Interview with an Artist
Avinash Roy is a documentary filmmaker based in Mumbai and working under his banner Wanderlust Films. The focus area of his work has been development communication and his films have mainly dealt with marginalized communities and people living on the peripheries of society. He has made films for organisations including UNESCO and his films have been screened at multiple international film festivals. His latest film ‘Amoli’ exploring the issue of commercial sexual exploitation of children in India has won India's prestigious National Film Award. As a visual artist, his love for documenting reality through film also extends to street photography and he is the founder - curator of The Street Photography Hub on Instagram. www.wanderlustfilms.in
© Avinash Roy
What inspired you to set up an instagram account devoted to street photography?
Honestly speaking, to start a feature page on street photography was not something that I had really planned. It just happened. I was a late joiner on IG and was just trying to explore the work of other photographers on the platform. In fact, street photography as a specific genre was also not something that I had in my mind. But I guess, being a documentary filmmaker I naturally gravitated towards the genre. The sad truth about social media is that everything is just dictated by likes and followings and possibly that’s the reason why several artists have chosen to leave the platform. My simple idea was to try and not get pressurized by these concerns. And I continue with that same principle; not to take it very seriously and just enjoy the creative process. Fortunately, even if social media is predominantly fickle, there are still a lot of people out there who appreciate art and so The Street Photography Hub continues to run on auto mode. Discovering the work of new artists and smaller, lesser known accounts is something that excites me and keeps me going. The page has acquired a life of its own and I have been fortunate to receive the love and support of so many artists and art lovers who help the community grow and reach out to an even larger audience.
When you choose the pictures for the.street.photography.hub are you looking for something particular? What elements and qualities do you feel make a great street photo?
Last I checked, there are more than 2 million posts under our hashtag. So, honestly it’s not a very fair process because it’s humanly not possible to go through each and every post, unless of course I take an early retirement from my regular profession! I have devoted some time in my daily schedule when I just browse through the posts and instinctively pick up the ones that catch my attention. It’s a purely instinctive process guided by my own sense of aesthetics and training in visual arts. If I have to analyze my selections, I would say in street photography, spontaneity ranks quite high. It is all about that one moment that the camera captures; everything is frozen in that one particular moment. Street photography is all about capturing that candid moment and the layers of emotions that are embedded in that single frame. Having said that, street photography to my understanding is quite a broad genre and there are photographers with varied styles and techniques. I make sure to give proper representation to all the different styles. Some photographers are masters of playing with light and shadows, while others capture emotions really well. Purists go all red in the face if the subject is posing for the camera and quickly proclaim that it’s not street photography. I however beg to differ as I have a broader definition of street photography in my mind. So, going beyond strict definitions, what really matters for me is the uniqueness of the moment that the photographer has managed to capture.
© Avinash Roy
© Avinash Roy
Your own work (via IG) also features a lot of portraits of people in a street setting – how do you pick a face out of a crowd?
Street photography for me is more of a meditative process. When I go out with a camera, the primary intention is not just to take photographs but to enjoy the walk and soak in the flavours of the street. Unlike filmmaking, which is a collaborative art form, photography is a solo pursuit and I enjoy the feeling of being on my own in the middle of a crowded street. It is also not my profession so there is no pressure of deadlines or evaluations. With a camera in my hand, there is nothing to compete against or to prove anything to anyone. It’s just a liberating feeling to watch the world go by and stroll at my own pace. There’s no planning and I just go with the flow and try to immerse myself in the environment. Over the years my personal sense of aesthetics has gradually changed and it’s an ongoing organic process. I believe that you don’t pick a subject, the subject picks you. There is a certain vibe that people and places have and as visual artists we are constantly trying to establish a connection. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t but the journey continues.
You have a huge catalogue of documentary film making – does your filmic sensibility influence your photographic sensibility?
Sensibility and aesthetics are obviously very important but what I would rather like to highlight here is the right attitude, which is most crucial when it comes to both documentary filmmaking and street photography. When you go out there in the field with a camera in hand, the one question that constantly plays on your mind is how are people going to react to you. Ask any novice photographer and his/her biggest fear is pointing the camera at a stranger. To avoid awkwardness many resort to using long lenses and shooting clandestinely. Working as a documentary filmmaker, especially making films on difficult personal issues, you realize that if you want to look within, you have to go closer and that too with an open heart and the right attitude. Street photographers are chroniclers of life on the street and not perverts trying to intrude into other people’s lives. If you have that conviction in place you will not lurk around the corner fidgeting with your camera but walk confidently and shoot. And in most cases, even if you inadvertently offend someone, a warm genuine smile always does the trick. So, my experience as a filmmaker has taught me to have an honest approach and always respect my subject’s right to privacy.
Which of your documentary film experiences stand out to you?
Documentary filmmaking gives you the opportunity to enter a new world every time that you start working on a new project. For the duration that you are making that film you become a part of that world and long after the film is over it continues to live somewhere inside you. We have had the privilege to work at the grassroots level with marginalized communities and people who live on the periphery of the society. Being out there in remote rural areas, interacting with people and getting to feel the pulse of the real nation always gets me excited and pumped up. Whether it’s getting stuck in the middle of a jungle at night or being chased by some local goons or just the piercing eyes of a young trafficked child, the process of documentary filmmaking is like real life drama always presenting you with its own twists and turns and moments that stay with you forever.
Do you have a favourite city for shooting street photography? Why?
India is a street photographer's delight. For the uninitiated, it can actually be a little too much in the beginning. But once you acclimatize yourself, there’s something for everyone out there on the streets. Like a gourmet meal one needs to give some time to relish the flavours and wait before the streets present themselves in full splendour.
Every city has its own character and charm. My personal favourite is Delhi. It is a city with multiple layers. Steeped in history, the city never fails to surprise you. From the plush tree lined avenues of New Delhi to the narrowest possible lanes of Chandni Chowk, there are several worlds co-existing in the city at the same time. Historians tell us that seven different cities were built in Delhi since ancient times but ask any street photographer and they will tell you that even today several cities exist within the same city. To a casual tourist, the lanes and by lanes near Jama Masjid might look like any other crowded bazaar. But dig a little deeper, take a deep breath and allow the heady mix of aromas to enter your blood stream and the same narrow lanes will transport you into a different time zone. That’s the thing about India, History is not just restricted to textbooks here, it is very much alive and out there in the streets, happily co-existing with the present!
© Avinash Roy
Which visual medium do you think is more powerful? Film or photography?
In filmmaking, just by juxtaposing two shots you can manipulate the audience’s emotions and the sense of time and space. Film has limitless potential as a storytelling tool. But a photographer has a single frame to narrate his/her story. The eyes of Steve McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’ possibly tell a story which is thousand times more powerful than an hour long documentary on the same subject. A photo journalist would know that a single photograph has the power to mobilize people and destabilize governments. Ultimately, I guess, it is not a question of which medium is more powerful but rather how you use that medium.
You have a degree in history, do you think that street photography is the closest visual artform we have to an art of social commentary?
We are living in very interesting times. The emergence of smartphones has been a game changer and has truly democratized the art of photography. For once, in the history of Homo sapiens, there is no dearth of recorded archival material. We are in fact inundated with digital clutter and are obsessed with the idea of recording each and every moment of our lives. From selfies to Insta posts of our latest holidays, everything is a treasure trove of information for future historians. As street and documentary photographers, we are continuously recording these interesting times. Like a young woman pensively sitting on her oversized suitcase at a Paris train station (a featured post on the.street.photography.hub) perfectly captures the uncertainties of the present times. You just have to browse through the posts on our page and you get the feeling that you are glancing through the varied moods and colours of our contemporary world which is being recorded for posterity.
What cameras and specialist equipment do you use? What is your favourite photography gadget?
I’ll confess, like most photographers, I’m also obsessed about cameras and photography equipment. I keep doing a lot of research on the latest cameras and lenses. I also have a collection of antiques, like my wife’s grandfather’s Box Tengor, my father’s Yashica Electro 35 and also a vintage Polaroid. But then as we all know, photography is not about the gear but what you do with that. I currently use a basic DSLR with 24 and 50 mm lenses. For those who make a living out of photography, it becomes a necessity to invest in gear. But for others, all you need is a basic camera and the right lens. Knowing your lens I believe is the most important aspect of photography and even filmmaking. What focal length you shoot at, tells a lot about your approach and style of work.
Do you have any other tips for artists who use street life as inspiration?
Streets have always inspired painters, musicians, filmmakers, photographers and artists of all kinds. I guess the street is where we get to see a varied display of human emotions and cultural manifestations. At a busy shopping complex or the sidewalk you can get to see happy faces, flushed with the elixir of life. But hold on a little longer and the facade might drop just for a vulnerable moment and you might see a different side of the face and an altogether different story begins to unfold right before your eyes. I can share a couple of things that I have learnt from my own experience. Street photography to my understanding is not voyeuristic and is not meant to intrude into other people’s privacy. When you are out on the street and taking pictures of complete strangers, don’t allow your excitement to take over your sensibilities. I personally use a wider lens and walk right up to the people I want to photograph. If I sense it is making them uncomfortable, I just smile and immediately step back. What makes this situation worse is if you are lugging around a ton of equipment. The mantra is to keep it light and compact and to have your settings all figured out so that you can just enjoy the process. From a curator’s perspective I can add that street photography is not just about people walking on the street; there’s so much happening out there…one just needs to keep looking!