Photographer John Stanmeyer was covering the Afghanistan war shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, when his passport got stolen in Kabul. Stanmeyer, who had shot numerous cover stories for Time and National Geographic, did not contact the magazines’ offices or the American embassy. Instead, he turned for help to Deepak Puri, the resourceful New Delhi-based General Manager of Time-Life News Service’s South Asia bureau. Puri arranged for Stanmeyer to board an international flight without a departure visa. A new passport was waiting for him in Islamabad.
Cut to May 2015. Legendary photojournalist Jim Nachtwey, on assignment from Time to cover the devastating Nepal earthquake, was desperate to shoot an aerial view of the destruction. Who else did he turn to but Puri, a legend in the photography world for his perseverance? The long-time Delhi resident had retired from Time- Life seven years ago but his resourcefulness was as fine-tuned as ever, and his legendary contacts network, still buzzing. He quickly arranged a place for Nachtwey on one of the Indian Air Force (IAF) choppers. Recalls Puri with a laugh, “After the assignment, Jim said, `You are a magician. What will we do without you, Mr. Wizard?’ ”
Statue Seller, Delhi, 1997, © Pamela Singh
Between 1977 and 2008, Puri was the go-to man for Time-Life photographers, as well as those belonging to other media organizations. In a May 2015 essay titled `Giving the world to us: The Many-Armed Miracle- Worker of Parliament Street’ writer Pico Iyer, a Time contributor since 1982, wrote: “Deepak is cited in books and salaamed before everywhere from Baghdad to Kathmandu for his unique and nearly inexplicable ability to get material to war photographers as they’re ducking gunfire, to charter planes (from companies that have never chartered planes before), to find Indian doctors for the husbands of distant colleagues on the far side of the world.”
Karl Taro Greenfeld, Deputy Editor, Time Asia, writing a note to readers in the December 2001 issue of the magazine, said, “Time’s coverage of the subcontinent has beaten the competition because we have a secret weapon: Deepak Puri.”
Monsoon Downpour In Delhi, 1984, © Raghu Rai
Puri, 64, touched the lives of some of the greatest photographers of our times. Sebastião Salgado, known for his haunting portraits of labourers, took Puri’s help in getting on an IAF helicopter when covering vicious fighting between government troops and guerrillas in Congo. In each of his 85 trips to India, Puri is the first person Steve McCurry – he of the Afghan girl with haunting green eyes fame – called on. “Every roll of film I shot in Afghanistan,” Steve recalled in the Pico Iyer essay, “went through Deepak’s hands for 15 years.”
There are numerous other well-known photographers who have been helped at some time in their careers by handyman Puri. These include big guns like Robert Nickelsberg, Stephen Dupont, Diane Barker, Adam Ferguson, Raghu Rai, Christopher Morris, Michael O’Neill, Ami Vitale and Dieter Ludwig.
Mumbai, 1970, © T.S. Satyan
Each of these legendary photographers gifted Puri a signed print – as a token of their gratitude for his help, and in many cases, also as a result of friendships built up over the years. “Most of them have given me their best works without me asking them to,” says Puri.
Early last year, Puri pleasantly surprised the art world by donating his entire collection of more than 150 photographs to the Museum of Art & Photography (MAP) in Bangalore. He explains why: “I wanted to share with the world, particularly with students and lovers of photography, these great works of art.”
A part of the collection was recently shown across Mumbai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and New Delhi by Tasveer, which promotes and showcases contemporary photography. (The Deepak Puri Collection can also be seen online at deepakpuricollection.com).
The historic photographs may no longer be with Puri but memories remain – of the human side of some of the greatest practitioners of photojournalism. After all, in a career spanning 31 years, Puri was a key player in presenting to the world some of the most iconic images of the 20th century, from 9/11, the Iraq and Afghan wars, Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, the Babri Masjid destruction, Jaffna war and more.
“The dedication those photojournalists had to telling a story and the challenges and the pains they went through to bring the images to the notice of the world was amazing,” he fondly recalls. “The creativity, sensitivity and sincerity of many photojournalists is something I have grown to admire over the years. Not all have these characteristic but the great guys are most humble and I do admire that quality in them.”