My memories of Manipur’s first photojournalist, Santosh Phanjoubam

Sunzu Bachaspatimayum
Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh while condoling his sudden demise had described Santosh as a friend and in his demise, ‘Manipur has lost an experienced, courageous, energetic and upright photojournalist.’
During my formidable St. Xavier’s college days in Bombay, photojournalism caught my fascination. I would imagine the lifestyle of a photojournalist – going to all the happening places in the world, in the frontline of action, always on the field, always on the roll, the excitement et al. 
This was the mid 80’s when Roland Joffe’s ‘The Killing Fields’ hit the silver screen.  The film received seven Oscar nominations. It was about Cambodia during the dreaded Khmer Rouge told through the experiences of two journalists. The film shielded my destiny, as it were. After seeing, ‘Killing Field’ I pursued a certificate course in ‘elements of photojournalism at Xaviers Institute of Communication, Bombay. 
It is another matter that moving images became my medium but whenever I met brother Santosh Phanjoujam in the field and together on assignment, I would relive my fantasy and become envious of Ta Santosh (as I called him with respect) – always on the move, always ready for another assignment – the more difficult, the better, only himself and his lens to script his stories. On the other hands, as someone who chose to tell untold stories of the region, I had to work with a team of at least a cameraperson and a sound recordist if not more. It was only in 2006 that I realized how resourceful and energetic Ta Santosh was.
It was a 7-day trek in the thick jungle, infested with insurgents and landmines, to meet Manipur’s most wanted armed rebel who in 2006, headed Manipur’s oldest surviving armed outfit – RK Meghan also known as Sanayaima, the then chairman of United National Liberation Front, UNLF.
This was one of my first major rendezvous with a top armed rebel and as a young TV journalist and the documentary filmmaker, I was thrilled at the prospect. Being my first experience of its kind, I realized I was ill prepared only after walking for a day. Fortunately, Ta Santosh was there.
As a young blood, I would run up leaving behind the team, comprising 11 journalists as well as seven armed escort of the UNLF. I would pick a strategic spot ahead to frame my shot. After filming I would naturally be picking up the rear. This happened several times. Then I realized that Ta Santosh was always leading the pack as it were.
After sometime of filming, fatigue had creep into my limbs and I incidentally landed up walking side by side the lanky and slim Santosh.
After walking about an hour, Ta Santosh said, ‘let’s wait for the rest to catch up.’  Saying this, he parked himself at a shade and shove his right hand into the cotton bag which slung across his neck from his right shoulder. Out he took pick up two chocolate sticks from it and offered one and chewed the other. He said, ‘chocolate gives instant energy’ and ordered me to bite into it.
After resting for a while, we could see our team at a distant. At this Ta Santosh got up and said to me that we should resume our trek. He said, ‘it was always beneficial to be ahead of the pack than to be behind. 
Along the way, Ta Santosh would pick herbs and after shaking off the soil that struck to its roots, he would put them with his cotton bag. When I inquired why he is doing it, he shot back, ‘these are eatable.  On journey’s like this, one should always be prepared for the worse. In case we’ve nothing to eat, we can cook this and eat it.’
At that instant, I realized the experience Ta Santosh has gathered over his 32 years of lensing which he started in 1974. 
Walking with him, it struck me how energetic he was at his mid age. In fact, I struggled to keep pace with him. But Ta Santosh, he walked steadily– not slowing down or not picking up speed – but paced himself well, always ahead of the pack, never expressing discomfort. I must say it was enriching to walk side by side him.
Born on March 1, 1964 in Imphal east district, Santosh had contributed to different local, national and international newspapers, magazines and news agencies like Reuters, PTI and north East Sun as a photojournalist. The pioneering photojournalist, through his lens, had captured the crucial and momentous events of Manipur’s turbulent history for the last 40 years.
Santosh breathed his last on August 8 after being in the ICU of a private hospital in Imphal, nursing liver ailment for some time. He is survived by his wife, daughter and a son.
Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh while condoling his sudden demise had described Santosh as a friend and in his death ‘Manipur has lost an experienced, courageous, energetic and upright photojournalist.’
The All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union observed a 2-minute silence as a mark of respect and offered floral tribute at the Manipur Press Club where his mortal remain was kept before taking it to his Wangkhei, Meihoubam Leikai resident, where his last rites were performed.  May your zeal and spirit for adventure continue to be a guide.
Courtesy : KRCTimes