Seeing India21 min read . Updated: 24 Nov 2017, 12:49 PM IST
Ten under-40, home-grown photographers tell us what inspires them and how they see India today. From fashion and wildlife to haunting portraits of grief and loss, their frames tell stories of our many contemporary realities
A good photograph has the ability to elicit awe. It can make us notice details we may have overlooked, emotions we may not have tapped into, and, at its very best, give us a completely new perspective. While writers are the rulers of the worlds they create, photographers must make do with the world they inhabit. They must observe it patiently, waiting for that fleeting moment—that split second when everything comes together in visual coherence.
Some use the medium to document the ordinary in the extraordinary, like Showkat Nanda, 34, with his haunting images of the widows of Kashmir (featured on page 1). Others use it to comment on the erasure of natural habitats, like Asmita Parelkar, a documentary-wildlife photographer whose series on animal trafficking helped create awareness of the urgency of the problem.
We list young photographers with different areas of focus—documentary, street, wildlife, fashion and interior-architecture—delving into their practice and seeking to offer insights into their visual thinking.
To curate this list, we reached out to galleries and senior photographers. While we couldn’t include many deserving names, we hope this gives you a glimpse. They come from different regions—Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad—but their photographs transcend the boundaries of time, space and geography. Each photographer has a compelling story to tell—of that “decisive moment" which prompted them to pick up the camera
Best known for: documentary photography
Showkat Nanda’s childhood memories of Kashmir are singed with the strife of the 1990s. A reticent child, he dreamt of becoming a surgeon. As violence tore through the state, however, Nanda’s dream crumbled. “I began to believe that I would never live to grow into a young man. Survival became the topmost priority," he says. He lost his 17-year-old brother and 16-year-old cousin to the conflict. But while many children his age would go on to pick up stones, Nanda picked up the camera.
“Throwing stones at the Indian forces was a natural, human response to the situation one witnessed every day," he says. “But I wanted to tell stories of my people. The desire to show the world the reality of a conflict that has devastated thousands of lives turned me towards photography." He borrowed his first camera, a Cosina C1 SLR, from his friend’s brother in 1997; he was 14 years old.
In 2009, Nanda would shoot an image which would leave an indelible mark on him. “I shot the image of a 12-year-old boy throwing stones at an armoured vehicle of the Indian forces, moments after his schoolmate died in my arms," Nanda says. It was a defining moment since he, a photojournalist, was compelled to play his role of a silent observer, while his instinct told him to pick up stones. He didn’t rebel.
Nanda’s photographs offer the insider’s view of Kashmir. Perhaps one of his most bone-chilling works is The Endless Wait. It features Kashmiri women and children, often in isolation, waiting, silently, for the return of their husbands, brothers, sons and fathers (who disappeared “mysteriously" during the conflict). “A woman’s face was the most prominent symbol of suffering in Kashmir," explains Nanda. “In the early 1990s, during the crackdown, many men left their homes in fear of being arrested, spending days in forests. The only people left behind were elderly men, women and children." Nanda goes beyond the archetypal front-page images of women protesting and delves into their personal tragedies through quiet, yet haunting frames of longing and loneliness.
Today, the 34-year-old has won recognition for his work: He has been a recipient of the Magnum Foundation Emergency Fund grant (2016), won the National Press Photo Award (2011), and a Fulbright fellow (2012). He has done his postgraduation in photojournalism from the University of Missouri, US, and in mass communication, from the University of Kashmir. Nanda is currently busy teaching visual storytelling to young photographers in Kashmir.
Best known for: architecture photography
For architecture photographer Deepshikha Jain, the process of looking at a building for hours and observing its intricate detailing is akin to reading a novel. One has to know and learn every part of it. Jain belongs to a group of young photographers who believe it is important to document the architectural facades that define an urban landscape. “Architectural photography in India, as a niche or a specialization, didn’t exist (until) almost eight years ago," she says.
Her interest in the visual arts led her to pursue a master’s in architectural photography from the Spéos International Photography School, Paris (2009-10). While many of her batchmates chose the field of fashion photography, Jain chose to shoot archaic arches and modern symmetrical squares. She was invariably drawn to mansions falling into disrepair, as well as modernist masterpieces. “I love architecture that is rooted, that has a story, that is raw and minimalist, and is all about the form which complements the function," she says.
Her first assignment was photographing some buildings designed by award-winning architect Anupama Kundoo in Auroville, in 2010. Jain has since worked for architects such as Annkur Khosla, Riyaz Tayyibji, and the architecture firm Morphogenesis, and shot for various publications, including Architectural Digest, Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.
“I think Bombay has influenced my sense of storytelling. I find urban stories very compelling," says the Mumbai-based 31-year-old.
Her two series, Bombai and Urban Postcards, capture the different facets of the city, from modern skyscrapers to buildings caged in scaffolding. It is an attempt, perhaps, to immortalize the city through black and white stills.
“Bombay as we knew it has been disappearing. Matunga and Dadar were different from Bandra; Andheri was different from Borivali. But as the old structures are being erased and newer ones are built, my attempt is to document that change."
Best known for: wildlife photography
Mumbai-based Asmita Parelkar’s favourite image is from 1989. It’s a photograph by Michael Nichols of primatologist Jane Goodall, with strands of her hair, backlit by the sun, seeming to fall delicately into the palm of a chimpanzee. “It was the tenderness shared between two species that resonated with me," she says. “At a broader level though, that tenderness is absent between humans and animals."
Parelkar, 34, refers to another photograph, by Biplab Hazra, who won the Sanctuary Wildlife Photographer of the Year award earlier this month. The image, shot in West Bengal, shows a baby elephant on fire as it flees a mob with its mother. “We don’t respect animals or their habitat at all. Wild habitats are burnt down in the name of urbanization." That angst informs Parelkar’s photographic direction. Stories related to wildlife conservation and endangered species form the backbone of her work.
Her series Illegal Wildlife Trade puts the spotlight on the brutality behind the slaughter and trafficking of animals. Parelkar was allowed access by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (which regulates the import and export of flora and fauna in the US) for it. “They have a lab in Long Island, which works as a repository for the animals that are confiscated at harbours and airports. I made two-three trips and managed to photograph the animals," she says.
While studying photojournalism at the International Center of Photography, New York (2010-11), Parelkar worked on a series that featured animals in captivity, particularly those living in zoos. “As humans, we’ve pushed animals out of their natural habitat. While zoos exist under the pretext of ‘protecting’ these animals, they ironically serve to entertain us," she says. Parelkar shot the series in five zoos across New York and its boroughs. “In comparison to the zoos in India," she observes, “these man-made habitats in New York were pristine. The dioramas replicated the natural habitat of the animals really well. But if you think about it, the paintings on the walls were fake. They have been done for our eyes. These animals were still in a confined space."
This project Giraffe Behind The Door, still ongoing, was published in The New York Times in 2011.
Parelkar, who also designs photobooks, is part of the BIND collective, a platform that curates visual book exhibitions. This year, she has helped the collective put together Travelling Library, a pop-up photobook exhibition at the GoaPhoto festival (23-26 November).
Best known for: documentary photography
Saumya Khandelwal uses her camera as a truth-telling instrument, taking us on a cross-country ride to the peripheries, and making us look at social anomalies we would rather hide under the carpet. Her ongoing series, Child Brides Of Shravasti, shot over a period of three years, is a peephole view into the lives of young girls from a small town in Uttar Pradesh who are prematurely pushed into adulthood. There is an incomparable beauty in her images—they are piercingly intimate and poignant. “My approach to making photos is always to reveal something more about the people I am photographing than just the information of what’s happening," says Khandelwal. “Instead of objectifying them, I would like to make it subjective, where the viewer can put a context to the lives of these people."
From Alex Webb to Raghubir Singh, Khandelwal’s visual language has been influenced by their phenomenal oeuvres. Having been mentored by senior photographer Amit Mehra since 2012, she has gone on to assist Delhi Photo Festival’s co-founder Prashant Panjiar, and VII photo agency photographers Jessica Dimmock and Stephanie Sinclair. The 27-year-old is also the recipient of the Getty Images Instagram Grant (2017), National Foundation of India Award (2017) and the Neel Dongre Photography Grant (2014 and 2015).
Currently an in-house photographer at Thomson Reuters in New Delhi, Khandelwal also works on personal projects. They are reflective of her meditative documentary skills, where she immerses herself into the milieu, slowly unravelling its layers, one photograph at a time. Her first “serious" project was Water—The Dying Lifeline (2013), which documented the devastating conditions of India’s existing water bodies. The series proved to be a turning point, convincing her to consider photography as a profession.
When she was working in an Indian publication, she was the only woman photographer in the team. “I hadn’t looked at my profession through the lens of gender before," she says. “I would get stories that involved women with the expectation that the subjects will be more comfortable in my presence," she says. “So it was an opportunity to work on good stories." To make a mark in the field as a woman is challenging. But Khandelwal used it to her advantage. With an approach that is steeped in ethnography and visual journalism, Khandelwal is a photographer to reckon with.
Best known for: documentary/street photography
Ronny Sen is self-effacing as he tries to recall the first image that left an impact on him. It was a black and white image by Pablo Bartholomew in 1975, of Pooh—perhaps one of Bartholomew’s most unforgettable subjects—lying on a bed, looking directly at the camera. “There was something very special about the photograph," says Sen. It’s a memory of an infatuation that grew into something incomprehensibly more. “When I look at this photograph, it almost makes me touch that time. That’s the power of this medium."
Sen received the prestigious Getty Images Instagram Grant last year for his powerful documentary work on Jharkhand’s Jharia coal town that has had, for decades, an intense, uncontrolled fire burning underground. He also has a string of accolades to his name, including being the recipient of artist residencies in Japan (2012) and Poland (2015). The 30-year-old, who began his journey in photography in Salt Lake, Kolkata, in 2006, began shooting in monochrome. His visual language has been heavily influenced by the works of the Japanese photographers Daidō Moriyama and Eikoh Hosoe, as well as Bengali film-maker Ritwik Ghatak.
A large part of Sen’s pictorial record is marked by compositions of barely recognizable figures shot in low light, often accompanied by grains and blurs. There is a jarring, almost unsettling theme that pulsates through his work: shattered windows, deliberately blackened faces, an anonymous arm here, an unrecognizable torso there. Sen’s photographs are hypnotic, be it his first, dark, quasi-surreal photobook Khmer Din (2013), which depicts the grim underbelly of Siem Reap, Cambodia, or the palpably raucous atmosphere depicted in Don’t Breathe (a series that began in 2008 and was first exhibited in 2011), which conveys the experience of travelling in unreserved train compartments.
To an untrained eye, however, his frames may seem imprecise and flawed. Many of his works carry macabre overtones—reminiscent of a difficult past. Sen grew up on the streets of Kolkata, where many of his friends were addicted to brown sugar. “Growing up in the late 1990s was pretty chaotic," he says. “We were surviving one day at a time. Staying alive was a big deal. It was the fear of death that got me closer to photography," says Sen. “To give some meaning to my life, art became extremely important."
His series New World Chronicles Of An Old World Colour (2015), which he created while at an art residency at the Gdańsk City Gallery in Poland, was a departure from his black and white photography. Polish film-maker Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colours trilogy served as inspiration, with Sen depicting “the melancholic Polish winter, while looking for traces of red, where solidarity had once emerged and how capitalism had finally taken over today". He is currently working on his first feature film, titled Cat Sticks (slated for release in early 2018)—the screenplay has been co-written with Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas. He is also working on a project commissioned by Royal Enfield (in association with the India Foundation for the Arts) to travel and photograph his journeys for a possible book.
Best known for: street photography
Across the canvas of sky, an outstretched arm, an umbrella thrown in the air and a plane taking flight. In another time, in one of Hyderabad’s oldest wrestling precincts in Yakutpura, a young boy catapults against a wall with the help of a rope, his head covering—almost merging with—that of another boy standing next to him. There is a certain charm, a nuanced idiosyncrasy in Swarat Ghosh’s images.
His images, never static, are often characterized by levity. Ghosh’s angles are peculiar; there are figures that seem to “appear" by chance; and others that seem to merge. Each element in the composition, though, falls into an unexpected coherence.
It was in 2012 that Ghosh’s wife gifted him his first camera, a Nikon D3000, for Durga Puja. “I had never shot a single image before that, so I don’t know what made her give me a camera," Ghosh says, laughing, over the phone. The gift kindled his interest in photography. Based in Hyderabad, Ghosh had a demanding 12-hour job as a graphic designer, but in his spare time, he enrolled in photography clubs, and explored different parts of the city with his group.
As an aspiring street photographer, the 37-year-old spent nights poring over books—from Robert Frank’s exquisite visual book, The Americans, which captured the lives of people in the 1950s, to Raghu Rai’s revolutionary documentation of Kolkata locals, Calcutta. In addition, the collective works of veteran photographers Kaushal Parikh and Prashant Godbole influenced him too.
He has been a finalist in the reputed LensCulture Street Photography competition (2017), won the Neel Dongre Awards for Excellence in Photography (2016-17) and has been featured in one of the most sought after international photography publications, BURN magazine, as well as the National Geographic Traveller magazine. His works have been exhibited in Paris, London, Glasgow and Istanbul, as well as Mumbai and Hyderabad, among other cities.
While his ongoing series, Beyond Street, emerged on the edit table when he “realized that certain patterns and repetitions emerged while placing the images together", another series that he has been working on features his family. “I think it is our personal stories that are the real stories which need to be preserved in memory and in physical form," he says.
Best known for: wildlife photography
Wildlife photography is defined by two demanding prerequisites—solitude as an occupational trait and invisibility as a skill to master. A large part of Nisha Purushothaman’s life involves living away from the city, meandering through sprawling, open grasslands, and turning wildlife photography into her own branch of animal anthropology. From a group of cheetahs that appear to have broken away from a serious discussion, to capturing a rhinoceros crowned by birds as the sun sets—Purushothaman’s images capture the interiority of the animal empire, making the unseen seen.
Purushothaman was born in Paravur, a small coastal village in Kollam, Kerala. “Paddy fields and the Polachira wetlands" were a 10-minute walk away from home. “Becoming a person who loved nature, therefore, was not difficult," she says. It was only years later though, in 2008, when Purushothaman shifted to Dubai to work as a project manager at an advertising firm, that her interest in wildlife photography surfaced. “It all started with a weekend photography trip" during which she spotted over 150 species. “I fell in love with birds. Slowly, instead of weekends, I started to shoot every day, at least an hour before I headed to work. And the more time I spent shooting, the more I became motivated to become a nature photographer."
Since then, Purushothaman has travelled to some of the most forbidding terrain across India, Kenya, Tanzania, Alaska and Russia. She has photographed over 200 birds, as well as tigers, leopards and lions. As a practice, Purushothaman visits sanctuaries near her home in Dubai at least two-four times a week. “I start from home around 4.30am and shoot till 10am. Nothing comes easy. As a wildlife photographer, you need to be fit in order to carry equipment, which can be as heavy as 10kg. Sometimes you even have to trek long distances," she says.
In 2004, Purushothaman, along with her friend Hermis Haridas, established Paws Trails Explorers, a global platform for wildlife conservation, travel and photography. Using photographs to protect animals is immensely important to her. “We have to ensure that our work is used effectively to comment on issues as diverse as mountaintop removal mining and deforestation, or the very real impact of oil spills on marine life." In 2016-17, Purushothaman became a finalist for the Hamdan International Photography Award. A TEDx speaker, she has hosted over 30 photography workshops around the world.
Best known for: fashion photography
A model struts across a blur of crayon-ish greens and neon. In an Irani café, a woman leans back in a chair. Atop an old cement terrace in Kolkata, a scarf swirls in the air, lending anonymity to its owner as it veils her face.
Hashim Badani’s fashion photographs involve a bit of tasteful drama. They seem to be scenes plucked from a Wim Wenders or Wong Kar-wai film.
Cities, particularly Mumbai, where he lives, often appear as characters in his compositions—whether it is Kolkata’s Howrah bridge, which served as a misty backdrop for a Harper’s Bazaar shoot “celebrating the salwar kameez", or Mumbai’s old Irani cafés, which are practically historical landmarks. “A large portion of my work involves working with Bombay, whether it’s my personal work, editorials for fashion magazines, or otherwise," admits Badani. “I am drawn to everything about the city." He is currently working on a book on the city’s Irani cafés with Simin Patel, founder of Bombaywalla (an organization that celebrates the city’s history), which will be published by Roli Books.
Badani began his career as an in-house photographer for Time Out Mumbai in 2010, and then moved to Lonely Planet Magazine India, where he is still a consulting photographer. He ventured into commercial fashion photography in early 2016 to explore his ability to shoot differently. His fashion shoots developed an idiosyncratic identity, involving “a blend of orchestrated and real people/life situations".
Badani’s process of conjuring up images is akin to film-making. “I try to build a narrative in my head. There is a loose script and the models are characters in that story. I assign a mood, a personality and situation to them, and it makes the process a lot more fun," he says. In fact, as an ode to Wong Kar-wai, Badani collaborated with Mumbai-based fashion brand Obataimu to weave in the theme of Chungking Express into a shoot for the brand’s Wabi Sabi line.
Having shot for Vogue India, Rolling Stone India, Lonely Planet Magazine India and National Geographic Traveller India, Badani’s work is not confined to fashion photography. He is currently collaborating with writer Zeenat Nagree on a story on Myanmar’s Rohingyas. “We’re trying to document the challenges they face in their daily life, their culture, and what the future holds for them, keeping in mind the current government stand," he says.
Best known for: interiors/documentary photography
Photographing interiors is a tough task. Attention to detail is of prime importance, of course, but it’s the ability to convey the intimacy of a luxurious restaurant, the quaintness of a café, or the charm of a newly opened retail store, that marks out a good photographer. It involves the craft of making a three-dimensional space look visually appealing in the format of an uncompromisingly flat, often rectangular frame.
Anshika Varma’s initiation into photography happened when she was a student of social communications media at Sophia Polytechnic in Mumbai. “I felt that images could transport people to different worlds. It was perhaps the multiplicity of different realities that got me hooked to photography," she says. Her first camera, a borrowed one, was a Nikon F65 SLR film camera. “I had asked my mother to lend me her camera and some film so that I could walk around Bombay with it. I still have the camera up in my studio although I don’t use it any more."
From images of interior spaces that are suffused with dense, contrasting colours, to framing objects that come together in a seamless symmetry, Varma has the ability to balance the incongruous. “Symmetry becomes primary for me while working with interiors. Whether the aesthetic of design is minimal or ostentatious, it’s important for the eye to not get lost in clutter," she says.
In fact, Varma has explored myriad facets of photography—from documentary (dealing with themes of identity, memory and objects) to curating exhibitions—she was co-curator of A Million Mutinies Later: India At 70, which was shown at Ffotogallery in Cardiff, Wales, in July. It looked into “the everyday revolutions that are slowly and steadily transforming the social, cultural and political fabric of the nation," she writes on her website. Varma’s work has appeared in Condé Nast Traveller, Motherland and People magazines, among other publications. She has also worked for independent brands like restaurants DIVA, Qla and Mainland China, and fashion brands like Shantanu & Nikhil.
Best known for: fashion photography
Couched in minimalism, Prarthna Singh’s fashion photography veers away from the theatrical—there aren’t any extravagant backdrops or carnival-esque props. The women inhabiting her images often carry a soulful look—at times pensive, at times looking directly at the camera. They appear to be everyday, ordinary women rather than models, shot in natural light. In Singh’s pictures, the clothing is the hero.
Singh’s photography journey began at the age of 19 when she bought her first camera—a second-hand Nikon FM2. She would spend hours in the darkroom drenched in the dull red glow, watching pictures come to life. She found it therapeutic.
She studied photography at Rhode Island School of Design, US, and says that gave her exposure to myriad experiences, prodding her to become “a thinker within and beyond a particular artistic medium".
Her visual language—one that is unadulterated by the superfluous—takes cues from the world of August Sander’s Citizens Of The Twentieth Century, a monumental collection of 431 frames featuring individuals from different strata of German society between 1892 and 1952. “My early introduction to portraiture was through Sander’s work," says Singh. “What I admire most about his powerful, yet subtly composed, imagery is the honesty in both thought and approach," she says. “Even today, when I am looking for inspiration, I revisit it, and it affirms my belief that a compelling portrait is an invitation to envision."
In the past two years, Singh has consciously steered away from fashion photography to focus on personal projects that are driven by reportage and deal with socially relevant themes. The Wrestlers, for instance, features female wrestlers who have struggled hard to upend the feminine stereotype and transcend social norms in India. The series offers an insight not only into Singh’s versatility as an artist, but is a reflection on her awareness as an observer on gender in a patriarchal set-up. The Wrestlers was part of Photographing The Female, which was exhibited at the FOCUS Photography Festival in Mumbai in March. “For me the wrestlers are symbolic," wrote Singh in her introduction to the series. “Each of their stories speaks of overcoming innumerable hardships, fighting family pressure and most importantly, living gender differently."
In 2017, Singh was one of the 29 finalists at the FCBarcelona Photo Awards, and was handpicked by Focás Scotland (an international platform that invites conversations on identity and culture) to exhibit her work at Street Level Photoworks in Glasgow. As an independent photographer, her images have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Elle India and Vogue India, among other publications. She has worked on numerous lookbooks for fashion labels, including Bodice, Sanjay Garg and Nor Black Nor White. And last year, Phaidon Press published Sār: The Essence Of Indian Design—“an encyclopaedia of sorts on Indian design," says Singh—which featured of her work.
The writer tweets at @radhika_iy