We've all heard stories of hardcore career photojournalists now-a-days shooting weddings to keep their heads above water. But Mahesh Shantaram, an already established Indian wedding photographer based in Bangalore, did exactly the opposite. Known best for bringing his quirky sense of humour to how weddings are portrayed in India, Mahesh recently made a transition into political photography on the back of the recent Indian general elections. His work as a documentary photographer has been seen around the world lately, thanks in part to the New York Times Magazine. In fact, I caught up with him just as he's preparing to show his work in Paris, Addis Ababa, and Dhaka over the next three months.
1) Mahesh, tell us a little bit about your start in photography. Why photography? What drew you to this medium?
Back in 2005, I was enslaved in a cubicle four blocks away from the White House. It was the lowest point in my life. I was desperately looking for a lifeline to creative rejuvenation. That's when providence struck me. At an art exhibition in Providence, RI, I chanced upon a particular work that was almost prophetic with its message. It happened to be Annu Matthew's, An Indian from India. For it, that was the moment of realization of how photography could be more than mere documentation of events, it's qualities as a medium of expression, and how identity can be both a reason and a subject of one's photographic practice. Within two months, I had quit my job and was in Paris to pursue a full-time diploma in photography.
2) You spent several years making a name for yourself as a wedding photographer. Not an easy feat in India where cultural demands can pigeonhole a man easily. Why weddings? And what about weddings commanded your attention?
We're talking 2006 now. When my wife and I were getting settled into our new home in Bangalore, we stumbled upon our wedding album. It came a jarring shock to my recently shaped perspectives on what sentiments photography should evoke. Traditional wedding photographers were generally seen as insensitive louts serving patriarchal needs at a wedding. They were totally out of touch with the expectations of the modern Indian couple. Ivy League educated, well-traveled, living abroad but Indian at heart–and now coming home to the prospect of having their dream weddings covered by the traditional guy. I became the solution to this problem just as I was looking for something to do in photojournalism and documentary.
3) Let's talk about your current foray into editorial work. I know you have shot for the NY Times Magazine and recently traversed the country during the national elections. Again, I am curious about your motivation. What did you sense about the elections that made you pursue politicians and their rallies all across the land?
The New York Times Magazine stumbled upon my work on my gallery's website. I've shot three assignments with them since then. It's such a motivational kick to work with a legendary photo department who actively seek out and hand opportunities to new talent.
The elections work was a purely personal project that sprung from a very deep place, but it started out as an editorial assignment for the Financial Times. Their correspondent was working on a story about corporate honchos making a bid for a seat in Parliament. That's how I get to shoot the Nandan Nilekani campaign–the 2014 elections' wealthiest candidate. There was this one picture (which the FT was bold enough to use as their cover) that gave me the confidence that I was on to something and that I should shoot the rest of the elections on my own terms.
4) Your series of images called, “The Last Days of Manmohan” appear both humorous and whimsical. Is your approach to photography intentionally so? Are you attempting to draw humor out of what is or could be a difficult situation for millions of people? Are you giving us permission to laugh at ourselves?
I find a lot of my inspiration in standup comedy. Jerry Seinfeld, Russel Peters, and Louis CK are my heroes. I love how these guys take an everyday situation and illuminate with their perspective so that it then becomes a critique of society. And hey, it's funny as hell and we're laughing away, forgetting that we're actually laughing at ourselves. I think this quality of standup comedy to combine humour and critique is worth emulating in documentary photography.
5) You and your wife have actively collected photography books – I am totally envious of your collection by the way – which 3 books would you simply not part with and why?
They would be books with personal stories. I absolutely love Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty by Max Pinckers. Max and his girlfriend Victoria (whom I equally credit for the work) came home one evening and left the dummy on my table. I sat through the night pouring over the book and by morning, I was its greatest fan. It's a book about a topic that's close to my heart – about love and the freedom to love and how grave is the threat to both.
Then there's Paul Gaffney's We Make the Path by Walking. I bumped into Paul at the Belfast Photo Festival in 2011. Later when he published his book, I was happy to recall our wonderful conversations and wanted to keep it as a memory. Not everybody gets minimalist photo books right. Paul did.
Lastly, I'll fight to keep anything by Alec Soth. I love Niagara, and Broken Manual is special because I acquired one from a collector as a present for Vidya on our hundredth anniversary or something.
6) You are also known to open your house to strangers who are interested in peering through your collection. How did you spring upon that idea and how has that been received by the public? Was that a way to get your name known? If so, bloody clever!
The implied threat of opening our house to strangers never occurred to us until a journalist used that as her opening line in a story about us. That certainly got my mother worried. Our idea was to simply share our growing library with those who cared enough and to spread the love for photobooks in Bangalore. I'm reminded of that Irving Stone quote: “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.” The Open House Photobook Library also serves great coffee, by the way. Some people come for the books and go away with renewed appreciation for traditional south Indian filter coffee.
7) Now that the elections are over and you have a body of work that sings, are you going to remain an editorial photographer or are you heading back to photograph weddings in India and abroad again?
So much of what passes as political photography in India comes from the news media. It merely corroborates that an event X happened at location Y with leader Z in attendance, exactly as the caption reads. During these recent general elections, there was a surge in independent work, but sadly, most of it was the “hey look who I got to hang out with!” kind and lacked voice or acumen.
The politics of India is a large and complex system that has many layers to peel and penetrate. Politicians seem like mythical gods but they are human beings with weaknesses. I don't want to limit my work to being just about Elections 2014. By revisiting the electoral process through many more elections to come, I'm hoping to gain and share valuable insight into the nuts and bolts of Indian democracy, probe the relationship between politicians and the people, and construct a pan-Indian picture of our political landscape.
8) Let's talk about your ascendency in the photo world, at least in the Indian subcontinent (I know you are known around the world now too). How has that been received? Do you see yourself as being a part of the “new guard”?
I don't know if I'm part of any “new guard” as much as I'm against the “old guard”. I'm not afraid to take a stand against old ways of holding up bastions of privilege and new ways of suppressing personal freedom, creativity, and independent thinking. I guess this general attitude has defined my public identity and influences what I produce as a photographer.
9) There are more photographers in India now than ever before. How do you plan on staying relevant? What are your plans to stand out among that crowd?
My formula to stay relevant is to keep abreast of what's happening in the world around me and be sensitive to what provokes me to respond. That response will be through my photography because it is all I know to do.
10) Now that you have a great amount of experience, how are you looking to pass that on to the next wave of eager photographers?
In the same way that so many truly great photographers passed on their experience to me – by constantly putting quality work out there.
11) Going back to your series, “The Last Days of Manmohan” (which refers to the last waning days of a beleaguered Indian Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh), do you believe you have created a document, a work of art or something in-between? How useful do you believe these images will be in the future?
When I set out on a backpacking trip across the country to bear witness to those historical elections, my intention was to document the politics of our times in all its rawness. Only time will tell whether this series will be valued as historical documents. But there is a method to how any work is launched into orbit. I will be shooting more to expand the scope of the work, take it to new audiences (via exhibitions and contests, for example), and edit and re-edit until my eyes pop out. That's how work is strengthened over time. A serious photographer's responsibility to his or her work has barely begun once the shooting is done.
12) There is one frame that I love (image above) – the one of Nandan Nilekeni – where he looks so unsure of himself. In US terms, that would be the time when Nixon was wiping away his sweat during the first televised Presidential debate against JFK. It has that sort of weight to it. Tell us a little about how you came to make that image? Were you reading his body language the whole time? Did you expect that moment when a politician is felicitated with a shawl and just happened to capture him?
Seshu, I'm sure you know this ritual in south Indian Brahmin weddings called the “kaashi yatra” in which the bridegroom is packed off and sent to Kashi to lead the life of an ascetic. It's a mock ritual, of course, but the guy is never really prepared for the absurdity of it. The fun of photographing a kaashi yatra is not to merely prove that it happened, but to be able to preserve the groom's awkwardness for posterity.
I could smell a kaashi yatra moment when the very corporate Mr. Nilekani was about to receive an Indian style felicitation.
13) What motivates you to make images? Why is it important for you to create them? Who are they for – you or the general public?
I absolutely love photography's unique and mysterious expressive qualities, the kind that Stephen Shore describes as “visual thinking that does not require any words”. I love how photography gives me free pass to interesting places and situations where my presence would otherwise be hard to justify. I love the image collecting experience of a long-term project that gives me ample time poke at complex questions in life. It is at once a luxury, privilege, and sacred duty to be a photographer. I love it. I'm happy to serve others through my photography, as long as I'm the one with the first-hand experience.