication, Ullal maintains his pictures have attempted to highlight the miseries and sorrows of human existence. Covering areas torn apart by ethnic, communal and religious strife, his work primarily conveys a moving account of the spoils of war and depravation.
Bosnia, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Zaire, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Philippines, North Korea, Pakistan, India… Diverse assignments took the 65-year-old photographer to far flung places, sometimes in such quick succession that there were times when he spent less than a month in a year in Germany. "I always kept a toothbrush and shaving kit in my camera bag -- I never knew where I would be sent next," he laughs, and relates how Stern wanted him to cover the US air raids on Iraq while he was on his first holiday in India after retirement. "That time I refused," he laughs.
Winner of the Van Verdienstkreuz -- Germany's highest civilian award for humanity and culture -- Ullal started his photographic career as a movie cameramen for Madhusudan Mukadan of the Motion Pictures Arts Academy in Bombay. In those arduous years between 1952 and 1955, he worked on films like Dayara, Mehmaan and Vachan for a paltry Rs 250 a month -- the cheque for which would invariably bounce back. "Yet, my boss was a very learned man and I managed to earn some money by clicking pictures of film stars like Meena Kumari etc on the sets and selling them," says Ullal of his early days.
In 1957, he joined The Times of India as a cameraman, and was sent on a year-long assignment to document the Jain temples of India. "They gave me a jeep with a trailer and a cook and off I was. When I returned after that assignment, I was asked to photograph S P Jain's (who then owned TOI) daughter's wedding, after which I was taken as a confirmed staff photographer with the newspaper in New Delhi."
Three years later, he moved to Bombay and went on to London and Germany for a study tour. He got a job with the fashion weekly Constanze, a sister of Stern, and moved to the news magazine when Constanze collapsed in 1969. Since then, based in Hamburg, Ullal has seen an eventful career. The first photographer to enter East Pakistan during the Bangladesh war in 1971, the first to capture on film Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia -- in fact, the chilling picture of the skulls was initially refused by Stern and published only three months later.
"I was plain lucky in getting the pictures of skulls that were just being unearthed," says Ullal. "There were 300 journalists in Thailand waiting to go to Cambodia. I was accompanying the then Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on a trip to China. Vajpayee left Beijing the day after China attacked Vietnam. Meanwhile, I went to Phnom Phen, Cambodia. Only five Indian journalists were given visas by the Vietnamese embassy because India had shown solidarity with them. Since I was the only photographer, I was able to get the first pictures from there."
Without denying that he is driven to such trouble spots in search of news, Ullal says in doing so, he has attempted to show the world and its rulers the horrors of war. "After the Bangladesh war, I stayed back for some time and found a medical college, where of the 200 students more than 100 were pregnant. Swedish doctors were aborting girls right up to the seventh month. It was a very sorry experience."
Over the years, the Arab-Israel tension took him to the area nearly 60, 70 times. "Lebanon was almost like a second home," he says. Perhaps the most volatile region in the world ravaged by the Christian-Muslim divide, the area gave him one of his best pictures -- a Muslim groom and a Christian bride -- standing in the middle of a destroyed Beirut neighbourhood. "They had lived in that area as children and told me that is where they had first met. I asked them to come there for a picture. That was my only staged picture," adds Ullal.
He has also done a series on the plight of children in the aftermath of war. "I must have visited Bosnia 12 times, once there were no less than 15,000 orphans and widows in Sarajevo." Later he worked on a feature on the Children of Sarajevo. "I make it a point to highlight the plight of children -- whether they be ragpickers in India, Pakistan, Manila or orphans in Zaire and Sarajevo."
Of his narrow escapes, Ullal thinks one of his most dangerous assignments have been in Bosnia -- where reportedly, no less than a hundred journalists died covering the region. "You should just click and run," has remained his by-word. A caution that has always not helped him get away. "There have been times when my camera has been damaged, but never have my rolls been confiscated. The main thing is to save your pictures."
Assignments have had a lasting impression on Ullal's mind. Of the time when after the 1991 Gulf war a group of 100 elite Iraqi soldiers approached foreign journalists for food. "It was a war that claimed the lives of an estimated one million soldiers and before us we had some of the best Iraqi soldiers begging for food."
Then there were the horrors of the Hutu-Tutsi clash in Gomah, Zaire. At the time he was there 300 Hutus had been massacred, and their bodies lay at the edge of a river. "There were thousands driven out of their homes, who were drinking from the same river. Soon there was a cholera epidemic that would take the lives of 120,000 people in a week," says an aghast Ullal.
Beyond the miseries of human life -- there are other unusual pictures too. He has the rare distinction of being the only photographer to click pictures at the Osho ashram in Pune. Osho, then Rajneesh, was so taken in by Ullal's passion for getting a story that he allowed him to shoot for two full days. From the next day onwards, photography was completely banned once again. A diktat that stands firm till today.
He rates amongst his other pathbreaking pictures the female infanticide in Salem, Tamil Nadu; his exclusives on North Korea (he went masquerading as a professor), Tibet and the Miss World School in Caracas, Venezuela. Although away from India for over three decades, it was only recently that Ullal parted with his Indian passport. He goes on to explain that he was forced to opt for German citizenship because no matter how urgent his assignment, he had to wait for a day or two in order to get a visa.
"Even if it were to neighbouring Switzerland. There were only three countries -- India, Hong Kong and Nepal -- where I could go without a visa." However, the photographer does not worry about the incidents of racism in Germany. Ullal says the hostility towards foreigners increased after German unification. "It was there before, but not as evident as it is now. The main reason for this I would say is unemployment." With Gerhard Schroder's Social Democratic Party at the helm, Ullal feels this sentiment has very good chances of getting defused. For the recipient of Germany's highest civilian award, German acceptance is the last thing Jay Ullal needs to worry about.
Jay Ullal's Photographs: Jewella C Miranda