Photographer of the Week is a five-part series in which we talk to five popular Instagram photographers about it all—their story, learnings, insights, what makes them photograph and all that goes into making great images.
An alumnus of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Sandeep S (@suspendedanimati0n) is a 30-year-old filmmaker-photographer based out of Trivandrum, Kerala. Though he loves to capture drama in his photographs, he says he doesn’t go to places specifically to shoot. For him, it is mostly about the moment.
In a reflective conversation on a balmy evening, he discusses his journey so far, his mentors, inspirations, technique and the struggles of a freelance photographer.
How did you begin clicking pictures?
Initially I was interested in films, Mani Ratnam’s films specifically. I would specifically notice the frames and other details, which we know as rules—like the rule of the thirds—and I liked them.
When I was in Class 10, I went on a school excursion for which I bought a camera. It was the cheapest Kodak camera, in which you just had to put film, point and shoot. That was when I started taking pictures. They were shitty, of course. I realised that I could take photographs during the first year of my college when my friends started telling me that I took good pictures.
How difficult is it to break into the professional photography space in present times?
You choose career in different ways. Most of the time, you like something and you choose to do it for the rest of your life. But you cannot choose certain things like photography as a lifelong profession. Because photography is not just one thing. There are so many different kinds of it—fashion, wedding, nature, street. You need different skills for each.
But wedding or event photography is one area where anyone can barge in with basic knowledge. It might not be something that you really want to do but it fetches good money. However, if you look at all the renowned photographers, they are not respected because they shoot weddings. They are celebrated because they take serious photos. It’s a different zone. They mostly work on the basis of grant. And if you want to get a grant, you have to be very thorough—you need to know how to apply, write a statement. It’s not easy to crack. It depends on your privilege—who you are associated with, who your friends and mentors are.
Is it necessary to study photography as a subject to be able to do it well?
I don’t think so. Most of the people who are doing really good in photography haven’t done any course. But doing a course is not a bad idea. Take my case. I was doing photography even before I went to TISS. Though I didn’t study it specifically there but I had a visual design course as an elective where I was being mentored by Nitesh Mohanty (@nimo_obscura), who is a photographer or rather an artist. Meeting him changed my perspective, attitude.
I am not talking about technique. You can learn technique from the internet. But a mentor can really help you in developing a perspective or a philosophy about photography. In that way, going to a school and being mentored can be of good help.
Do you see yourself foraying full time into the wedding photography scene?
No. I’m not a full-time wedding photographer. I’m not passionate about it. I do it whenever I’m short on money. I started with some of my friends. Most of them are now into full-fledged wedding photography. They have started their own companies. They get huge amounts of money and have in turn invested in heavy-duty equipment. But I still rent equipment to do wedding photography.
Your photographs are very life-like, close to reality. You don’t seem to work a lot on their edit. Has it been a conscious choice?
I edit. But I only colour correct. I usually enhance colours but in a way that it won’t be noticeable easily. It is a conscious decision. I’m trying to show through the photograph what I actually saw. Most of mobile cameras or even DSLRs don’t actually recreate the exact colours or light or exposure. Some kind of colour correction is needed. But I do just that.
You work a lot with reflections. Any particular affinity towards them?
I have been clicking reflections for a long while now. But Nitesh—who I consider as a mentor and who does a lot of reflection photography himself—has been a huge influence. Before meeting him, I was doing most of it unconsciously. I wasn’t thinking much about the why of it. But he would get into the philosophy behind it. After meeting him, I started feeling that there was a meaning to it, that it is actually reflective of your personality in some way. Though a lot of it is still unconscious, I have begun to identify with it.
How important is the device with which a photograph is taken? Is it more about what you’re shooting or about with what you’re shooting it? Or how you’re shooting it?
It works in both ways. You should have a basic idea about what to shoot. There are cases where you have huge, expensive equipment but your photos still don’t speak. And in some cases, low-resolution mobile photographs stay with you.
But certain photographs do need a certain kind of lensing and a certain degree of equipment. You cannot take any photograph using a mobile phone. Likewise if I go to a street to shoot with a big camera, I might not be able to capture an impulsive moment. In fact, it might destroy that moment. A smaller device can help me better in that situation.
What is it that you’re looking for when clicking a photo?
I like to capture drama in a photograph—something in action. When you live in a city like Bombay, you have lots of it. Wherever you place your frame, you’ll see a lot of things. But it’s not like I go to someplace for the purpose of photography. I might be going to buy milk and click a picture of something on the way. Most of the time it is momentary.
Which photographers inspire you?
They have changed a lot over the years. Your taste keeps changing. But as of now, there’s a New York based photographer, Alan Schaller (@alan_schaller). He only takes black-and-white street photographs. And he plays a lot with natural light. You can immediately identify his photographs. He has a very distinct style.
Then there is Nitesh (@nimo_obscura). I like him the most. He usually uses mobile phone and is more into reflections and textures. There is another photographer called George Natsioulis (@george_natsioulis). He is based in Greece. Though his photos are very superior to mine, the way I click is very similar to him. He mostly photographs people. He will have only one person in one frame. Most of his work his shot during night and has hazy background.
How does one stand out when smartphones and Instagram have made everyone a photographer?
Everyone has a camera, everyone is clicking pictures and uploading them but very few take it seriously enough to want to update their skills. Some will be taking the same photos all their lives. It’s not necessarily a bad thing because most of us just want to document a moment, share it and get validation. But only very few of us are interested enough to want to keep working at it to a point where it becomes art.
Smartphones and Instagram have democratised photography. Anyone can take pictures now, which is such a good thing. Even if you don’t go to a photography school, you can still improve your skill by sheer practice. Take a lot of photographs. It’s true in my case also. I click a lot.