Indian photographer Rohit Chawla's fashion-inspired fine art images have appeared in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Marie Claire – but for his Wanderlust project, which goes on show next week at The Strand Gallery in London, he shot nomadic people in Gujurat. Rohit talks about his creative process and how photography has changed since he started…
Many years ago I went to a place called Kutch in Gujurat and saw this Rabari tribe.
I took a long time to go back with the right set up. I wanted to shoot them in isolation, almost like fashion portraits, not like the conventional way that had been shot over the years. So we created a makeshift studio in the desert by hanging fabric on a tripod and on stands. We used to go wherever we could find them. They were constantly on the move because they’re nomads. We would carry a Polaroid camera and whatever we shot we would give them the images. At first they were not really willing to be photographed. We gained their trust by being patient and by hanging around them. Slowly they agreed to pose and then we got the lighting and created the backdrop.
We had very strong HMI lights that we ran on a generator. The lights were so bright that it was difficult for them to open their eyes. We would shine the light and then we would shoot the pictures just at the nanosecond that they opened their eyes. The portraits give a strong sense that they are concentrating hard. That was the technique that worked for them. When you work with travelling people like this, they are not [like] fashion models who are used to projecting their personalities.
I work with a Mamiya medium format camera. We would shoot them at all different times of the day – whenever we could. We would shoot sometimes in the early morning, sometimes late in the evening. I did the project over six months. We shot a lot of people. Portraiture is all about timing. In my portraiture I always have a strong graphic sensibility. I always try to be spontaneous when I can but [my photography] is all about the staged image.
For a long part of my career I sold myself to advertising photography and now I’m trying to claim it back. I have no time anymore for the banality of advertising, but it does give you a certain technical expertise and a certain discipline.
The time that I grew up in, we worked on film and analogue, so we had a certain discipline. Analogue photography teaches you the relationship between light and film and the camera. [With digital], photographs are technically getting a lot better but you lose the soul in the process.
Also, the ability to get great looking images from cell phones is producing a lot of… I won’t say mediocrity, but when [your] images [are] trying to work towards the creative or the artistic, you should really sit back and think about them. The French take it to the extreme where they take a picture of a lamppost and talk about it for three hours. I’m not in that school of thought. A photograph is meant to have a compositional quality – it’s all about form, line and space. When I started, photography was a long, slow, magical process.
Rohit Chawla was talking to Rachel Segal Hamilton.
All images © Rohit Chawla.
Wanderlust: Photographs by Rohit Chawla runs from 9 to 15 July 2012 at The Strand Gallery, London.
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