1:1 with Aishwarya Arumbakkam

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


My father was not the first or only person in our family or social setting to own a camera, but he actively photographed everything and enjoyed doing it. My first memory of photography revolves around seeing someone I know intimately, perhaps even myself, being photographed or in a photograph. In parallel, thanks to my mother, I grew up reading and listening to stories from a very young age. I was also frequently exposed to cinema, music, and dance in my childhood. In that sense, storytelling and photography were always part of my life.


2. Please share your experience of studying photography at Pathshala, Dhaka. How has this experience informed your practice?


My engagement with visual arts started with design and filmmaking that I studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. Following that, I was working in the advertising industry in Bombay. Around 2013, after a gap of many years, I started making work I could possibly consider my own. At that time, I was also drifting away from the moving image towards photography. That is when Pathshala South Asian Media Institute came into my life. My first serious consideration of having an artistic practice happened while at Pathshala. People I met, like Tanzim Wahab, Munem Wasif, and Sarker Protick were a huge influence and continue to be an integral part of my practice. The network I was introduced to has resulted in several crucial connections, opened up valuable opportunities, and continues to support me in practical and intellectual ways.


3. Please share your experience of doing a MFA in Studio Art from The University of Texas, Austin.


I’m currently pursuing an MFA in Studio Art at The University of Texas in Austin. It’s a two-year program focused on developing a studio practice and gaining teaching experience while working towards a graduate degree. This multi-disciplinary program includes photography, sculpture, painting, printmaking, and transmedia. Having access to a studio space, technical facilities, group critiques, libraries, and funding has helped sustain my practice in a new country. Being in a university environment has also created opportunities to learn from and build community across various departments. At the same time, it has been challenging to live and make work in the United States of America during this time.


4. If you were to design a photo program for young Indian photographers, what would it look like?


A beautiful aspect of being an artist in South Asia has been the informal, interconnected network that has shaped and informed my practice. This has been possible because of long-term engagement. It has been great to have a few points to come back to while moving around and finding one’s way. Looking outside photography has been very important to learn photography.


5. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


I’m inspired by the work and practices of several artists who’ve come before me and have made it possible for me to make the work I do. I’m also equally moved by people making work alongside me. AK Ramanujan, Sohrab Hura, Dayanita Singh, Sathish Kumar, Nolan Ryan Trowe, and Abby Flanagan are some of them.


6. Is there a book, exhibition or body of work that has really impressed you and maybe influenced your work / life?


The answer to this question is quite seasonal. However, there are some that have continued to stay close to my heart. I still remember the day I saw Dayanita Singh’s Sent a Letter and Go Away Closer. Graciela Iturbide and Eikoh Hosoe’s works made me believe in what I wanted to do when I started photographing. Sohrab Hura’s work and his practice continue to inspire me. I’m also heavily influenced by filmmaking. I tend to situate the theoretical and formal arguments for my work in film theory.


7. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work?


The reason to make different works comes from different places. When I start, I trust my instinct if I feel compelled by something. I also pause and think about my position with respect to the subject. The way forward lies in making work. In this capacity, through photographing, filming, drawing, writing, editing, researching, and questioning, I try and grasp why I’m looking at something. The answer to this question changes as time passes with the work and my understanding deepens.


8. Do your projects typically run in parallel, or do you focus on one project at a time?


I usually work on multiple projects at the same time. I also work on projects for a long time. It takes time for me to understand what the work is trying to tell me. My process is fraught with failures and frustrations. I experiment, move ahead slowly, let it sit, think, and try again. Practical aspects also necessitate that I take breaks within a project. During this time, I might not be shooting, but it’s there somewhere in the studio. It’s also most likely that I’m shooting or making something else. Stepping away and stepping closer, the loss and regaining of understanding, and the passage of time are important to my practice.


9. You are both a filmmaker and photographer. How do the two media intersect in your practice?


At the core of my artistic approach is lens-based media and its relationship to documentation, and to time and touch. In both photography and filmmaking, I am interested in the camera and in editing. My process moves freely between both media.


10. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few decades. Did you learn to photograph using the digital process or film / analog? Is the analog process present in your practice? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


While I did start with analog photography, digital photography was already accessible at that time. I purchased my first digital camera in 2014 and have been using it till now. Over the last few years, because of access and affordability, I’ve started to explore and work with analog photography again. I embrace change but not in a linear analog to digital trajectory. As an instrument, the camera defines so much of how we see and what we see. A metric of ‘good or not’ doesn’t quite fit with how I view the medium.


11. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well? Do you share it with colleagues or others? Your own sense of it?


I don’t think success of a work is something I measure. Early on with every work, I identify a core I am most answerable to, and this becomes my priority. I am also incredibly lucky to have mentors and colleagues who are honest and generous.


12. Do you ever find yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


I feel this is a very common sentiment. What helps is to stick with it, to continue and keep making work. Taking risks also helps to break free from patterns and open new paths.


13. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process, or does it distract you from it?


I have had opportunities to show my work recently in Growing Like a Tree at Ishara Art Foundation and at the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography. In both of these contexts, my work has been enriched and expanded because of the curation. In that sense, I see sharing my work as a possibility to contribute to a larger conversation. I am trying to invest more care towards such attempts.


14. We know that fine art or documentary photography is not always enough to make a living. Some do commercial work, others teach. Are there other photography related areas you have found to supplement your living? Some that you would recommend aspiring photographers might consider?


While working in the commercial film industry was monetarily rewarding, it took a lot to balance my personal practice with commercial work. Living in a big city that I did not grow up in was challenging. Living expenses were high, the lifestyle was alienating, and the mental space to make work became diminished. In the last few years, I’ve managed to slow down by securing a few grants and fellowships that have supported my practice, and I’ve moved away from the commercial industry. I don’t have a long-term solution. For now, I’m trying to prioritize opportunities that fund my work and give me time to make work.


15. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in your home country, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?


Unfortunately, I have not yet begun to seek such opportunities. My focus has been towards opportunities that support the making of the work, through grants or guidance.


16. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Do you think that Indian photographers are finding themselves / their work judged by western criteria and standards?


In my limited experience, I have to constantly question biases embedded within photography and myself in how I make my work, in the forms it finds, in the way I talk about it, and in how I show my work.


17. Of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were first starting out?


Make work about what is meaningful to you.


18. If you didn’t do photography, what other career might you have pursued?


If not for photography, I would still be in the visual arts.


19. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?


An interested collector can contact me directly via eMail: aishwarya.arumbakkam@gmail.com



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Copyright © Aishwarya Arumbakkam

Date Published

20 November