Interview by Eidia Amin.
Most of us are “Instagram” folk. We love the “hashtags,” the number of likes, and the increasing number of followers. Well, I signed up for the ride myself a few months ago. This subscription was not an act based on the dire need to start posting images, but credible to a completely different curiosity. On a particularly bland NYC evening (Yes, there are times when you cannot find anything to do in this place.), I found myself scanning through an Instagram profile belonging to a particular Bollywood star. I have seen thousands of photographs of this star; however, her Instagram images were personal. My reaction: “Oh my god! She has an awesome coffee table.” Alright, maybe it was a little more than just that. Arriving to the point, there was a particular photograph (the Instagram post was a screenshot of the actual image) of the individual that was in complete contrast to most of her posts. Surpassing the notion of “celebrity,” this image transcribed itself with a specific mentality. This mentality belongs to Mumbai-based photographer, Ishaan Nair. Ishaan Nair has photographed a wide array of Bollywood celebrities, spanning the genres of commercial, editorial, and personal projects. I had the privilege of learning about Ishaan’s journey in photography, as he shared his thoughts on initial struggles, success, the print industry, and his future ambitions.
You have described yourself as a “photographer: a boy with a camera who got lucky.” How did this happen?
My life has unfolded rather serendipitously, a comedy of errors of sorts. Always been in the wrong place, at the right time. I took a picture of the wrong girl backstage, and got yelled at. Used whatever little charm I had, stuttering, “but you look beautiful,” and was dragged to head of PR for MAC Cosmetics, Dubai. Landing my first gig as resident photographer for MAC Cosmetics, covering backstage in India. I haven’t looked back since. Also, I’ve been very fortunate encountering almost “patron- like” friends [like film journalist and screenwriter Sukanya Venkat] who believe in the voice of my work, and spend a lot of their energy circulating my images. I make it sound easy, but there were many years of baby portraits, silly events, and socialite party documentation. Before I got where I am now, it was hard work, but that’s just how life unfolds itself.
Amidst the chaos, you tend to capture some really stagnant, yet almost tensed moments. What are the circumstances during those events? Have you considered compiling the work into a book?
Hahah! I guess chaos seems to be the running theme in my work, but “backstage” is one of the most chaotic places on earth. Think of those Wall Street stock room movies. Now, replace those screaming suited fanatics with Amazonian women, tiny makeup artists, and neurotic designers in neon, cutwork, and sequins. It’s a circus. Backstage at fashion week is how I started my career, and I still choose to cover it. It keeps you on your toes, allows you to know exactly what is going on in Indian fashion, and, of course, meet some of the most beautiful women in the country- haha! I haven’t thought of doing a book yet, but it is something a lot of people say I should do. Maybe in the next decade I’ll have strong enough images to make a book.
While you have experience with celebrity portraits, commercial, and editorial work, which genre do you enjoy the most?
It’s hard to pick any one, for each brings a certain kind of satisfaction, whether monetary, artistic, or viewership. A successful shoot or a memorable one, however, is always where I forge a connection with the subject, and the image is more than a picture of a pretty person— it’s an attempt to capture their soul, or a dynamic between the lens man and the subject.
Your personal work tends to have an unnerving sense of chaos. Well, at least I sense it does. Most of these images are almost refined, but allude to the sense of something raw- almost exposing themselves. You leave the images lingering between finesse and almost crude. Is this what you aim for?
My personal work has a sense of neglect not only in the quality of images, but also in the time I take out to create it. I should shoot more. I love your observations and the adjectives you’ve chosen— it’s almost exactly what I want from it. I strive to create a story: it’s my training in film. I did my BFA in Direction and Cinematography at the School of Visual Arts. The rawness, the chaos, and the finesse are deliberate. Isn’t it how we choose to live our lives? Masking the chaos with finesse? The duplicity of human nature and interaction is also something I strive to create. Appearing one way, but being another. Funny creatures we humans are. We spend more time trying to be like others, rather than learning to be comfortable in ourselves.
At one point, magazines were synonymous with models: fresh faces, old faces, supermodel faces. Today, front covers and inside spreads contain presence by prominent celebrities. What is your opinion on this transition?
Today’s magazines are lining tomorrow’s trash cans…I choose not to read too many magazines. I shoot for them if I’m asked to. There are very few publications that still make an attempt at being creative and pushing the bar of glamour and fashion. Mostly it’s a compulsive aping of the “September Issue.” That said, there are a few magazines that still try to be original. Surprisingly, they aren’t the ones people would assume. As for Bollywood, it sells. But what Indian publications are forgetting is that they create tomorrow’s stars. Also, glamour and fashion have always been about telling people what they want. Be brave and tell them. Although, the magazine business is knee-deep in shit, so I guess you can’t blame them. But please, stop reusing the same actresses every three months. The new crop of Indian models are the most beautiful in the world. It’s sad to see them not getting their due.
I am curious about your personal series “Abheena.” Will you please share the concept behind that particular body of work?
I was fortunate enough to meet Abheena in Bombay a couple of years ago. She is a transgender woman, and is forced to live as a man in certain social settings because of social non-acceptance. It follows similar themes of self- exploration and duplicity: being one way but feeling another. She is an incredibly strong woman, who was kind enough to bare herself and a few of her friends to me over a weekend.
Where do you see your personal work five years from now?
I will be making films, Inshallah. But photography will always be a big part of my life. If I am accurate about my journey, my work will get more and more peaceful as I grow older. I started as a cynic and am gravitating toward being an optimist. But life and its many disappointments could lead to my taking pictures of severed chicken heads. Who knows?
What are some of your inspirations? Any film references (stylistically, thematically, conceptually)?
I’d like to think I’m more inspired by the story I’m telling or the people in my pictures, rather than…by the work of other people. Sally Mann, Raghu Rai, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and young Indian photographer Akshay Mahajan are some of my favorite photographers. Sophia Coppola, Wong Kar-wai, Lynn Ramsay, and Lars Von Trier are a few of my favorite filmmakers. Virginia Woolf, Salman Rushdie, and Lionel Shriver are a few of my favorite authors. Phew. I detest talking about myself. Thanks for the interview.
To see more of Ishaan’s commercial and personal work, please visit: www.ishaannair.net