Throughout his career, Henri Cartier-Bresson defined himself as the antithesis of a traditional photojournalist, famously writing: “I would like to stress my point of view: I have never been a storyteller.” The considerable influence of Surrealism on his practice is evident in his regard for photography as only being of any relevance as a tool for an “instant drawing.” It was his colleague and Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa who encouraged Cartier-Bresson to make more documentary work, and indeed to visit India in the first place.
Cartier-Bresson initially set out to create a photographic essay that would capture the essence of the country, its past and present at a time of rapid social change. India’s recent independence from Britain had quickly deteriorated into unrest with the partition of the country into Hindu India and Muslim East and West Pakistan. At the center of these upheavals was Mahatma Gandhi, who, after campaigning for India’s independence, was now protesting for the end of the violence between Hindus and Muslims. Cartier-Bresson had exclusive access to Gandhi, recording the activist’s hunger strike in protest of riots in which millions died. However, with the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, the day after he had taken his portrait, he unexpectedly found himself witness to a major historical event. The photographs Cartier-Bresson made in the aftermath of Gandhi’s death offer a unique visual record of the event and epitomize, although perhaps not intentionally, what makes an iconic photo-essay.
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