Adil Hasan is an Indian photographer. While working on various commercial projects for magazines like Vogue, GQ and Motherland, he has kept the stream of strong personal work consistently flowing.
Adil’s personal work includes a short series, ‘The TV’, based on television and its role in our lives today. He has also produced extensive work on Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) which he shot sporadically for over two years. His book ‘When Abba was ill’ was published by Nazar Foundation in 2014. The book, which is about the time when Adil’s late father was quite unwell, has been widely appreciated. Adil studied Economics in Mumbai, and then went on to pursue a photography course at Unitec in New Zealand. He is now based in New Delhi, India.
I met Adil at Cafe Turtle in New Delhi, and had a long conversation with him about his life and work over many cups of coffee.
Tell me something about your growing up days in Jamshedpur.
Jamshedpur is a private town. It’s like a small island in itself. The most interesting thing about Jamshedpur is that the crowd is really educated. The Tatas brought in labor from different places, so one can get exposed to all kinds of culture there.
In my own family, my father’s side is fairly academic. They are heavy readers of literature, history and poetry. They gobble it all up. While my brother and I don’t have the same enthusiasm for anything in particular as my father did, we are very varied in terms of our reading. It ranges from classics to science fiction to graphic novels to history books. Even though I miss not having been able to pursue say Urdu poetry passionately like my father did or his brother did, literature did help me understand the history of evolution of art. Because otherwise we had no exposure to visual arts in Jamshedpur. Our education system has no arts or visual communications related curriculum, and that’s so important today. When I studied photography abroad, I realized that my classmates had been studying photography since they were in the eighth standard or so.
Through being exposed to literature though, I got a good sense of studying a particular writer. If you pursue the events that led a particular writer to produce different bodies of work, then you get to see how he has evolved. This helped me understand how visual arts work too, which is exactly in the same way in terms of how the work evolves, how it jumps from one thing to another and how it can all come together at the end of the day. I got to learn that from literature.
What kind of books do you read now?
I read a lot of fiction. Also, recently I have discovered some really good science fiction. Usually, when it comes to sci-fi, there is a sea of crap out there. I am also mesmerized by reading up on relativity. I am quite interested in the concept of time. I can’t see if there is any direct influence of this on my photography, but it does make me try and see things slightly more philosophically. Photography, of course, has a lot to do with time.
I also read a lot of children’s fiction, something that helps me see things in a different way – with a fantastical and storytelling approach. Also, reading all these different books – be it classical literature, fantasy or romantic literature – helps me slow down, and that indirectly influences my work. I am not a photojournalist. In fact, I cannot be a photojournalist. I am not that good a street photographer. I am slow with my approach.
What triggered your interest in photography in the first place?
Actually, I had always been interested in cinematography. My cousins are filmmakers, so I had access to a whole bunch of cinematographers and I knew about it from other sources as well. However, quite early on I realized that photography is a deep dark well, and that’s not the case with cinematography.
While there is a whole bunch of cinematographers whose work I really love, I know that it’s not really their vision at the end of the day. They are there to enhance the directors’ view. They are, and I hate to use the term, technicians, artistic technicians. Photography, on the other hand, affords you this vision. It’s your story, at least in your personal projects.
Also, when I studied photography, I realized the bubble I was in even in terms of photography. Studying abroad exposed me to Indian photography. And that’s a huge problem in India I think. We don’t have any institutional education for photography. It’s an extremely unorganized sector. There is no movement. Everyone is doing their own haphazard thing which is both good and bad. It gives you much more individualistic work, but at the same time you also need some direction and exposure. This is where Delhi Photo Festival helps. Even having their catalog in your house can help so much!
Also, reading all these different books – be it classical literature, fantasy or romantic literature -helps me slow down, and that indirectly influences my work. I am not a photojournalist. In fact, I can’t be a photojournalist. I am not that good a street photographer. I am slow with my approach.
How was your experience of studying and living in New Zealand?
Going to New Zealand was not a very informed decision, and it could have been a complete disaster. But it definitely was not. The country is extremely well versed in art. In fact, visual arts and communications streams like architecture, photography, animation and graphic design are surprisingly doing very well there.
What I needed at that time was to pursue photography technically, not necessarily theoretically. However, I was lucky that I ended up in a course which made me learn both aspects. Because usually you get either a very practical course or a theoretical course, and that can shape where you go, which is not a good thing. Initially, you want to be able to shape yourself. It’s difficult to unlearn what you have learnt. Therefore, you need a liberal course, which is exactly what this course was.
Also, there is a way of life you experience in New Zealand. The pace at which the country moves, the landscape, the people who are shaped by the landscape to some extent, the weather – it is all just something else. Two and a half years in New Zealand kind of makes you slow down, and look at things with some perspective. Art world, as you must have already experienced, is completely chaotic. Once you are here, you realize you need to do so many things. You need to keep your website updated; your social media pages going; your commercial work going in a particular way, and so on and so forth. But when I got back from there, I felt really calm. Also, it opened up the whole planet of photography for me. It made me realize that there are so many people working in so many different countries, doing such path-breaking work in all kinds of directions, and that you can basically do whatever the hell you want.
Studying abroad exposed me to Indian photography. And that’s a huge problem in India. We don’t have any institutional education for photography. It’s an extremely unorganized sector. There is no movement.
In New Zealand, you also did this project called ‘Auckland- The Urban Project’ in 2009-2010. Can you tell me a bit about that?
It is really interesting that you bring that up. This work set me off on a particular course. It was a game changer for me. For this, I did a lot of research in terms of the visual language and style. I learnt about what portraits are, what they mean, and who are the guys doing portraiture today in India and abroad.
In Auckland, there is this area called the Central Business District (CBD) in the middle of the city, largely inhabited by migrant laborers, college students, etc. For a few months, I started following some people into their apartment blocks. Then I would knock at their doors and ask them if I could click their photographs inside their houses. It was basically a study of people living in these places. It’s not the architecture that’s really changing, but at the same time you realize how different every tiny little place is. I wanted to see how a person is shaped by the place he lives in, and how a place is shaped by the person who inhabits it.
And while I was doing this there, I realized what great potential this kind of work has in India and I started thinking about Aligarh.
So that’s when the Aligarh Muslim University project started?
Yes. I have been going to Aligarh ever since I was a kid because my uncle and aunt are professors there. However, I always stayed away from Aligarh Muslim University. Even though I had the opportunity to go there, I wasn’t really interested, or I was indifferent. And as an Indian Muslim, I also had a certain insecurity. While I lost the insecurity long time back, I hadn’t had the opportunity to interact with Aligarh. And I thought this was a great way to do it.
So the moment I came back, I found myself in Aligarh where I spent about 2-2.5 years on and off. At the same time, I was meeting the Indian photographers I got to know while I was in New Zealand. I was showing them my work, getting their feedback and looking at what they had done. So in a way, for the Auckland project, my language was influenced by my school, but Aligarh was one step ahead of it.
I wanted to see how a person is shaped by the place he lives in and how a place is shaped by a person who inhabits it.
Is Aligarh project something you would like to go back to?
I have to go back. It’s an incomplete story. It will take me some time to understand what that place is really like. Aligarh is a universe. There are about 30,000 students. How do you do justice to that? Typology is also problematic there because it starts putting people into groups, and that doesn’t work in the long run. The individuality of people is what makes the space what it is. I just need to spend more time there to see how I can do justice to that. Also, I have a whole bunch of material from there that I still need to look at and edit, and then figure out how much I have missed out on.
AMU- Aligarh Muslim University
Now let’s talk about the book ‘When Abba was ill’ which is perhaps your most personal project so far.
The editor of this book, Sanjeev Saith, is a photographer, mountaineer and a publisher. He is somebody that I have been showing my work to for quite a while now. He was the first person to see these photographs. He saw a book in it, and offered to edit it. Soon after, Prashant (Panjiar of Nazar Foundation) came in. I then asked for permission from my brother, Insha (sister-in-law) and my mother. They all told me to go for it. However, a couple of months into the editing process, I decided not to do it.
I was just about to ask you if there was ever a moment when you had any apprehensions about the project.
Yes. See, the photographing was done completely subconsciously. I needed something to do while I was at the hospital, or later when there would be nobody at home, so I would just drive around the city with my camera. However, I knew that the bookmaking now (after my father has passed away) would be a fairly conscious step. The photography was not a project, but creating the book would be a project. Is there any potential that the work might become exploitative? That thought came even before I could ask myself whether I wanted to splash my heart out there.
My family didn’t feel that, and some people that I specifically asked that question to didn’t feel that either. But I went back to Sanjeev with this thought and we decided to think about it for a bit. Because of this apprehension and halting of the editing process though, we came up with another idea – of introducing gatefolds in the book.
So if you go through the book without looking at the gatefolds, you don’t see my father. There are two stories running parallel to each other. Without the gatefolds, it’s about my world when Abba was ill, and when you open the gatefolds, it’s about Abba when he was ill. It’s a symbolic gesture, and the sensitivity of this symbol made me go back to the book.
Is there any potential that the work might become exploitative? That thought came even before I could ask myself whether I wanted to splash my heart out there.
How do you balance between commercial and personal work?
It’s quite easy actually. Also, I have been quite lucky as early on in my career I was put in touch with the (now ex) photo editor at Vogue India (Iona Fergusson) by a friend of mine. She helped me out tremendously. She is the only editor I have ever met in India from a commercial space who is inherently interested in photography for photography’s sake. She gave me work based on my personal work, and asked me to do whatever I wanted. That helped me create a portfolio of my commercial work which I could go to others with for that kind of work.
Also, I love the fact that the commercial work that I now get is something in which my style of personal work is also reflected. If you see my website for example, my commercial work is deep inside. A visitor will first get to see my personal work, and once they have seen both, they can see the similarity between them.
I think photographers can blur the boundaries between commercial and personal work. Some of the finest photographers I know are commercial photographers – Bharat Sikka and the late Prabuddha Dasgupta, for example. There are many of my contemporaries who are doing that now. They want to make commercial work that they are proud of. Technology has overtaken us and it will keep changing, but the content, subject matter and personal way of seeing things will always remain important.
There are two stories running parallel to each other. Without the gatefolds, it’s about my world when Abba was ill, and when you open the gatefolds, it’s about Abba when he was ill.
What are you currently working on?
I have been shooting Jamshedpur on my phone for the last one year or so. I have a very bad phone – a battered Nokia, and I can’t change it now because there is a certain aesthetic that I have started with. At the same time, I have a smaller camera that gives me the same format and feels as non-intrusive as a cellphone.
I didn’t really know what this work was till a few months back when I applied for a Masterclass with photographers Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling, who run a gallery space called Fish Bar in London. So we had a very intensive three-day bookmaking workshop which actually helped me figure this work out.
So is there a new book in the making?
I don’t want to make a book on this primarily because it’s something I can continue to do for the next five years. You know as kids we try so hard to not see the world from the same perspective as our parents. However, to some extent, my father passing away has made me more interested in my mother’s world now. So this project is a great excuse for me to keep going back to my mother, and spend time in Jamshedpur. See Jamshedpur from her perspective. And my doing so with photography helps me do it much more organically. So this is something I can pursue without any agenda. Keep shooting and then think about what I want to do with it. With this, I am also working on my technique. It’s fun and organic.
AMU- Aligarh Muslim University
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
Unlike 15 years ago, when if I wanted to know about photography, I would have to go to a photo school or be with a clique of photographers who could expose me to what’s happening internationally. Well, that’s no longer the case. Today, it can easily be self-initiated. There are so many resources at our disposal, like American Suburb X for example, an absolute archive of photography from all kinds of places in the world. So the technical know-how has become far more democratic now. Everyone has a camera. You can make stunning images with your phone. And there is no dearth of platforms where you can publish your work. Then there is Instagram which is kind of different from other social media, especially for people who actually pursue photography. It is a force to be reckoned with. I don’t understand it very well right now, but it’s imperative that I do.
So coming back to your question, I don’t know what advice to give to aspiring photographers. The space is constantly shifting right now. There are people who think that studying photography in an art school is now redundant, and then there are people who feel that institutionalization is necessary. Personally, I would go for the latter. But I would add that one must keep a broader perspective on photography. It is important to have other interests, and explore their relationship with photography. Like how music and photography can come together, for example. So a liberal arts program might help more than just a photography program.
People who are going to take a beating – and I hope it’s not an obnoxious way to say it – are the people who aren’t moving away from photography to explore other realms. That’s where the future probably is. It is important to understand different mediums. It’s crazy right now, as your end viewer is almost everybody in some way or the other.
AMU- Aligarh Muslim University
Technology has overtaken us and it will keep changing, but the content, subject matter and personal way of seeing things will always remain important.
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Adil Hasan’s photograph has been provided by him. ©
The other images are photographs by Adil Hasan. ©