Fredric Roberts lived com- fortably. An investment banker who worked with
the best-known names in the
business, his achievements
included being on the NASDAQ
board of directors. It was, in a
great many conventional senses,
a good life.
Roberts was ambitious. He
sought something more than
what money alone could pro-
vide. And that led him to rural
Roberts was just seeking to address an inner emptiness
when he started out on his alternative career, traveling to
the Far East. Born on Long Island, New York, an alumnus
of Yale University, and living the patrician life in California,
he did not get to see what he was missing till rather late in
Roberts’s epiphany came during a trip to rural Vietnam in
“I spent an afternoon with a Vietnamese farmer and his
family,” he says. “We had stopped near their house, and they
invited us — my guide and me — in for some tea… The
family had three generations living in the house, each tak-
ing care of the others. They all supported each other. They
made clothes, furniture, jewelry and art. They worked
closely with their neighbors. They were careful about the
environment. They were God-fearing and supported their
temple. They had no toilets, no running water, no electric-
ity, no monetary wealth, but they were happy and had
With that in mind, he went to Hue where a monk dis-
cussed how lucky he was, given that Americans were rich
while the Vietnamese were poor. Roberts disagreed.
“I told him about the farm family I had met, and I told
him I remembered the quote: ‘Who is rich? The man who
is happy with what he has.’ I told him that, on that basis,
the Vietnamese people are far richer than Americans.
While Americans have more material wealth, they are often
dissatisfied, always want more, are jealous and competitive
and far less generous of spirit.”
Roberts had first visited India in 1974 and says he just
loved the country. And it is believable. For, speaking of the
India-Pakistan World Cup cricket semi-final this year, he
says that though he was only watching it on television, “our
Though an amateur photographer, it was only in August
2000, after attending a workshop in Santa Fe, that Roberts
took seriously to photography, going back to the places he
had liked. But he saw and dealt with India differently from
other visiting photographers.
“When most foreigners go to India they focus on poverty
on disease and poverty and death and sadness,” says
Roberts. He prefers connecting with people and thus
avoiding doing anything unreal.
“People love (
). I don’t clean them up. I
don’t change their environment. I don’t do anything.”
And he does it with a regular 35 mm digital camera, he
says, declining to name it.
Does he ask them to pose a bit to help him get a better
“Zero! Never! Zero! I spend time with them. Look (
ing at the picture of the Meers of Gujarat
), I was with these
guys all day! They were just standing there. Sometimes I
tell them a joke. Sometimes we do something. We were kid-
ding around — it’s like you and me. We stood around for an
hour. I’m not going to say to you, put your head like this.
Who am I to do that? You see, it’s condescending. If you
think you can tell somebody to do something like that you
are not with him, you’re an outsider!”
One man going around the exhibition pops up to discuss
his own camera, a Nikon D90.
a lover’s eyes
P Rajendran meets Frederic Roberts, named Best Foreign Photographer
of India by the Indian government
Frederic Roberts, left, with Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, at the inauguration
of an exhibition of Roberts’s photographs, Humanitas — The Images of India, at the UN, August 8
“I have bad news for you,” says Roberts following it up
with a pregnant pause; “it’s not about the camera.”
He uses an example to make his case, every sentence
punctuated by a long pause during which he peers intently
at the listener.
“Did Gandhiji write in blue ink or black ink? Or did he
use a typewriter?” A particularly long pause. “Who cares?
It’s not about the pen. It’s about the power of the ideas.”
He describes how he helped teach photography to a set of
20 children from the tribal villages and the city through a
“They’d never touched a camera before,” he says, adding
that though he taught them for just six days their work is
likely to be shown at the Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.
He says he told the children: “Don’t worry about the cam-
era. The camera is just like a pen. All I’m teaching you to do
is to write. Your handwriting doesn’t count.”
For a man who had to pick himself up twice in business,
he has little respect for wealth.
“I don’t want to say that it takes no money to be happy
and a lot of money to be unhappy. What I’m saying is, it’s
not causal. Money
does not make you happy. And
these villagers are living proof as far as I’m concerned.”
Roberts says the unintended consequence of his work is
that it has become an archive of disappearing cultures.
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