Being acutely observant and taking an alternative view of the “reality” presented by the media is an inherent part of Bangalore, India based photographer Mahesh Shantaram’s work.
Mahesh studied computer electronics and went “on to offset the error with a diploma in photography from Paris”, as he jokingly mentions on his website. After his photography course, he moved back to Bangalore in 2006 and started off his career as a wedding photographer. While shooting many weddings in different parts of the country over six years, he developed an interesting personal project titled ‘Matrimania’ which looked into various unusual facets and socio-economic implications of a wedding in India. He followed this with a political project ‘Last Days of Manmohan’. His most recent project ‘The African Portraits’ about racism in India has been highly acclaimed.
We had an in-depth conversation with Mahesh about his life and his personal projects over Skype while he was at a residency in Brussels, Belgium.
Could you tell us a bit about your childhood?
I moved to Kuwait in 1977 as an infant, and was there till 1990. We were forced to move at that time due to the First Gulf War. Since we had nowhere else to go, we moved to Bangalore, India. And that’s how my life in India started. Bangalore was our notional home till that time. 1990 to 2000 were the years I did my schooling and college in Bangalore, which made them the most essential years of life and Bangalore my actual home.
What were some of your early creative influences?
My father always had a camera. So whenever he was in his office (in Kuwait), I would go to his closet and read up the camera manual. I would be completely fascinated by how if you do a particular thing, the picture turns out in a particular way. Through the 90s, I always had a camera with me. I wasn’t particularly inclined towards photography at that time, but I was simply shooting. Also, I was always using the camera the way my father taught me to. I would take photos of people, but demanded that they stand, pose, and smile for the camera.
When did you decide to take up photography as a profession?
In 1998-1999, I finished my graduation in Computer Electronics and worked in Bangalore for a year. I then worked in Mumbai for about three and half years, and eventually freelanced for a year. I wanted to become a travel writer, but I often ended up traveling more than writing so that didn’t work out. After that, I got a job in Washington DC for two years, and that was the time I realized I would never be in a desk job ever again in my life.
Also, in DC I had access to a lot of photo galleries and museums. I saw so many brilliant photographers’ work there, like Henri Cartier-Bresson. I also traveled a lot during that time to places like Jordan and Yemen, and would come back with hundreds of pictures which I would share with my friends. Those were the fetal years, and I was born as a photographer when I went to Paris.
How was your experience in Paris?
I spent one year in Paris for my photography course, between 2005 and 2006. That was a very illuminating time for me. I had so much access to photography. There was so much inspiration I got there which shaped me a lot. I developed an appreciation for what photography could be.
You started off as a wedding photographer when you came back to India. What triggered that?
I returned to India in June 2006, and for four months, I had no work at all. That forced me reevaluate whether I made the right choice. During this time, my wife and I stumbled upon someone’s old wedding album and it was the most horrible thing we had ever seen. I instantly made a connection there and figured that I could either complain or do something about it. That very week, it was my wife’s cousin’s second wedding. And since it was a second wedding, the family didn’t want to hire a photographer so they asked me to take pictures.
Eventually I made a selection of some 20 pictures, put those up on my portfolio, and shared them on Facebook. A girl from the US, who was coming to Bangalore to get married, found them and contacted me. And that’s how my wedding photography career started in 2007. It became a huge hit as nobody was shooting weddings in a photojournalistic format at that time.
Could you tell us about Matrimania, which was an extension of your wedding photography projects?
That is a six years long project, and was done at a time when I was only a wedding photographer. While shooting those weddings, I needed to innovate. Unlike other wedding photographers, I never took this position that I am doing this to serve the client. That seemed a bit vulgar to me. I was shooting simply to make good pictures, and therefore I would shoot everything at the wedding – bride, groom, décor, relatives, cooks, scenes when all the stuff is pulled down, etc. Therefore, while making the edit, there were always some pictures that would only make sense to me, and over time, those pictures became Matrimania.
You exhibited Matrimania at a lot of places. What were some of the interesting reactions you got from people?
For all of my work, the reactions are not only to the work. They also come from the biases that people might have. I am showing you legitimate beautiful images, and how you react is where you are coming from. With Matrimania, for example, your reaction would depend on whether you are an Indian or not. There were some Europeans for whom the colors in the images would evoke memories of some old trips they took to India. Most people outside India found the photographs beautiful. Many Indian people, on the other hand, felt that I am showing the worst side of India.
Unlike other wedding photographers, I never took this position that I am doing this to serve the client. That seemed a little bit vulgar to me. I was shooting simply to make good pictures, and therefore I would shoot everything at the wedding – bride, groom, décor, relatives, cooks, scenes when all the stuff is pulled down, etc.
Your second personal project ‘Last days of Manmohan’ was about Indian politics. Tell us the story behind that.
By 2013, my wedding career was flagging and I was beginning to look for what else I could do. At the same time, I was getting consumed by all the news around me which was all about politics – Narendra Modi (the current Prime Minister of India) standing for elections against Manmohan Singh (then Prime Minister).
Eventually, when things were really heating up in March 2014, I found myself in Trivandrum for a wedding. On the day of the wedding, I got a call from a friend asking me to come to politician Shashi Tharoor’s house to take photos. When I reached there, Shashi Tharoor and a few senior MLAs were on my left and a lot of journalists on my right. As is my habit from the wedding world, I never stand where the other photographers are. So right in front of me, I see these MLAs who, because they think they are not on camera, are relaxed. And that was the very first picture for the Manhmohan project.
At that moment, I knew weddings were over for me and I was onto something else. I traveled for two months, living out of a suitcase and trailing politicians I thought were interesting. Sometime, I shot politicians I had met at weddings or whose families I had shot some weddings for, so the access was easier. It was the most intense experience of my life. I used to often lie that I am from some magazine and I would even make up names of new magazines, like once I combined New York + TIME to create a new magazine (laughs).
Did you ever get into trouble?
No. A politician is a very powerful person, except for the election times when he is the most vulnerable person around.
You latest series ‘The African Portraits’ has been a very important project in the current context. Could you tell us about its beginning and evolution?
I was deeply disturbed when the Bangalore incident happened. I read everything I could and I knew I had to be a part of it somehow. I wanted to know how the girl was doing and where was she now. I never got answers to those questions as I have not met her till now. This project will end the day I meet her, I think.
Anyways, so I finally decided to head to this area of Bangalore where all this was happening. It was a distant area nobody had even heard of till then. I met people who claimed to know her, and that’s how the project started.
It became much larger than just a photography project. How do you feel about that?
I feel good that I have helped in some way to keep the issue alive. But I don’t think like a photographer when it comes to such projects. I get completely involved with my subjects, many of whom I have visited repeatedly. They are a part of my life. Being involved gave me a more sincere look into the lives of Africans in India.
When I did the project, the media picked it up like blind mice as it was something for them to latch on to. I know there are many other creative professionals doing work around this, but probably their work is not as accessible.
Most of your personal projects are long term. Do you choose that consciously?
I never choose it, it chooses me. The idea of doing a project comes from something that deeply moves me and I choose to react in a certain way. When the Racism project started, there was a groundswell of support for the Tanzanian woman. I had been traveling to Africa before that and I know that people there are really nice. They often come to India to study and suffer from all this. I just needed this trigger to start working, not knowing that this is a project. When I took my bike to that area in Bangalore, I didn’t know it would take one and a half years of my life. I pretty much did nothing else in that time, apart from a few odd assignments to earn money.
I didn’t know how many years Matrimania would last. Manmohan was slightly conscious, as I got into it as a project, but I still don’t know for how long I will continue to work on it. So basically, I feel a project needs to be long term if you have to go deep. Time gives me more willpower to understand and engage with the subject.
How do you deal with breaks from commercial work?
Now it’s not tough as I am financially equipped. One job usually gives me enough to tide over three months. It was tough when I was a young photographer. Also, I don’t work for the Indian media as they have an unrealistic view of the remuneration that photographers deserve. My work exclusively goes into international publications. And that way, I just need to shoot a handful of assignments in a year. Moreover, I don’t have many requirements as I lead a simple life. I have no house loans and no cars to maintain. My expenses are mainly for my own projects. So I am truly independent.
I get completely involved with my subjects, many of whom I have visited repeatedly. They are a part of my life. Being involved gave me a more sincere look into the lives of Africans in India.
As a photographer, do you consciously want to bring about some kind of change in the society with your work?
I don’t think about the impact when I start a project. It’s only about what I am feeling at that point. ‘Last days of Manmohan’ comes out of some anger and urgency. The African Portraits project also comes out of anger, urgency and lack of knowledge. The projects invariably become a way for me to get answers.
The media had lost so much credibility during the Manmohan project. I didn’t read a single piece of news at that time that I actually gave me any knowledge or perspective. So I became the photographer who was anti-media. I said that ‘I am going to do the job that you guys are not doing’.
You see, this is an interesting space to be. There is an artist on one end of the spectrum and a journalist on the other. The artist is hardly subjective – its art for art’s sake – and the journalist is supposedly objective. But there is so much space in between and I wanted to take that space.
How does travel impact your life?
I am traveling all the time. I believe that I can’t get a complete worldview from where I am. My life in Bangalore is limited to my home and whatever I am reading on my laptop. But when I am travelling, I am with different people – people who are not only culturally different but people of varied age groups as well. I think my love of talking to different people comes from the weddings. I miss doing weddings just for being able to go to different places, eat different kinds of food, hear varied stories and languages, etc.
I feel that the whole world is in India and yet the whole world is different from India.
Who are the photographers you really admire?
I have always been partial towards Magnum. They have always been there to document history as it happened. One of the ideas behind Magnum is that every photographer is an individual who brings in a unique point of view. From that sense, photographers I really admire include Martin Parr. He would go into a situation and bring out the most unique point of view from there. He might not even talk about that particular event but bring out something very specific from it. My project Matrimania really comes from that space too.
Another photographer I like is Alec Soth. One can ask futile questions like ‘what is he talking about?’. The fact is that he is not talking about anything. You have to read his work like a poetry book. I especially like his environmental portraits, where the landscape is becoming the people and the people are becoming the landscape. Inspired by him, I had always wanted to work on a portrait project which I did with ‘The African Portraits’.
One photographer who influenced me in my early years is the Swedish photographer Anders Peterson. He has put a lot of philosophy into my head like how people are most beautiful when they are vulnerable and as a photographer, you have to engineer that vulnerability.
Another Magnum photographer Mark Power has been a mentor.
There is an artist on one end of the spectrum and a journalist on the other. The artist is hardly subjective – its art for art’s sake – and the journalist is supposedly objective. But there is so much space in between and I wanted to take that space.
What would be your advice to aspiring photographers?
I think it’s very important for emerging/young/aspiring photographers to choose their first project very carefully. There is always a relationship between your first and last project, and you can see that in many successful photographers’ work. So the scary part is that your first project really defines the rest of your life. The good news is that you can let the first one find you. And projects always find you, you just have to keep your senses open and alert.
Also, I often see young photographers working on things that in no way concern them, like now we have many young photojournalists shooting in brothels just because it’s exciting. They have to ask themselves why they are doing a particular project.
Technology has had such a huge influence on photography – in both positive and negative ways. What’s your take on the current relationship between technology and photography?
This is always a concern. Technology has sped up everything, and now I am artificially looking for ways to slow things down. I come from the wedding world where I used to fire about 2000 shots a day. But in ‘The African Portraits’ project, it was a conscious decision to slow things down. So while I was still working with a digital camera, I would take my tripod everywhere which slowed things down tremendously. Also, I shot the entire series at night. It was all so slow, moving like molasses. That was my way of dealing with the fastness of the world of technology.
Do you feel creatively satisfied at this point in your life or is there some restlessness?
There is always restlessness. I don’t know when I am embarking on something new, and whether it’s going to be a success or a failure. I don’t even care about that actually. When I get into something it’s because I really need to do it. So my next project is something I have been thinking about for years. I feel that Indian women are visually represented in India from a very narrow point of view. I want to shake that up a bit.
I often see young photographers working on things that in no way concern them, like now we have many young photojournalists shooting in brothels just because it’s exciting. They have to ask themselves why they are doing a particular project.
You can read the rest of the issue four here.