1:1 with Parthiv Shah

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


Two things attracted me to photography: contact sheets, and transparencies / slides. My father used to take photographs for his research; he would get his film rolls processed and they were thereafter printed on contact sheets. Looking at the entire process was very unusual because, when I was growing up, normally one would see photographs only in albums – or maybe, on a billboard. Here however, I saw these same-size, 35 mm negative, contact sheets, with up to 36 pictures on a single – 10” x 12” – sheet, one after another. I was around 10-12 years old and I found it quite amazing, as though a whole story was being told on one sheet. Since one couldn’t print all the pictures, because it was expensive to do so, one had to make careful selections as to which picture of the 36 would be enlarged. My father would also take a magnifying glass and would look at each of these pictures to make this selection. It was like discovering an entire story.


I had a similar fascination; again, with the transparency or slides as they were called at that time. My father would take slides out of a box and look at them to select them for his next talk. He had a small slide viewer where he’d put the slide in – press it down – and then a light would come on. It looked like a film on a large screen, magnified. It was as though one was in a cinema hall. So, both were very intriguing for me – one, was discovering images in the same sheet, and the other one was through a viewer. I think that made me interested in the picture or image-making process, and allowed me to look at pictures in a different manner.


2. Was it while studying at NID that you became interested in photography?


No. NID did add more facets and understanding to my interests. It gave me a larger exposure to photography and taught me many other skills, like cinema and graphic design, etc. However, my interest sprang at home, and it was because my father was doing his work – research, preparing for his lectures, selecting images, and shooting on his Pentax camera – that I got more interested in photography. Even his friends like, Charles Eames or Henri-Cartier Bresson coming at my place enticed my interest. Bresson, of course, was a well-known photographer at that time. Not that we would discuss photography as such, but I was fascinated by all the cameras he would bring home, like Leica. So, my interest began at my home.


3. How has your education at NID informed your photographic practice?


I think the NID education pushes one to look at everything in a holistic manner. That is a very important component of its education, because back then, Indian schooling made one sort of rigid. Say, for instance, you had to look at chemistry and history within fixed disciplinary boundaries. Chemistry and history could not be connected, at least in the way we were taught. There might be a thousand ways in which both of those disciplines are linked. What NID tried to do was to make their students think in an interdisciplinary way, and give them an outlook from all aspects of society and living. The education would not only impart you with skills, but also give you understanding as to why something is what it is. Even if it was an image I encountered, I needed to ask: Why was it made? Who must’ve made it? Under what circumstances? How might it have been disseminated? These questions were asked along with those from the design perspective, about techniques and aesthetics, like: What is the composition all about? What does perspective mean? What does depth mean? These aspects aren’t limited to photography, but find their way into various other fields, whether one talks of ceramics, furniture, or products. Thus, NID definitely helped me to look at photography in a different manner.


4. In your opinion, is it important to have formal training in photography?


Like any other education, a formal training in photography gives you skills faster. Formal education in general, makes things faster. There is a curriculum, and everything takes place in a stipulated time period. Yet, learning goes on. Even now, after thirty years, I’m still learning more and more every day. I’m now keeping up with the newer technology more and thinking about how the society has changed. For instance, it is interesting now to think about how we consume images, which has changed drastically. Thirty years ago, images were consumed very differently and for very different purposes. Thus, learning is an ongoing process. Formal education is fine, but it will only give you a certain amount of skill and knowledge, the rest is on you.


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


There isn’t a black-or-white answer for this question. It really depends on whom, or for what purpose. If someone wants to become a wedding photographer, then they might want a different format than, say, from someone who wants to do food photography. It all depends on what you want to do. Some basic knowledge of image making is necessary, which can be taught in a classroom environment, but mentorship helps you differently. Take, for instance, the example of the craftsmen. Over the years, especially in India, the potter’s son – or somebody else who wants to be a potter – will work in that studio, work with the potter, and alongside do everything else, from making tea to cleaning the courtyard to building the kiln. It is like an apprenticeship, and there is a mentorship aspect to it. To use a term in music, it’s like the guru-shishya parampara. Thus, mentorships help you understand the work in a holistic way. You understand how a photographer talks to a client, how to deal with writing a proposal, how to make a bill, how to juggle with your chartered accountant, how to deal with your curator or gallery, and so on. School might not be able to teach you all this. So, I guess the answer to the question is ‘all the above,’ to some level. Although I teach at various places from NID to UCLA, and Ambedkar University to Jamia Milia University; if I personally want to conduct such a program, I’m more comfortable with either a workshop or mentorship model.


6. Do you work in analog or digital? Did you have to transition to digital?


Yes, I transitioned to digital. I rarely shoot in analog now, because I don’t have the facility. Secondly, it is expensive. The film roll, the paper, the dark room, the material, and who are you doing it for? All have a cost. If I am a well-sold artist, whose work people like on a silver paper, then why not? But the market works differently. The way we consume images today is different and, mostly, it is digital. We rarely print our photographs.


If I were an artist, maybe it would be different (artist, in the sense of one who only showcases their art in galleries). But a lot of practice that happens is not necessarily just exhibiting. Even those artists who show their work in galleries are on Instagram, websites, and blogs now. They are all working digitally. Or they shoot on analog, and then have to digitize it. So, I don’t see a huge division between digital and analog. I believe it is all right for academic purposes, but it all depends on your practice. I don’t consider one to be superior to the other.


7. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few years. Did you initially embrace the changes or resist them? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?


Again, there are no clear-cut answers to this. It all depends on the perspective from which you see these things. So, at one level, a lot of people ask me why my earlier work is in black and white. A simple reason was that I did not have money and black-and-white film was cheaper. Color transparency was expensive. And, processing for color film rolls happened in automatic labs where control was not so easy. So, if you wanted to get a good print in color, you would have to go to a professional color lab or a studio, which is very expensive. So, black and white was easy. I could print and process myself. The films and paper were cheap. Today, a young person can just pick up the phone or a small digital camera, and shoot. They don’t have to worry about film rolls. Their laptops or computers can process everything straightaway. Thus, the digital has, of course, revolutionized and democratized image making, which was a precious privilege amongst a few select experts or rich studios, or the Nawabs and the royals. In Indian history, if you look at it, it was only the kings, the royals, or the nobles who could afford the photograph, the photography studios, or photography shoot. There is a clear transition. For me, the shift was smooth enough. I don’t think it was tough. Initially, the very high-quality digital cameras were much more expensive. The camera itself was expensive. A Nikon body would cost around 40,000 rupees, but, a Canon or a Nikon (digital, high quality) body was much more expensive. That was a problem. Not any other issue, as such.


Unlike many others, however, I do not have this purity problem. I’ll not be the one to say, “Oh, analog was much better than the digital.” Things change over the years. When we moved from paintings to photography, it was considered a mechanical process. The skill was involved in a very different manner, and was considered lowly. Even now, in India, if you look at it, photographs are sold much less and much more cheaply, than a simple watercolor or oil painting would be sold for.


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


No one person inspires me, as such. There are a lot of people who inspire me. Beautiful faces inspire me. Beautiful places inspire me. Or, earthshaking issues, which are around us – I won’t say inspire – but give me a call to record them, talk about them, put them across, and give them voices. Whether I deal with transgender communities, or I talk about unemployed mill workers, or I talk about Hashimpura massacre victims, there are various people who drive my work. This is all issue-based work, which I have done, and so, I do not know if you want to call them inspiration.


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


I don’t want to give one single instance, but I can say that The Family of Man [See MoMA, originally exhibited Jan 24-May 8, 1955; photographs of Edward Steichen “Hailed as the most successful exhibition of photography ever assembled.”] was one of the first exhibitions I visited and it has still left a mark on my mind and life. Yet, there have since been many incidents, many photographers, and many books. I don’t think I can give a singular instance.


10. What draws / drew you to the subject matter you are pursuing in your current work? Does it come as a gut feeling, or after analysis or research? Memory? Something that bothers you?


Well, different projects have different sparking points. Some could be accidental; others could be very well thought out. The project which I’m working on currently, Water, started almost twenty years ago. I showcased a small portion of my project, here and there, but it’s not finished and it’s still going on. For many years, I would walk along the river Narmada, and the project started as a response to the Narmada River being politicized. People stopped looking at the river as a river. They started looking at it as a conflict between them, or us, be it Maharashtra or Gujarat; be it one political party or another; one leader or another. Everything became politicized, and in the process, they stopped looking at the river. That’s how Water started, that was my trigger point.


Let’s take another project, like the one on M.F. Husain. Husain had commissioned me to shoot his exhibition in National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. It was just a small assignment. But, when I was shooting, something happened to me and I started looking at those images, and I felt that I could see the artist in various places in his paintings. So, I thought it would be interesting to also capture the artist with the painting. I requested Husain to come because I wanted to shoot him in front of some of his paintings. He agreed and said that he’d come for half an hour. When I started talking about his painting, and he started narrating certain stories, it created an interesting kind of dialog. Thereafter, we constructed images where he performed in front of those paintings and it became a totally different project. This project wasn’t formally planned; it was my trigger and idea. The project was about a photographer interpreting paintings and creating a dialog with the artist of those paintings, thereafter, producing a third image of the artist and painting together. This image explored the relationship between the artist and the art on three levels: sometimes the artist performs, sometimes he becomes part of the paintings and sometimes he is an extension of the painting.


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


I normally work on multiple projects at a given point in time. I believe my work process is similar to the way our bodies work, like the eye sees something, the ear hears something, the nose smells something, and your body moves somewhere, all at the same time, not disparately. All these things work and come together. Even in the world, things run parallel to each other, nothing happens one at a time, so to speak there is an invisible order. For me, a one-at-a-time approach is very machine-like. There has to be a human angle to what we do and not an assembly-line way of working.


Working on multiple projects is also helpful. What happens is that often one project contributes my views to another. Take, for instance, if I’m working on a project on water and at the same time I have to take a portrait for a photography magazine, the way I look at the socio-political aspect of the water project might get reflected in the way I take a photograph of, let’s say, a politician or a designer for a popular magazine. Or perhaps my experience or the time frame from the water project might make me see the portrait shoot in a different light. So, I prefer working on multiple projects at the same time, which adds more nuance to my work.


12. Can you describe your process of creating a narrative of the series of images put together?


I feel this question is extremely loaded, and presumes that there are defined processes of creativity. There is no straitjacketed way of working, since people work in different ways. For instance, a farmer wakes up early to work in his fields, to finish a certain kind of work. A banker on the other hand would have to work in a very different manner and so his work starts around 10 am. I’m not making a commentary on class; as of now I’m talking about the various ways in which people work to fulfill different kinds of tasks.


In the same way, I do not have any one specific process by which I create a narrative, but rather I am inspired by different methods of working. After all, I didn’t just study photography. I studied visual communication, which is film, graphic design, exhibition design, and, interestingly, photographers have to learn all of this today, which wasn’t the case before.


Memory helps. When I am creating a narrative of a series of images put together, I think of my grandmother sometimes, my father and mother at other times, because they told me many stories. I remember the times when we would sit on a swing and sing songs or listen to stories. These are all series of experiences, images, and stories which I recall. I don’t have a pre-planned process of working, where I decide an idea and my images follow. I get inspiration from stories, ideas, observations, and multiple ways of layering them.


This inspiration plays out in different ways. When I look back after photographing something, I might re-think how I want to curate or edit my series of pictures. This phase of working has more to do with presenting images for specific needs. That is where filmmaking helps me. How Mani Kaul or David Lean would have cut their film to, let’s say, the way Jean-Luc Goddard or Ritwik Ghatak would have done it; they have completely different styles of filmmaking. Where some might have linear edits, some may have jump cuts. Here too, it depends on the platform for which I’m making this narrative. If I have to put it up on a magazine, I would have a different work process, because of space constraints; for instance, I might have to remove certain pictures. Thus, different kinds of platforms require different approaches and processes of creating.


So, while shooting, you can’t start with questions like: How many pictures am I going to shoot? Or, how am I going to progress? Because there isn’t often a singular answer for these. Unless it is decided from a pre-briefed idea, for instance, you could only click three pictures to which a feedback is also needed. Then I might think in definitive terms, but normally I don’t do that.


13. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well?


I feel that I’m always successful. I don’t consider what success is. The unsuccessful things in my life would be extremely logistical, like perhaps, my data card failed, my film got exposed, or like when I was in Jerusalem and my camera body didn’t work for a day. However, work-wise I don’t have a definite idea of what success is. Success is when you feel satisfied or when your body of work gets appreciated from totally unknown quarters.


Sometimes when I see an image, the image itself gives me satisfaction of some kind, I feel peaceful with it. Even if it is an image of a Kashmiri parent who has lost their child or a millworker in Ahmedabad who has lost his job. Those kinds of images are full of pathos at one level and might have an effect on me, and the viewer. Perhaps, this effect is success; however, ultimately, I do not expect that everyone who sees that image would start crying. I don’t think my photographs are going to do that, as long as it does something to do viewer. If they want to look at it again, and want to think about it when they go back, then maybe it is successful.


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


I feel like I’m stuck most of the time, because I come from a time, era, or maybe class, where I was told that, unless you are perfect, unless you feel that your work is good enough, you should not even show it. This is why I rarely show my work. For years, I didn’t show my work. And while my father was an artist, and his exhibition used to happen every year, he never encouraged me to show my work. He might ask me to show my photographs to some of his friends, colleagues, and other people, but not in a gallery. He believed that until one really feels like one has created the work which one wants, one should only then take it to the next level. Again, I bring parallels to the music world. Take, classical musicians; most of the time, the teacher doesn’t tell his or her disciples for years to perform in front of people. Of course, the studio world in music is different.


15. 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 from it?


Getting my work showcased is not of primary concern to me. For almost 20-30 years, I did not showcase any of my work. In fact, I come from a school of thought, which believed that one should not showcase one’s work, until one feels it is worth showing. For instance, the M.F. Husain work that I started in the 1990s, and which went on till the 2000s, wasn’t showcased until recent years. Of course, a few photographs were shown in some places and some were published, but the entire body of work was showcased in 2017-18, after a 15-year gap. So, I guess I take my time in showcasing my work. Nevertheless, it goes without saying that I was always happy to show my work in a magazine, especially when I was starting out, because I would see it next to a byline and then everyone else sees it as well. When my picture appeared in India Today for the first time, I was in seventh heaven, even though, of course, they gave me a meager sum for the transparency.


I feel sometimes that I should have showcased my work more, because unfortunately, the time we live in requires PR or marketing on social media platforms. I admire musicians like Kumar Gandharava or Mallikarjun Mansoor because they would never evidently market themselves. They would sit at the Narmada, or in a corner at a temple, and simply sing; they did not want to sing at Royal Albert Hall, Kamani Auditorium, or Siri Fort Auditorium. They never aspired to that. So, I also thought, why do I need to? If people are interested, and if the work is good enough, people will come and see it. But, I think, the system is different now, and people have to market. I don’t know how to traverse this world…. I am learning!


Showing my work helps my creative process, however, I wish there was more genuine arts-based criticism. People might praise you upfront, but some people might talk about it differently behind my back. I’ve never had someone come to me and say that they found my work to be rubbish. At most, they might say that they like one kind of work better than the other. If there is absolutely no negative critique, how is that going to help me? There is no (or really little) room for art criticism. A lot of digital spaces are free, so people can blog and write their criticism, however, I have not seen anything of that kind yet. Even with my exhibitions, journalists just ask me to send the press note, and they write from there. There are people who come to me and talk about my approach, and what I should do next, or how I should go further, or not do certain things. Some people come to me and tell me that I should’ve made my photographs smaller, shown less or shown more. Some criticism does happen, but not so often.


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


There are definitely more forums, more avenues and more platforms for photographers abroad than in India and perhaps, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In India, one has to look for those opportunities, if one wants to showcase their work, whether at photo festivals, or residencies, or biennials, etc. Moreover, existing avenues in India are also limited in some ways. Here, people tend to categorize artworks. There is a slot for each practicing artist. Once you’ve been positioned in a particular place, spaces are limited for you. The entire art world is – I don’t like to use this word, but I will – a game. It’s a game of curators, galleries, festivals, and art houses. The question is: Do you fit in this game plan? Do you fit in this chessboard? If you do, then it works for you, otherwise you have to find some other place. Or, you are a kind of an aberration, and I find myself somewhere there.


I’m not a regular and I don’t fit in here. I remember I went for a scholarship award interview once, and they asked me to go out after the interview, and come back in 10 minutes. I went out and drank water, came back, and when I did, they told me I got the Fellowship. I knew a couple of people inside. One of them asked me later: “Do you know what happened?” I replied, “No, I don’t, tell me.” Now that I’d gotten in, they could tell me about the discussion that took place at my interview. They said that they were all arguing inside. One person argued that he’s a filmmaker, another person argued that he is a graphic designer, and another said he’s a photographer. This created a slight delay in the decision, but they eventually took me in. You see, when you’re doing multiple works, then you don’t fit in this singular category. People want labels, they want to be able to say, “Oh, this man does work on gender, in watercolor!”


As far as opportunities and practice are concerned, photography wasn’t respected in the art world earlier. The art world respected classic art forms like oil painting or sculpture. Though it was based on a western notion, still somehow, photography remained a fairly popular art form in India. There are various reasons for this; one of them is that those who did not go to fine art colleges practiced it. The outside world was perhaps more experimental and inclusive of other arts. I think they looked at it from a different perspective. I think photography, as such, though it came to India much earlier as a technology, came at a time when there was a preconceived notion of art. Take for instance, artwork in churches or manuscripts that had a certain kind of purpose – photography didn’t fit that purpose.


Things are changing in India, however. Art practices are coming together. A painter was earlier just a painter. Nowadays, painters make installations using videos and photography in their work. It is not the case that you photograph only if you study photography. So, the lines are blurred. Which would help, I suppose. However, there is a long way to go. People who have come from a traditional education or learning of photography, even by way of apprenticeship, would find it hard to cope up with an artistic understanding of photography because they have certain notions of photography with which they grew up. One has to make them understand that a blurred photo can also be exhibited, because it has a certain idea or concept behind it.


17. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Are South Asian photographers finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


The Western hegemony is clearly present, and there is a colonial carryover in India. Thus, we tend to look at the West for inspiration, and I suppose India also struggles, especially in cultural spaces, for resources and patronage.


Only the Western World had patronage. Take for instance, the publishing industry. Publishing a book was not possible in India. It took years for people in India to struggle, and when one book was published in an author’s lifetime, they were happy. This is why you don’t see many photographers’ books in India. Think about it: How many photographers’ books do you see here? Very few. Despite the fact that photography came to India when it came in Europe, yet you won’t find books on photographers. How many books are there on Kishore Parekh or Pranlal Patel or Jagan Mehta?


This is the case with artists, as well. Around the 1980s to the 2000s, when there was an art boom, a lot of art was sold and some artist’s books came about. But, if you look at the pre-1980s, Hussain would have published maybe three books then. Whereas, with Picasso, I’m sure there’d be at least a hundred books or more. The same with Bresson; there’ll be lot of books. Why is that?


So, of course the Western influences are always present; this is why India has to find its own voice or idiom in photography as such.


18. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


I think I should have been told, or should have realized, that one doesn’t earn a lot of money from photography, unless it is commercial photography, like for food, weddings, travel, fashion, or products. It is like a studio you run for advertising agencies – then perhaps you can make money, but otherwise it is really hard. This is similar to the 1950s, post-independence period, the artists who came out of the art schools couldn’t earn a living just through their art. There were only a very limited number of artists. Even M.F. Husain had to paint cinema hoardings, or K.G. Subramanyam, Arpita Singh, Haku Shah, all were working in weaver service centers. They would work on their art, but they would have some basic earnings coming from reliable sources every month to raise their families and support themselves. The same situation even happens today in photography. If I were told this from the beginning, that this is how things would pan out, then I would have planned differently. I learnt on the way that I needed to find other sources of finance. I therefore write my own projects and look for funding.


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


My work is not collected as such because, as I said earlier, I didn’t show much. I mostly worked on projects. My funding came from commissioned projects. Some of my work, at least till recent years, was considered solely in the area of social-issues and impact. Like, projects on mill workers or environmental-based work were not necessarily part of a large art practice, in India. It was considered to be documentary photography, even if I presented the photography in a different manner and not necessarily in a storytelling format (frames put one after another). My projects were not looked at as photo art, either. So, this whole buyer situation does not arise in my case.


For others, I guess, this function is part of the art-game or business. You either have to be friendly with individual collectors or showcase things in curatorial galleries. Again, however, there aren’t galleries solely dedicated to photography. Even if there were, they would only promote works that get sold, because galleries are commercial outlets and also need to run, so they would be happier with the people who sell, than those who only show. In any case, however, I do not think there are more than five galleries in India, which only deal with photography. Perhaps, I’m overstating, there might only be two or three. Other art galleries, when they showcase photo work, they don’t earn as much money as on oil painting because the photograph, by its nature, can be duplicated, reproduced again, and sold in edition. And so, largely speaking, I feel photographers are at the bad end of this buying and selling business.


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


Well, I don’t only do photography, so this question doesn’t arise for me. I do a lot of other things. Though my passion is photography. I think the way photographers think – even when I’m designing a poster. But it works vice-versa also; say, for instance, while taking a picture of a water tap, I might be thinking that it could make a lovely poster. So, sometimes I think like a graphic designer while taking a picture. I could also, perhaps, take eight pictures of the same thing in a different way, thinking like a filmmaker. One should keep in mind that there is always time that has passed and time that is coming after the click of the picture, and that moment of the frozen picture is just edited out of the continuous time flow. Many times, I want to know what happens beyond a frame. After all, a cameraperson might edit out certain things and keep certain things, so my interest because of graphic design and filmmaking breeds my interest in photography. I’m already doing various things, not just photography. And, I guess, other photographers are doing more and more as well.



Copyright © 2021, PhotoSouthAsia. All Rights Reserved.

Copyright © Parthiv Shah

Date Published

20 November