‘Pratik’ for Prestige magazine by Ashish Shah
Born in Dehradun, the capital city of the northern Indian state Uttarakhand, Ashish Shah draws constant inspiration from the people, culture and traditions of India.
Here, the Mumbai-based photographer discusses capturing photographs that more honestly represent the India he knows; challenging the Western gaze that has long influenced Indian identity; channeling this approach in his fashion photography; and what it was like to shoot for fashion house Alexander McQueen.
‘Sanmathi’ for Alexander McQueen press collection 2021 by Ashish Shah
How do your images differ from traditional depictions of India?
From the Company paintings of 18th- and 19th-century India – which saw Indian painters adopt a European style and palette to portray the exoticism that the British East India Company wanted to market – to the impact of globalization on India’s beauty standards in the early 1990s, India has complex connections to colonialism and the Western gaze.
As a country, we constantly struggle with how the Western world packages India to make it palatable to their tastes and attitudes. Popular media is supposed to help you escape things temporarily for fun – not instill unrealistic ideals to aspire to. This has massively influenced India’s identity and is reflected in the images depicting the country.
India has such a rich storytelling and oral history, and I think there’s a real need for new, more honest dialogues that highlight the intricacies of the country’s culture, politics and society. We don’t want to be celebrated by someone who is in awe of the India they saw on Google Images.
That’s why I’m photographing India through my lived experiences rather than approaching it from a touristic eye.
‘Fiza’ for Raw Mango by Ashish Shah
Why is it so vital that your photographs capture a more realistic depiction of India?
By moving away from the highly saturated and colorful documentary images of India that focus on exoticness and poverty, I’m giving a truer representation of everything contemporary India offers. It’s important that the country’s stories are told from an Indian point of view rather than from superficial documentation.
India needs to be accepted in its honest form. My photographic journey so far has been about finding this multifaceted Indian identity that has been lacking in art and media. It's a new beginning for Indian photography. It’s time to redefine everything. And we urgently need Western and Indian creatives alike to show more trust in Indian artists.
‘Furquan and Rutviq’ for Byredo by Ashish Shah
How do you explore Indian identity through your fashion photography?
In fashion and image-making in India today, culture and tradition have become a-go-to resource. As amazing as it is that we’re slowly accepting and celebrating our identities, it’s also scary, as the inspirations that image-makers are drawing upon to create their work are often employed in a very surface level stylistic manner. They seldom take the time to experience contemporary India, and so run the risk of getting buried in a mindless mass of commercialism.
I’ve been searching for a new aesthetic vocabulary for fashion imagery in India. Through my practice I’ve broken away from the conception that fashion is only for a specific class of people. This is something that I focus on in every aspect of my photographs – from the casting of my subjects, to the environment they are shot in.
I was fortunate enough to work on the Alexander McQueen PRE SS21 campaign and I chose to explore Indian identity by shooting in the Uttarakhand landscapes that I grew up in. To be able to create images that I truly believe in, against the backdrop of my hometown and alongside the people who’ve been so crucial to my photographic journey in India, was incredible.
The international response to my work has been amazing. I’m so grateful to have shot for, and be appreciated by, publications and clients such as the Aperture Foundation, Byredo and American Vogue.
‘Sashi’ for Vogue India by Ashish Shah
What have you learned about Indian identity through your photography?
I felt that a sense of individuality and a celebration of my home and identity was lacking in my practice for the longest time. My photographic journey has been more than a quest for Indian identity; it’s been about learning about and accepting my own identity. As an Indian artist, my community has become the focus of my work.
From the many fabrics that make up its society, to its ocean of art and culture, I’ve learned so much about India. And I’m happy that I’m able to help tell its true story. Now, the greatest urgency is for India’s youth to be documented in the right light.
All images by Ashish Shah
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