Sankar Raman is a man of many talents. You might know him today as the founding director of The Immigrant Story. Or perhaps as an optics innovator with Intel. But before pursuing those endeavors Raman was a photographer.
His interest began as a young boy in India. In 1969, at the tender age of eleven he was given an Agfa Click III by his father. This was a consumer-grade, medium-format body typical of the late 1960s, the heart of the film era. The camera came with a leather case and took rolls of 120 film. Raman fed it with off-market brands, sometimes an Indian film called Indu or a Czech type called ORWO, or whatever he could find: “I started taking pictures then, and I was hooked.”
Inspired by the humanist aesthetic of Margaret Bourke-White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Dorothea Lange, the young shutterbug captured friends, family, and nearby surroundings. He filed the negatives and prints carefully into albums. Unfortunately none of this material has survived to the present. Raman believes it might be still somewhere in India, discarded or misplaced during a move.
Raman continued to photograph regularly, but his hobby took a backseat to other life events as he busied himself through young adulthood. In 1980 he immigrated to the United States to study engineering at Purdue University. He picked up an SLR for snapshots, but his burgeoning career demanded most of his energy. He received his Masters in Physics, a PhD in engineering (both from Purdue), and moved to Portland —an initial trip to Multnomah Falls sold him. He “thought he was in heaven”— and began a long career at Intel, concentrating in high-precision optics and lighting. Through work he came to master the technical details of picture making. But personal photography was sporadic during this period, coming in fits and starts.
It was a return trip to India which initially got him thinking more deeply about the social dynamics inherent in photography, specifically issues of exoticism and representation. “I proudly started to take pictures of my family and friends in my village,” he remembers. “When I developed those rolls after coming back to the U.S., I was hugely disappointed and let down.” This sense of thwarted hopes might be familiar to anyone who has processed film but for Raman it took on an added dimension, as he realized that he’d been subconsciously trained to view the world through a colonial lens. “I would walk down the road taking photos of people bent over working in the rice paddies and I would ignore my own family, who just wanted me to take a photo of them all sitting happily by our front door chatting and living their ordinary life.”
His early idols Cartier-Bresson, and Bourke-White had created many wonderful photos of post-colonial India, but theirs was the perspective of non-native outsiders, inextricably bound in white privilege. This was problematic enough on its own, but especially insidious when influencing young Indian shooters. “I was catering to a Western audience,” Raman realizes now, “showing what I thought they wanted to see to keep the picture they had in their minds about India. And all the time I wasn’t even conscious of what I was doing.”
Once he’d internalized the realization, Raman’s photographic approach began to evolve. This transition picked up speed as his duties lightened at Intel, freeing up more time for his passion. His interest in photography rekindled and then caught fire with the digital revolution which swept the photo industry in the early 2000s. Putting the hassles of film firmly in the rearview, he fell down the photo rabbit hole, shooting more and more. Eventually he found himself booking photo-specific trips and teaching workshops. A brief sampling of his online portfolio offers a taste of his travels and interests: New York, the Southwest, Florida Keys, India, Japan, and more.
For someone who’d spent years engineering optical components, certain aspects of photography came naturally to Raman. “I always felt comfortable in equipment and technique,” he says. The deft use of dramatic lighting and motion blur in his travel pictures reveals a casual command of logistics. “It was the artistic and the innate talent part,” he says, “I needed to consciously develop and work on.” When asked what makes a good photograph his reply reveals a nod to Cartier-Bresson’s formalism. “Composition is the king,” says Raman. “I used to think about what is in the frame constantly, even without a camera. This conditioning is needed, I think, to recognize the ‘decisive moment’ when the ‘mind’s eye’ sees the right composition where all elements come together.”
In 2017 Raman’s photo skills were pulled in a new and exciting direction. He founded The Immigrant Story, a site highlighting the various life histories of American immigrants in the Portland area. Every week new stories are added. In just a few years the site has blossomed into a large resource which now documents over 175 immigrant stories, with multiple contributors.
One of the highlights of The Immigrant Story are the portraits. Every story has one, artfully paired with the text. They are quite incisive, balancing on the edge of natural and revelatory. In the site’s early years almost all were shot by Raman. He has since gained help from a trusted team, but Raman still creates many himself.
“It took me a while to evolve the style that we employ today,” he says. He typically uses an 85 mm lens with aperture nearly wide open in order to isolate the subjects against a softly bokeh-ed background. He prefers natural lighting in outdoor settings, conditions often accommodated by Portland’s grey lightbox skies. He will generally spend a half hour to an hour with a subject, in a location of their choice, shooting continuously as the mood relaxes.
For Raman the early lessons of colonial gaze are still helpful. “When I started to think about how these images should look, it took me a while to check my biases and establish a style that truly honors our immigrants and refugee neighbors,” he says. “I really needed to rethink how to frame this person whose stories go beyond their refugee identity.”
Raman pays particular attention to camera placement. He avoids the upward perspective popularized in National Geographic and other magazines to confer a foreboding, exotic quality upon people. Instead he prefers to place his tripod at eye level, placing himself literally on equal footing with his subjects. “I don’t tell the subject how to look or how to dress but just invite each one to come to the photo session looking the way she or he wants to look.”
At this point, the portraits of The Immigrant Story have taken over Raman’s photographic life. Even before coronavirus he had mostly given up on travel photography. He no longer always carries his camera with him as he once did. The portrait work took a brief hit too, stymied for several months in 2020 by the pandemic. But it is now regaining momentum.
The Immigrant Story site has spawned a series of real-world exhibitions. The show “There Is A Land Over The Ocean” displays portraits and stories adapted from the site at PDX International Terminal through July 21st, 2021. The upcoming show “I Am My Story: Voices of Hope” opens in May at the Oregon Historical Society and this project is in collaboration with Portland photographer Jim Lomasson.
Once the pandemic recedes and society regains some level of normality, Raman’s plan is to resume a regular schedule of three exhibitions annually. Putting up just one photo show is a tall order, and mounting them at a pace of three per year is an enormous task. But Raman seems up to it. He’s just been vaccinated. He is now full speed ahead with The Immigrant Story, portraits, and new discoveries.
The Immigrant Story is a new ArtsWatch community partner, and we look forward to sharing more content with them in the future. Read Elizabeth Mehren’s story about the remarkable life and journey of violist Dijana Ihas from making music while shells exploded in wartime Sarajevo to a performing and teaching career in Oregon, which was published originally by The Immigrant Story.