Inside Selection: Supranav Dash - Marginal Trades

Interviewed by Jill Waterman

Sound-and-Light Men, $17 weekly

PDNedu: In 2001 you received a degree in accountancy from Calcutta University in India. When and why did you decide to switch your focus to photography?

Supranav Dash: I got my Bachelors degree in Accountancy on the insistence of my father who was a banker, and also due to the lack of a good photography program in India. Back in the day, if you weren’t an engineer, a doctor or a banker, you stood no chance of a secured income or a stable life that every Indian parent desires for their children. Initially my father was against my chosen profession, since all he has witnessed about Calcutta photographers were the roadside studio professionals who survived shooting passport photos, marriage ceremonies and events. I have always been in love with the arts, and studied different forms of art, from painting to the sitar and the tabla. My interest in photography sparked in September 1997, while photographing some ‘pandals’ during our Durga Puja celebrations. After shooting a roll of film and getting it developed, something changed in me; photography soon became my obsession. At first it was just a hobby, but after a year, I started assisting commercial photographers and focused on developing my skill sets and technique.

PDNedu: Please tell us about your studies and work in photography while you were in India.

SD: I have a diploma in Fine Arts from RKMIC, Kolkata. I assisted commercial photographer Gautam Sengupta and finished my undergrad studies in 2001. I accompanied Gautam on advertising, fashion, editorial and industrial shoots and picked up the secrets of the trade. I would often travel to Bombay to attend workshops by other eminent photographers and I read photography books as much I could. It was really hard to buy books there and shipping them from the United States was a very expensive option. By 2003, I branched out and was ready to take assignments on my own.

Attending a 2005 workshop at the New School in New York was an eye-opener. I had the pleasure of meeting Jay Maisel, Max Vadukul, Joyce Tenneson, Sanjay Kothari and David Zimmerman and witnessed their craft and artistic arc first hand. In 2005, when the women’s fashion magazine DNA’s - Me!, was started in Mumbai, the assistant editor Jeena Mitra Banik asked me to work for them. I was really excited! It was a very fruitful time in my career, where I shot fashion editorials and magazine covers. There I got to meet and collaborate with some of the best fashion designers, stylists and make-up artists from our industry. Apart from that, I had a host of clients from jewelry houses, garment houses, fashion designers, jewelry designers who sought my services for their campaigns, catalogs and books. I would also take time out to travel and document people, cultures and festivals for my pleasure. I did this until I left for the United States in August 2009.

PDNedu: When and why did you make the decision to come to the US to study photography and what was your process for setting this up?

SD: I’ve always believed in formal education. After searching the length and breadth of my country for the perfect school, I couldn’t find one and turned towards the United States. As most of my favorite iconic photographers were either American or working in the United States, my hopes of interning for them was connected to being physically in the US. I had initially planned to enroll in Brooks Institute of Photography in California in 2001, but my plans got postponed due to 9/11. I had to forget about further education, so I tried to focus on building my career in India; which I successfully managed. Everything went smoothly and I felt content with the number of assignments I did every month, but then I felt something was missing and I knew I wanted to pursue photography in a larger context than commercial work. I had always collected photo-books and knew the names of the greats in New York. I knew if I wanted be serious about photography I needed to pursue my training in the United States, but most importantly in New York City.

PDNedu: How did your education in India compare with your studies at the School of Visual Arts in New York?

SD: When I was a studying in India, the education followed the typical British closed format. Once you choose your degree or specialization, you would be handed a fixed set of required courses to study in order to graduate; every single student under the same program studied the same. Increasing our knowledge base by cross-pollination was never an option. We had no subject choices or electives; it made the courses really boring for someone like me.

The School of Visual Arts (SVA) is a bit revolutionary in comparison to my education in India. Here we have a looser structure with countless choices to fill in the requirements as well as take on electives for graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts. For the first time in my life, I took control of my education and training. The department chair, Stephen Frailey, saw my interest and inclination to different genres of photography and suggested I pursue more in-depth classes that touch on documentary and fine art approaches to imagery. I had originally enrolled to strengthen my skills as a fashion/commercial photographer, but I left being a photographer who pursues photography with a larger spectrum of approaches, fine art, documentary and conceptual.

PDNedu: What’s been the best aspect of studying at SVA for you? What’s been your favorite course?

SD: In my opinion, there were two amazing aspects of studying at SVA. First, was my professors, many of whom are outstanding working professionals in their respective fields. They are artists whom I have admired for years; first they became my professors and then my personal friends. My professors really enlightened my perception of what photography is and what should matter in my own personal endeavors while pursuing photography. Secondly, when you're studying in any intense program, you tend to create bonds with your classmates, who are just as creative and as serious as you. That drive motivated me to create successful partnerships and deep friendships that I would never have expected when I first came to New York City and SVA. I’m grateful for the support that SVA has bestowed upon me. I was the recipient of the Alumni Society Scholarship Award, which helped me return to India to finish my Thesis Project.

PDNedu: When did you start working on your Marginal Trades project?

SD: I started photographing the Marginal Trades during my 2011 summer break.

PDNedu: How do you find your subjects for this project and what is their general feeling about being photographed?

SD: I hire an empty space in the bazaar or rent a convenient corner at an intersection for the day, set up my canvas backdrops, lighting arrangements and put two people in charge of it while I go stand at the busy street intersections looking for that particular gent or lady who matches the ideas of trade identity and the visual representation of his or her business practices. After spotting my subject, I’ll explain my project and intention to them and if they agree I bring them back into my makeshift studio for the photo session. I am always upfront in my approach to my subjects, explaining to them why this project is so important for me. Almost every subject realizes that his or her professional practices will never be the same twenty years from now; however few decide to let go of their inhibitions and agree to be photographed. I speak Hindi, Bengali and bits of Urdu, which facilitates my interactions with these people, but the biggest challenge is to persuade them to leave their familiar surroundings. They’re used to the tourists taking snaps in the street. But the moment you want to extract them and bring them to your confined space, and put them under artificial lighting, they are afraid of being victimized. It is because the system has abused them so much, and apparently there’s not much difference in the nature of the request between a corrupt police officer and myself.

Street Typist, $12.50 weekly © Supranav Dash 2013

PDNedu: Why did you decide to present this project in three different chapters?

SD: Because this project started in my sophomore year (2011), it underwent critique for the past three years. My professors and classmates suggested various approaches, black-and-white or color preferences and the formality of the compositions. I was limited to traveling during Winter/Summer breaks, when I could utilize their critiques and apply it to my project. For now, I’ve separated the black-and-white and color portraits into two chapters. I feel that black-and-white is ultimately going to be the final approach for the whole project but, as of now, I am still presenting the color as its own entity. Chapter three is the Video, the multimedia aspect to the project, which is still in the experimental phase of what will become the final output for that leg of the project.

PDNedu: Is there any difference in the way your subjects responded when you shoot video footage as opposed to stills?

SD: Shooting video footage or taking stills didn’t register as very different to the average tradesmen. For the stills part, they were free to look in any direction or at any angle while I photographed them silently; but for the video, when they were asked to stand still and look into the camera, they would often become restless and anxious and would not be able to stay still for even a minute.

PDNedu: Is your documentation for Marginal Trades still ongoing? If so, what trades and/or situations are you still looking to include in your coverage?

SD: Yes, Marginal Trades is still my ongoing project. Although it has been published, I feel I need to add to the story as it’s going to be a book project and an exhibition. When Time magazine graciously published the images, I had just graduated from SVA. I pushed myself to the limit to finish my series, yet after allowing life and the work I had done in the past three years to settle, I do realize the work is still incomplete and I will need to return to India multiple times to hopefully finish the series by 2015. The work behind getting one portrait can be so grueling and emotionally exhausting that I have yet to hit a mark on my personal goal of how many tradesmen I need to photograph. As for which trades I want to pursue, I would like to keep it a bit of mystery for the future, whether it be a book and/or an exhibition. 

PDNedu: What do you view as the most important elements in the pictures you make? What is the most important thing that you want to communicate with your work?

SD: The elements that I pay attention to while creating the images are Dignity, Depth and Details. As for the technique, I invoke the style of formalist portraiture. What I want to convey with the Marginal Trades series is summed up in this passage from my artist statement: "I want to slow things down and force one’s self to recognize and remember the beauty of these analog practices. As a photographer, I want to use my craft to pay respect to these tradesmen and bring them to light."

PDNedu: Your work has recently received a lot of recognition. Do you have an overall strategy or plan for submitting your work for competitions, grants and such? On average, how many of these types of opportunities do you submit work to on a monthly basis?

SD: I’m humbled and honored to have received such generous recognition. As for submitting work to competitions and grants, I don't have a strategy, although the Internet has changed the accessibility to opportunities for myself and many other photographers. I feel it’s a new game where you have to be globally aware of where your work should ideally be presented and what competitions could create more awareness of you as a photographer and your work.

PDNedu: What was the most valuable thing you learned from your participation at the Eddie Adams Workshop last fall and how have you applied this in your work?

SD: EAW was such a memorable experience, it really showed me the amount of dedication and drive, my contemporaries have in the social-documentary, photojournalism genre. Everyone here has a story to tell and it’s important to pursue that story with everything you have. It doesn't sound so profound, yet I was with people from all around the world that have put everything at stake, including their own lives, just to share their story and make the world aware of some injustice or atrocity against mankind. Kids went to Syria by themselves in its deadliest moments of conflict without being affiliated to a news agency. People stood up four days straight just to get every drop of knowledge they could out of the EAW. They are my personal heroes! A special highlight was the speakers, I absolutely loved the speeches by John White, Marco Grob, Eugene Richards and, of course, Jim Colton who moderated the event, just to name a few. It was a special experience that I will hold dear and never forget as a photographer and a person.

PDNedu: What did you learn from the EAW 11:30 Club portfolio review process?

SD: EAW really gives its students some of the best reviewers in the field. I got some great reviews from Jim Colton, Howard Schatz, Jill Waterman, Rodrigo Abd and Patrick Witty. They all uniquely addressed the pros and cons of my artistic practice pertaining to my project conceptualization, image compositions, lighting skills, clarity of thought, coherent editing. It’s knowledge that I am going to put to use all throughout my life.

PDNedu: With the benefit of hindsight on the portfolio review experience, is there anything you expect to do differently in the future, either in your portfolio presentation or in your interactions with reviewers?

SD: Yes, I will definitely work on my verbal skills and on my portfolio presentation. I also felt I needed to do more research on the reviewers in order to get the best possible critique.

PDNedu: Is there anything in particular that you miss about India now that you live in New York?

SD: I’m a romantic at heart and India is my soul; so the way I see India will always be with a longing sense. I miss my family and friends, the smell in the air, the food, the landscape, the beauty and joy in the everyday moments around my locality. As a photographer, I often miss not having access to the places where I find my biggest inspirations, although the distance often allows me see India objectively from an outsider’s perspective. It helps me brainstorm/visualize projects and images that I’d most probably want to pursue when I return back home.

PDNedu: Has your time in New York City made you view anything differently in your native country when you return there?

SD: Yes, I’m more aware of my civic responsibilities now. I wait at the traffic signals to cross the street while others jaywalk and laugh at me. I have started paying more attention to my surroundings and people and now notice minute details that I never paid attention before. New York has calmed me down and taught me to live in solitude as an artist and an individual. In India everyone brushes up against each other on crowded streets, and the same happens with our daily lives there. Here, in New York everyone’s guard is up and there’s a certain proximal distance from each other walking in the street and with our social and personal lives.

PDNedu: What things do you have in store for the future? Where do you hope to be and what do you hope to be working on five years from now?

SD: I honestly hope to have a global existence. New York has become my second home. It has given me a lot of opportunities since my graduation, yet I always have this yearning for the East, for India. It’s a very special place that serves as a source of inspiration for my projects. I have a few projects that are starting to become clear to me, but none that I want to publicly announce yet. India has so many stories that need to be told, I hope I’ll be able to successfully convey these stories to a larger audience, as I feel I am doing with Marginal Trades. As for educational plans, I have been dabbling with the notion of a MFA photography program that could help strengthen my vision as an artist; this is something I wish to undergo in the future.

To learn more about Dash and his Marginal Trades project, visit his Web site here.



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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