Interview with Siddhartha Mukherjee
“Through the act of shooting street photographs, I have learnt to accept life more impartially. The ordinary has become beautiful.”
Siddhartha Mukherjee, what does photography mean to you and what do you want to transmit with your pictures?
Photography has let me communicate with people in a more direct way and at a deeper level. It has also become a means of self-reflection, and helped me connect with life around me in a very intimate manner, which wouldn’t have happened without.
Photography helps convey thoughts, ideas and emotions in a manner that would not befit any other medium, perhaps apart from painting.
With my street photographs I hope to sensitize people to the beauty of everyday life, and over time, I also want to use photography as a narrative tool voicing socially and culturally relevant issues.
What fascinates you especially about street photography?
It is first the idea that amid the chaos of everyday urban life, there are some beautiful moments that pass by in flashes, and these are revealed to all who care to look – and street photographers can seek these out for all to see.
There is also always some uncertainty, chance and luck that is involved in shooting a street photograph, apart from practice and skill. This makes each such photograph inimitable to an extent, and each frame is a unique view of a real moment that cannot be recreated.
And as has been said by many, street photographs document the life and times of people precisely as it appears ‘currently’, which by itself makes all effort a minor contribution to a growing body of humanitarian photographs documenting the evolution of public life.
Street photography is such a broad genre, difficult to put a label on. What’s your definition and approach of street photography? More introverted? How does your personality translate into your style?
Indeed, it is quite difficult to define street photography, but very easy to see whether a photograph “is in the spirit of street”.
To me personally, the photograph should certainly be candid, all other things being variable, and it should convey a sense of something having been observed or felt by the photographer. This of course also includes photographs without a human element.
And indeed, as I am somewhat introverted, my approach to shooting streets is that of a passing observer.
I look out for anything that to me is interesting and I try to capture it without letting my own influence trickle into the frame.
What does photography mean to you? What lessons have you learned from photography about yourself? What do your images tell about yourself? Has photography a therapeutic meaning to you?
Photography is almost a necessity now, as when out shooting I am completely myself, driven by untrammeled curiosity and trying to challenge my own capabilities of thought and action.
“I am happy to observe life unfold around me and think of compositions, smile when the light is beautiful and be amazed when random elements come together in a chance confluence.”
Through the act of shooting street photographs, I have learnt to accept life more impartially.
The ordinary has become beautiful.
So even when I am not shooting, I am happy to observe life unfold around me and think of compositions, smile when the light is beautiful and be amazed when random elements come together in a chance confluence.
Since actively shooting is a complete immersion of the senses towards the singular aim of capturing a moment, photography is certainly therapeutic.
A long day of shooting can be quite uplifting – though it can be physically tiring!
Which photographer has inspired you most? Why?
There are many that I have grown up seeing, the strongest influences among which are surely Henri Cartier Bresson and Raghu Rai – their approach is a mix of documentary, street and photojournalism.
There is always a very strong sense of aesthetics in their photographs, while conveying an interesting story out of a candid moment. I make these my guiding principles.
I am also really moved by the works of Elliott Erwitt, Nils Jorgensen, Gary Winogrand, Fan Ho, Raghubir Singh, Marc Riboud, Joel Meyerowitz and Vivian Maier – all great humanitarian photographers who really take you under the skin of the moment.
Among more contemporary photographers, I am very inspired by Prashant Godbole, Swarat Ghosh, Arko Datta, Kaushal Parikh, Altaf Qadri, Steve McCurry, Umberto Verdoliva, Jesse Marlow and Pao Buscato – all of whom have a unique and remarkable way of shooting.
I also really admire the Magnum community, World Press Photo, WPJA and some street collectives like In-Public.
I try to learn from classical/modern art as well – specially the use of colour and aspects of composition.
To what extent do you think it’s beneficial to look and learn from other photographers’ work? And how does one avoid falling into the trap of just imitating someone else’s vision.
Although I think one may develop their own style over time, having some photographers you admire is a good yardstick to improve the quality of your own work, specially when starting out.
The real trap is to think your own photographs good too soon, and without much objectivity (I can confess to having felt so, perhaps I still do from time to time).
So for me, seeing a Raghu Rai photograph always reminds me how much I can improve my own work – but that doesn’t mean I will (or can) shoot like him.
Sheer imitation cannot help you build your own identity or body of work, although as they say, all art follows from imitation. Once you shoot enough, I think, the vision of others can amalgamate and be brushed over by your own vision.
What’s your favorite photography quote?
One that resonates with me is:
“A camera is easy to use. But proper use of the eyes requires a long, long apprenticeship often capped with great pleasure.”
What’s important in order to develop an own photographic voice?
As I am very much a beginner myself, I cannot answer this with any authority. What I have found useful is to be curious of the possibilities the medium has to offer in expressing oneself, which involves a lot of experimentation.
Apart from that, one has to wonder “why” they photograph something and how they go about doing it. That certainly shapes what you call “one’s own photographic voice”.
What do you consider to be the axis of your work – technically and conceptually?
I mostly try to look for simple, candid moments that convey a story without my having to direct the viewer into a context with explanations.
I also try my best to make each shot work as a stand-alone piece, although it may feature in a series eventually – this is something important to me for now, as it is a means of being more objective about my work as well.
Thematically my work is surely concentrated around what one may call “the human condition in the playfield of the urban environment”.
In street photography everything happens so fast and you only have a fraction of a second to capture the action / scene. How can you prepare to be ready? What techniques are there to react quickly and adequately whenever you see a fleeting moment you want to capture?
At least with me, I do miss a lot of good moments and end up capturing only a handful. Among the reasons for that happening, not being fast enough is only one.
The more limiting factor currently is reluctance when I know the subject is aware of me, which is something I have still not fully overcome. This might be because I am somewhat introverted and shy – but I am working on it.
As for being quick, I try to tackle it in two ways. The first is to know your equipment very well, so that you don’t spend time changing camera settings – pick what works and stick to it, keep it simple.
The other is to prime your senses by shooting more and practicing. Sometimes you can anticipate a scene and be prepared for it. At others, listening to sounds around can be key, for instance around street corners.
How do you get into the flow? Are there moments when you are unable to photograph? If yes, what are they?
To be honest, when I am not shooting I am always worried that I might be incapable of getting any good photographs when I shoot next.
Shooting street is marked by a significant number of failed shots, which possibly causes that feeling, and there are days when you don’t end up with a lasting image.
But once I start a day of shooting, over time, I get accustomed to the surroundings and sometimes I have a good picture, so “getting into the flow” happens literally for me – i.e. by doing.
The one time when I cannot shoot is if I have company (unless with another photographer). All my work so far has emerged largely from solitary walks.
What role does post-production play for you?
I spend some time converting photographs to black and white or some colour correction – which I find important.
In the beginning I used to process more, though now I’d rather shoot than post-process.
What qualities and characteristics does a good photographer need?
To make the heart and the soul their two eyes.
What does a photo need to be a great photo in your eyes?
There are some photographs you can return to, and find them as interesting as you did the first time. These certainly stand out, and have something in them that transcends.
It is not mere technique, light or the subject matter that make is so, all of which only inform an aspect to such a photograph which is endowed with a life of its own.
Perhaps in such photographs, the presence of the photographer is not felt anymore, just the viewer and the moment exist.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your photographic projects?
Often from past photographs, or from some books I might be reading at the time. If I find a recurring theme among some otherwise unconnected shots, I try to think how they would come together as a project.
I have some such ideas I am working on as longer term projects for now.
What photography book would you recommend?
I found Susan Sontag’s “On Photography” quite interesting in its musing about the medium itself, and the long term utility of what we now call street photography.
I would certainly recommend any photo-book by Henri Cartier Bresson, specially “The Decisive Moment”.
Also Raghu Rai’s “India: Reflections in Colour” and “Varanasi” are among the finest collections of photographs I have ever seen.
I recently read “A Street Photographer’s Manual” by David Gibson, which I found really fun and instructive.
Which advice would you give someone who’s just starting as a photographer?
I didn’t start shooting too long ago, and I do photography on the side of my studies, so I am very much a beginner myself!
What I can share from my experience is that you have to spend a lot of time on the streets shooting and making mistakes, though it is not without reward, for every so often you would have captured something beautiful.
I would also recommend printing your photographs from time to time – the act of physically holding a photograph and looking into it is important, and to an extent dying out in the digital age.
Lastly, enjoy the endless possibilities the streets have to offer!
More about Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee is a PhD student at the department of Chemical Engineering in Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands.
He is originally from Kanpur, India, and does street/documentary style photography on the side of his studies.
With an equal involvement in science and the arts, he hopes to strike a harmony between the two and apply them to socially and culturally relevant themes and issues.
He has recently co-written a book titled “Airflow, Comfort and Habitability of Game Reserves” (to be available early in 2018) with his colleagues Dr. Sat Ghosh and Dhruv Arvind from VIT University, Vellore, India.
It is a first attempt at combining documentary style wildlife/nature photography with a scientific assessment of game reserves in India and Africa, emphasizing the need for wildlife preservation.
Siddhartha Mukherjee is an absolute gem of a person, with a mind and eyes just as beautiful as could possibly be created! This comes from my experiences with him that go back till nearly a decade from today.