1:1 with Rajesh Vora

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


In the early days, while studying at National Institute of Design (NID) from 1973 to 1979, Camera (magazine), edited by Allan Porter, was my biggest influence and introduction to photography. Not knowing anything about photography, innocently flipping through the pages, it was the power of those images that attracted me.


2. Did you study photography formally in a college or university? What was your experience?


I studied photography as a part of the Visual Communication program at NID. Photography being one of the media of communication, I was introduced to basic techniques and skills through short courses, and also learnt darkroom skills. All of these, often combined with other visual communication skills were useful in developing my personal photography projects.


3. Do you think it is important to receive formal training in photography? Why?


Yes, formal training is definitely useful. With a comprehensive training program, along with a teacher / guide, it gives the right direction and focus to the individual’s passion. Also, it helps to learn from fellow students and evaluate work with a larger perspective.


Further, today, it’s no longer as much about the (photography) theme and it’s ownership, but more about how a student re-contextualizes new meaning and form.


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


A two or three-year degree or master’s degree program in photography would be open to graduate students from various disciplines. It would be a combination of various photography short courses, interspersed with workshops on aesthetics, art, creative writing, critical thinking, design, history of photography – from past, present, and future. The final requirement would be a 4-to-6-month project under a mentor.


I think that photography today, as a medium, has many possible interpretations and combining it with other disciplines makes the outcome much richer and more meaningful.


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


Over the last four decades, there have been many influences as I practiced photography. It was the book A Seventh Man by Jon Berger and Jean Mohr that inspired me in my early days of photography, when I did a photo documentation of a migrant community as a part of my final year photography project. The influence continued as I pursued my career and sincerely tried to bring about change in the world through my pictures. Later, Sebastiao Salgado’s work left a great impression and I was lucky to assist him in Mumbai when he was doing his book Migrations. As my interest moved towards cultural documentation, it was Indologist, Gunther Sontheimer’s writings that touched me. When I was working for COLORS magazine for many years, it was the magazine’s philosophy of looking at the world in all its diversity that played a major role in my work as a photographer. I strongly believe in influences as they help push my work forward to a new level.


Today, as I mainly practice architecture photography, I see all the above influences surfacing in my work. Though in many hidden layers, that’s what I enjoy about it.


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


Working on a photo story for the second to last issue of COLORS magazine on Migration, I was traveling in Punjab when I was drawn to the subject matter. Though it came by chance, with my current work I feel I have come full circle from my early student days. I was always curious as to why people migrate and how they manage to adjust culturally, socially in a foreign environment. I would say that it was my fascination over decades that drew me closer to the subject. Later, with added research, field trips, the culmination was a celebration of my beliefs in photography and ideology over the years. Subject matter still interests me and I am pursuing more visual stories as I continue working with my old found love.


7. In the last 5-6 years, there has been a shift from your earlier documentary practice to architectural work. Please tell us about your interest in architectural photography and this shift.


I think there was a hint of architectural photography within me from my early student days, when I used to enjoy taking photographs of still lives, play of light and shade, textures and shades, empty spaces etc. This fascination was underplayed when I started doing documentary photography.


While working with COLORS magazine’s documentary style of photography, creating visual narratives was a slow, observant approach. I started to like this style and could see a similarity with this newfound style when I started practicing architectural photography. I realized that built spaces have their own narratives, which come alive with the play of light, geometry, and materials. Also, every responsibly built space has its own stories to be told, often reflecting on the period’s socio-economic, environmental, cultural, and political situations. This further drew me towards the photography of architecture, as with it I found a few similarities to my earlier documentary photography.


8. 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?


As I was comfortable with the analog workflow, initially I resisted shifting to digital technology. But, as it became difficult to procure analog materials and when the industry also started demanding digital files, I shifted to digital technology in 2006. Because of my sound knowledge of analog photography, for many years it was a smooth transition. I could have the same control over the digital technology and, as time passed, I started enjoying the image-making process with the new medium. But even if I had to go back to analog photography, I would be equally comfortable. In the end it is the image that matters.


I think nobody would have imagined the way digital technology has advanced and when it happens at such a pace, lots of good comes with the bad and it is up to the creative individual to draw limits and make choices. With the vary nature of digital technology, everything happens too quickly, often not granting time to introspect and that is when an individual’s integrity and respect for the medium of photography counts. I am only concerned that with such advancement, purity of the medium will be at high risk.


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


I don’t have the luxury of focusing on a project one at a time. It comes between commercial assignments when I have enough funds to travel, research, and document. Even working on a single project is difficult at times and that spare time is divided between projects, as one does not know how and when which project will take shape first.


10. 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 believe that if there is certain sincerity and clarity while working on a body of work, you are the best judge to measure its success. Of course, sharing the work with colleagues or others will reconfirm your beliefs and make the body of work stronger. Finally, it is your work and you have to own it and stand by it.


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


Yes, it happens to most of us quite often. While photographing the houses with embellishments for my Everyday Baroque project, I was looking for a style to document the monuments, but could not come to a conclusion. There were factors like accessibility, permissions, physical limitation, light quality, and time factor that came in the way to develop a style. At such moments, I have realized that the answer lies in going with my strengths, shooting more, and letting instinct take over. Later, while editing these images and sitting with them over a period of time, inherently a style emerged. Continuing with this for the rest of the project seems to have done the trick.


12. 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?


Well, it is important to show your work as, most of the time, a body of work is created to be shared and interpreted by viewers. I respect valid criticism and it does help me with my creative curve.


13. 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?


Compared to few years back in India, besides the conventional galleries and print media, there are more opportunities to show your work at photo festivals, and such also is the case with advancement in the digital space. However, what is missing is the healthy criticism about the work. With the same argument, there are better opportunities abroad with dedicated platforms for your work to be largely seen and critiqued.


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


Yes, I think it was true for many years and one could also say that, at times, photographers fell into that trap to create images for the Western audience and their standards. However, what is encouraging in India today is that photography is practiced by hundreds of young photographers, not necessarily from a certain class or society. These young photographers are neither afraid nor intimidated while working with the medium to create images or narratives they strongly believe in. Also, there is a new trend toward photographers collaborating with other artists and altering the whole perspective of the medium.


We are yet to find What is Indian Photography, if there is something like that. And if it is there, we will see it in the next few years. Or photography in India will remain as a universal language, which itself is changing when today “everyone is a photographer.”


15. 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?


Believe in yourself, but remain open to criticism.


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


PHOTOINK Gallery, in New Delhi, represents my work and would be the place for an interested collector or researcher to approach.


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


I had a choice of joining a design school or an architecture school. I chose design, and photography became my career. But today, when I think back, if I had not pursued photography, I would have loved to become a social activist.



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Copyright © Rajesh Vora

Date Published

20 November

Brief Biography