Photographer with a difference! Pravin Talan trains his lenses on India’s Black Cat Commandos and other defense forces
Ace photographer Pravin Talan was nine years old when he was first introduced to faujis, living in a cantonment area in Agra. His uncle who was major in the Indian Army would take him along to see uniformed men leaping over impossible walls and crawling under barbed wire in obstacle courses, or watch them poised behind piles of sandbags as they assumed the position in the firing ranges. Today he is delighted to take that fascination further with the National Security Guard commandos (NSG) for the 2021-22 calendar, which was recently unveiled by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra Uddhav Thackeray. The photographer is one of the few civilians who not only has seen these men at work but also captured them as they engaged in action, in the most prolific way. The calendar gives an insight into various training aspects and capabilities of the elite commando force depicting high-tech weaponry and tense battle situations.
No mission is impossible
If you are wondering about how Pravin got those great angles — yes he was in the middle of it all! From braving the weather conditions, diving underwater, rappelling down buildings to walking treacherous terrains, trudging knee-deep in slush and negotiating chopper drops, Pravin has done it all! It’s no wonder that the lensman calls their actions “extraordinary and unforgettable”.
It took him all of five months, tagging along with one of the country’s most daring commando forces to capture the stunning images that are now part of the NSG calendar. “Our Jawans live and perform extraordinary duties in extreme weather conditions and treacherous terrains. It’s simply not possible to fully capture their essence in camera,” confesses the photographer, who braved plenty of injuries while spotlighting these men on missions and bringing out their glory. “I am not a soldier who is trained physically to be in such places or environments but I have tried my best. I call my injuries my medals,” he says.
Eyeing the target
Pandering to our constant fascination for the Armed Forces, one can expect stylised images that capture the raw action and indomitable spirit of the country’s Black Cat Commandos. It is the same force that led the extraordinary operation of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack. “The respect for them grew manifold in my heart; it was something that the entire nation saw live,” says Pravin. Besides celebrating the commandos, with this project, Pravin pays tribute to brave-hearts who lost their lives defending the country, and adds that it is, “also to inspire fatigued young minds.”
Armed with Canon Mark 3 and Sony A7 among several other lenses and techniques depending on the shots, Pravin calls himself a slave of the camera as his subjects are extremely complicated — a man leaping over a pit of fire is not going to pause for a picture!. He doesn’t call the shots — the camera frames it in that moment of action and he just manages to capture it.
Conquering the limits
From his reservoir of stories, he shares, “I am not a great swimmer, and shooting underwater with eight-degree temperature and then shivering for hours was an unforgettable experience. I have fallen in a river full of crocodiles in Chambal while taking a shot, slipped off sharp rocks, walked in a training chamber for commandos full of tear gas and shot for BSF in Tripura wearing mosquito nets when the PF Malaria outbreak was at its peak. Brain fever can kill in 24 hours if not treated.”
Although in most cases, Pravin and his team couldn’t get into active operations or conflict zones, he reveals, in places like Chhattisgarh, Tripura, Kashmir or even Nagaland, the dangers are as real as they can get. “Sometimes it becomes difficult because soldiers are used to a certain chain of command but once we break the ice then it’s a lot of fun. My only regret is not being able to match their strength and stamina,” he shares.
In the last 12 years, Pravin has photographed almost all uniformed services, including the Indian Army, Navy, Border Security Forces (BSF), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF), Quick Reaction Teams (QRT) and the Mumbai Police. But his tryst with forces as a photographer started in 2007 when he was invited by Lieutenant General of the Indian Army in Nagaland, where the Indian Army has been in conflictive relations with civilians for years. “I had to shoot the soft side of the soldiers and this led to other series with other services, one after the other,” he shares.
With his extensive body of work, Pravin is now building a portfolio of high-quality images of soldiers performing exercises. “World over, people shoot soldiers’ pictures and put them online as an inspiration but in India, we don’t do that. There is a need to celebrate these borderland heroes,” Pravin says before signing off.