A 12 -year stint as a Designer and Art director in Advertising Industry established Sharmistha as a promising talent destined to reach appreciable heights in her career.
But all this while, a constant urge to do photography egged her on to take up the camera and when she did so, the transformation was dramatic. Before long, she had embarked on her journey as a committed photographer. Her work has been very well received and was part of an International Photo festival held in India last year.
Hi Sharmistha, thank you for agreeing to this interview. We’re already spellbound after going through your work, and thoughts, of course. It’s an honor to get to know a person like you.
I’d start with a weird question. Why do you take photos?
There are many reasons. Being able to photograph helps me satisfy my artistic urges. Photography is a crucial mode of communication for me. Photography is also a way of documenting significant events or even capturing beauty.
Tell us a little about your ambitions for photography as your career?
I am not ambitious about photography. At some level if I am able to document and aid a social cause, that would be the highest point in my life as a photographer. It could even be advocacy.
How do you describe your photographic style? And, what does it mean to you?
I am still experimenting. I love social documentary and portraiture. The second part is answered in the previous question.
‘Black & White’ photographs are more in number if we go through whole of your collection. How does black and white vs color play into your work? Do you find them to be totally different- or complementary?
I tend to be biased about black and white photographs, like many photographers. But again some photos work beautifully in color and b/w can’t replace them. Like sunset and subjects taken in evening light, what we tend to call golden light. No amount of black and white charm can equate the beauty of a photo taken in evening light.
That brings us to your most-talked-about project. What is it called? And, why is it called so?
My current project is named ‘Durga’.
Indians, the world over, have celebrated Goddess Durga as the embodiment of feminine power. But it’s strange how patriarchal our society is, where a woman’s voice is deliberately muffled and she has to fight for an equal status, whether it’s social, economic or sexual.
DURGA is a study on gender bias and extreme discrimination against widows in India. It lays bare the hypocrisy of a society that chooses to shower adulation on one woman and
extreme humiliation on another, depending on who suits its selfish needs.
The story of Durga is also about honoring every woman with an equal status, whichever strata or section of the society she may belong to.
Some of the photos from Project Durga –
When you started shooting for this project, specifically widows, what were the main difficulties?
Strangely enough when I started to work on the subject I didn’t face many difficulties. Even though I had to invest a huge amount of time and initially this was a completely self-funded project, things were never difficult. I am blessed to be working on a subject like this and I had the full support of Sulabh International Social Service Organization and its Founder-Director, Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, who have helped me in many ways including granting me access to many shelter homes in Vrindavan and Varanasi.
What is your scariest, happiest or touching part from that photo shoot?
There have been innumerable shoots. And never a scary moment. All of them were deeply touching and enriching and soul satisfying. I have had nothing to lose here. Only gains.
Where do you get inspiration from to do such an empowering project?
I guess all inspirations come from within. Sometimes we are deeply affected by things happening around us and then we see many inspiring artists and photographers’ work. Discrimination against women and empowerment has always been a subject close to my heart and sooner or later I had to work on it.
Where do you get your photos published?
Magazines, newspapers, news agencies, online media, blogs.
Have you been associated with any companies in particular or is it just your personal endeavors?
I have been doing commercial assignments and have photographed for some very respectable organisations like BBC Media, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNIFEM, The Hunger Project, to name a few. I have shot for a few well known Designers and Artists. I have been exhibiting my work with a lot of respectable galleries in India and abroad.
You also have a photo-book. What made you take this project to the level of publishing a book for it?
The book is in the making and not published as yet.
It’s been more than three years since I have been taking photographs for this project. I have lost count to the number of pictures I have taken in many such shelter homes in Vrindavan and Varanasi. One day a woman asked me sharply ‘why do you keep asking us for our stories, what good will this be, will it really help us?’
The question really made me think hard about what I was going to do with all the photographs and talks I have had till then. I decided to research more and what came tumbling out were unbelievable facts and a deeper conspiracy behind their abandonment, tracing back to more than 200 years.
There is a huge need to create more awareness on the subject, as the phenomenon of abandoning the widows isn’t really a thing of the past. Even today, hundreds of widows are forced to leave home and end up in shelter homes or worse on the streets of Varanasi and Vrindavan.
The only way one could compile everything together was to do a book on this.
Where can we buy or see them? And, who designed your book cover/s?
The book is in the making and not published as yet. Once it is printed, it would be available at Amazon.
I am the photographer and designer of the book cover.
Has this recent work undergone any research?
Tons of research. This piece of work would not have been possible otherwise. I have had numerous talks with the widows at Vrindavan and Varanasi. I have their life stories to talk about in my book. I have had personal talks with many Directors of NGOs. Have had the good fortune of talking and working with Dr Pathak of Sulabh International, an organization which has been doing phenomenal work for the empowerment of widows in india. I had recently met up with Dr. Mohini Giri, the ex-chairperson of National Commission for Women and the founder of Guild of Service. She shed a lot of light on the work her organization has been doing for the young widows. Her own experiences and work has deeply influenced my project.
When you are out shooting, how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
This is a very pertinent question. Well even though I am a documentary photographer, many times I love to do conceptual and staged shoots. It all depends on the subject of the shoot, idea being conveyed, the situation we are in and we have to decide on the spot as to which way to go. But at most times I have a clear-cut visual idea about how I want my shot and I try to achieve that as much as I can.
What are your thoughts on working on single images versus projects?
Always a project with a clear sense of communication. It’s very important for me as a photographer. I can’t take random pictures. It doesn’t work for me. But that does not mean I don’t appreciate single images. They work beautifully too, for many photographers and I respect their point of views.
What are some projects/ideas that you have in store for us in future?
Whatever comes my way. May be animal rights. I am not very certain.
What are your thoughts and feelings about shooting individually (versus shooting with a friend or small group of friends) when out on the streets?
I am mostly on my own.
What is one question nobody has ever asked you—that you wish they asked you?
“Are you being paid enough?”
Okay, so what would be your reply to that?
As photographers we are not at par with many professionals and the financial remunerations are too low. That needs to be corrected. That will really help us work with more peace of mind.
What advice would you give to aspiring photographers?
You have to keep going. Have faith and conviction in the work you do.
Thanks a lot Sharmistha for taking time out to speak about yourself and your endeavors with your viewers. All the best for the photo book and your future works.
If you want to contribute for this book to get published, please find more details about the project and the forthcoming book on the Indiegogo Crowd fund page.
Watch the short film on the making of this project on Youtube
Find Sharmistha’s Photography page on Facebook here.
You can contact her at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org