[Close to five years ago, I was asked to write a citation to be presented to my classmate and friend, Ryan Lobo, on his being conferred the “Young Achiever Award” from the alumni association of our beloved alma mater, the stand-out school of Bangalore, St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School, now celebrating its 158 year in existence. This is what I wrote. Here’s to you Ryan and to many more years of friendship and doing what you do best, being yourself!]
CITATION – RYAN LOBO
“A woman emanates from the shadows screaming at him. She has a terrible scar on her face. She sobs that the general has killed her brother. She points her finger at Joshua and cry’s [sic.] out not words but sounds of grief and horror at seeing him. Joshua says “I am sorry. I was not the person I am now, then I did not know what I was doing.” She calms down and puts her head in her hands as Joshua begs. Men silently surround us. I take a photograph. Finally, she places her hand on his shoulder as he touches her feet and leaves. I feel like I have witnessed something immense. Joshua tells the story of how he killed her brother and then ate his heart because he spoke French as one of the factions the general fought against then spoke French. People who have truly suffered do not seem to find it difficult to forgive. Out of suffering and sorrow endured seems to sometimes come a deeper understanding of forgiveness and the shortness of life. Or maybe it is just a terrible fatigue.”
Extract from Ryan Lobo’s Journal
“Camera Obscura: a blog / magazine dedicated to photography and contemporary art”
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is a chilling journal extract that captures the insightfulness, zeal and, indeed, courage that characterizes the person we are gathered here today to honour – my friend, and beloved batchmate, Ryan Lobo who wrote the extract I just read out.
If there is a word that best describes Ryan’s body of work, I believe, that is irreverence. Another close contender would be eloquence. Irreverence because his work does not respect traditional boundaries of life and action; irreverence because he rarely pays heed to the venerable tenets that ordinarily proscribe what chroniclers do; irreverence because he is oftentimes dismissive of what others think he should be doing, and how he should do what he does. In fact, it is difficult to categorize what Ryan does; filmmaker, photographer, writer. Ryan’s own epithet is, however, “artist”. And, his range of artistry covers photography, films (both commercial and off-beat, often dangerous), books, articles and editorial pieces, and numerous other artistic pursuits that cannot be pigeon-holed, in all of which he is most eloquent – his works speak for themselves and there is little that I can describe or add which does not shine through reading, seeing or listening to them; for instance, this is Ryan again speaking to you:
“There is something dark here that is primitive, violent and expressed openly. Our so called humanity of the “west” sometimes obscures these dark parts of our nature whose existence we reject and thus allow for them to manifest in so many ways. This idea of an island, where we believe in judgment days and paradises, “end times” to misery and perfect countries for freed slaves. We want to believe in universal peace, justice and goodness. The truth is that our existences are circles of shadow and light, murder and forgiveness, peace and war. Our deepest most primitive archetypes come forth and are as much a part of us as we believe they are a part of our enemies. It will always be no matter the islands we imagine. Our history is more gigantic, more beautiful, and more terrifying than what we know of it.”
We are today recognizing someone who, by all regular benchmarks, is not deserving of such an accolade, at least not yet – Ryan was surprised he was even being considered for this award. Ryan hasn’t made lots of money (although he does admit to having made some good money!); he hasn’t worked his way to an exalted designation or attained high office; he isn’t an iconic character known to millions. But by his persistence, dedication and bravery; by his unique powers of observation and, yes, precisely because of his impertinence he has so vividly described, depicted or chronicled on several occasions the one thing that is the ultimate prize for a true, and daresay, truly great artist – the human condition. Often it is in recognizing the simplest, yet complicated, things that we award achievement. Ryan still says he only wishes he could write more than the films or photographs he shoots; the urge, perhaps, to describe the human condition on paper better than the superb manner in which he otherwise captures them on film? I am not so sure he isn’t already “talking” more eloquently through his photographs and films than he need speak or write of further.
My first memories of Ryan were as an impish boy at St. Anthony’s – mischievous and always on the lookout for trouble; he still has that glint in his eyes! And, the one other characteristic that has stayed with him – a very infectious laugh. At St. Joseph’s he was a member of the “Lobo” gang, or I should say band, of brothers. He went on to complete his Bachelors Degree in Science, at St. Joseph’s Arts & Science College, majoring in Zoology, Chemistry and Microbiology. And, then, as he now proudly recounts, he dropped-out (or, as he says, completed “some” part) of his Masters Degree in Cellular and Molecular Genetics, while on scholarship for this course at the Ohio State University, USA. In this regard, Ryan is in honoured company; of people who have won many distinctions and accolades despite dropping out, or perhaps because they dropped out, of college.
As he meandered back to India in the late 1990s, he wasn’t sure of what he wanted to do. He co-founded Opus CDM, a successful advertising, marketing and market research agency in Bangalore. Ryan is an entirely self-taught photographer and filmmaker. Ryan co-founded Mad Monitor Productions, a film and photo production company. His films (over 70) have aired on the National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet, The Oprah Winfrey Show and PBS among other networks and Mad Monitor Productions currently manages and produces film and photo expeditions internationally.
Ryan’s works are numerous as they are vast in terms of the topics and subjects they cover – to list just a few, in no particular order, “Delhi on Fire”, or “Delhi in Flames”, a story and film about Delhi’s intrepid firefighters for Eye Works TV, in association with TCS, and National Geographic Channel International, May 2009 and 2005, respectively (incidentally, a film was shot on Ryan while he shot this story with a still camera); “Afghanistan”, cover and other images for the Boston Review for the story “Next Steps: Afghanistan” by Barnett R. Robin, January and February 2009; “Women at War – Baghdad, Iraq”, photographs for an independent project on women in war zones, October 2007; “Afghanistan’s Heroin Trade”, for National Geographic, April 2007; “Brides, Grooms and Beauty Pageants”, writing and photographs on the Indian eunuch festival, Elle Magazine, 2008; “Child Slaves of India”, videography and stills for a film on child trafficking in India with Lisa Long for Oxygen TV and National Geographic Television, featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and winner of a Gracie Award, 2008; “Faith and Toil”, a photographic book project for the book by Christopher Rego, on St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School, 2008; “Lockdown”, field producer and still photography for a film on life inside America’s most secure super maximum-security prison for National Geographic, 2005; “Weapon Masters – the Chakram”, coordinating producer and production management for a film on the ‘chakram’ the weapon of choice for Sikh warriors, for Half yard Productions, Discovery Channel, 2007; “Ladies Only”, a photo project on the beauty parlors of Mumbai’s slums for the Indian and Canadian editions of Elle Magazine, December 2007; “The Henry Ford of Heart Surgeries”, a photo essay for the Wall Street Journal on Dr. Devi Shetty, November 2009.
Possibly Ryan’s most notable achievement to date, however, has been to co-produce the Sundance award winning film, “The Redemption of General Butt Naked” which won at Sundance in January of this year. He co-produced the film over 5 years in war torn Liberia. The Sundance Film Festival is one of the largest independent cinema festivals in the world, the premier showcase for new work from American and international independent filmmakers; the “Oscars” of the independent cinema world. “The Redemption of General Butt Naked”, extracts from a blog about which I set and read out earlier, and which tells of the repentance of Joshua Milton Blahyii, also known as General Butt Naked, a formal warlord who terrorized Monrovia for many years with his child soldiers, murdering, raping, cannibalizing, maiming and brutalizing thousand during Liberia’s civil war, won for best cinematography and was nominated for best feature length documentary film.
While in Liberia – and Ryan has been and spent months in several of the world’s most dangerous places, Iraq and Afghanistan included, outside the “safe” zones as Ryan was careful to point out to me! – Ryan chanced up his subjects for another of his most well-known works when he heard Kannada spoken on the streets of Monrovia; in “Indian Women Peacekeepers in Liberia”, photographs and writing for Marie Claire, India, March 2010 Edition, as well as in “Good Morning Liberia”, Tehelka, 2008, Ryan chronicles the intrepid and courageous work done by an all women team of peace keepers from India’s central police force.
In 2009, Ryan spoke about what he calls “compassionate story telling” with photography, to the TED Conference, to a standing ovation (it is a speech and presentation worth seeing for yourself, in full, because no description does it complete justice); Ryan spoke of three different stories, General “Butt Naked”, the Indian women peacekeeping contingent and the Delhi Fire Service, focusing as he says “on what’s heroic, beautiful and dignified, regardless of the context….[helping] magnify these intangibles three ways, in the protagonist of the story, in the audience, and also in the storyteller” and where he said, evocatively:
“In my life, when I tried to achieve things like success or recognition, they eluded me. Paradoxically, when I let go of these objectives, and worked from a place of compassion and purpose, looking for excellence, rather than the results of it, everything arrived on its own, including fulfilment.”
This then, ladies and gentlemen, is Ryan Lobo, our young achiever for this year. Someone who believes in the goodness of going back to school (as he does currently at the Inventure Academy) to teach young kids the power of photography and the visual arts; someone who has made his passion his life’s calling; someone whose life’s work thus far encapsulates truly, I believe, the power of the almighty (by whatever name called) and His compassion, forgiveness and healing, from which stems, as Ryan says, “hope….maybe for all of us”.
With these words, I commend this award to Ryan Lobo; for being himself; for having brilliantly, uniquely and emotionally captured humanity; and, Ryan, for many, many more years of great artistry, with all our sincerest and warmest best wishes and love.
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Written By Siddharth Raja
4th September 2011