Born and raised in Switzerland, Mr. Suresh Naganathan is a Mumbai based photographer who relates to his photographs as a part of his observations. Profoundly acclaimed for his candid photography, he is exploring streets across the world and adding a new sense to those moments through his lens. Today, he answers several questions about street photography and how originality matters the most for any form of art.
How you got involved in street photography in the first place?
I discovered street photography after attending a talk by a photographer a few years ago in Mumbai. The talk acquainted me with masters like HCB, Alex Webb, and made me realise that there was a whole world of candid photography that merges both form and content. After the talk, I started looking up online to find if other people were shooting like this. That’s when I came across the APF group on Facebook. A few months later, in 2014, I attended a workshop hosted by the Vohra brothers. The workshop was an eye-opener and made me realize that this was the type of picture that I wanted to take.
When did you know street photography could be your field of expertise?
After the workshop in 2014, I put my heart and soul into this art form and spent all my free time either shooting or looking at pictures (in books, online) of masters and contemporary photographers alike. I still don't consider myself far from being an expert but I did gather knowledge on the art form over the years.
What is street photography for you?
Street photography is life. It's a way for me to connect with the outside world and to make sense of my surroundings. I use it as both a stress buster as well as a diary to "document" what I see around me.
What's the most unusual feature of street photography?
To me, street photography is the easiest and hardest form of photography. It is the easiest because all you need is a camera, a good pair of shoes and a willingness to walk. You don't need to buy expensive equipment or travel to remote locations to practice it. Street photographs are all around you for the take.
It is also the hardest because of its candid nature: you have no control over the light, the people, the background, and one has to be able to pluck the moments from thin air. This element of magic is to me the most unusual and interesting feature of this genre.
How important is the originality of work in street photography?
I believe that originality in street photography is primordial. Street photography (and every art form for that matter) is about translating what you feel inside and marrying it with the outside world. A body of work should be the sum of your life experiences, your interests, and should represent you. Once you start achieving this, you will become original because your life is unique to yourself and so is your point of view.
How can artists find their independent styles?
I think it comes with practice. The more you shoot, the more you start realising what appeals to you and what doesn't. We all start by emulating the masters and pioneers in any art form. It's how we learn. But as we gather more experience, I believe that the people who persevere in the art form evolve and start taking all the visual elements that they have mastered to form their own vision. For that, it is also important that you know yourself. You need to know what are the things that attract you in a frame. For example, I love sci-fi and horror stories. I also love colors and crowds. Over the last years, I have been trying to translate these interests into my visual language.
However, an important point to remember is that creating a style takes time. It comes from countless hours of shooting. There is no rush, photography is not a race. If you take your time and work diligently, I believe that everybody can develop a style.
What are the clichés in street photography that you don’t appreciate?
I think that modern street photography, especially on social media, has a tendency to favor visual puns (juxtapositions, echoes, head replacements, etc.) over deeper meaningful images. Those are images that tend to have a very short lifespan: you look at the image, find the "joke" and move on. I wish that work with stronger content would take more center stage and have people look at pictures for a little longer than split seconds.
What is your take on social media influence on street photography?
Social media is both great and problematic to me. It is great because, unlike before the digital era, it gives you access to so many artists from around the world. It is also problematic because social media tends to reward through "likes" a certain type of images that then become the "successful" norm (the visual puns I was mentioning before). But I probably wouldn't have learned so much without it, so I truly appreciate it.
What is the most underrated feature of street photography you wish everyone discussed more about?
I feel that Street photography is underrated: On one hand, mainstream people don't consider it as serious as documentary photography, they think it's a frivolous activity. On the other hand, it is very rare that it is considered fine art. As such, I feel that people don't respect this genre as much as I would like to. Street photography may change the world but its strongest feature is that it can work as a historical document when done well. We are visual archivists. We document, not a narrow subject the way documentary photographers may do, but our surrounding world, recording a pulse on how our cities, neighborhoods, etc. look like at a particular time. I wish people would look at street photography from that angle instead of focusing on its performative aspects.
What differentiates a professional street photographer from the rest?
I am not too sure how to answer this question. There aren't that many professional street photographers out there. It's not easy to make a living with this genre. However, I think that one element that differentiates them is their work ethic. You have to be passionate about this art form and do it for yourself. You have to work, keep working, and spend your time thinking about photography. It has to be a passion.
Who are the street photographers whom you look up to and why?
The list is endless. I discover new amazing photographers every week who keep inspiring me. Here are a few people who have had an impact on my photography at different times over the last years: The Vohra brothers, Rammy Narula, Maciej Dacowicz, my colleagues from In-Street, my colleagues from Bambai, Dirty Harrry, Tavepong Pratoomwong. They all showed me the possibilities of what the street can offer. The only limitations being your own imagination.
Do you believe readings and studies on this genre does help? Which work you recommend and why?
I think that it is crucial that people study the art form, not in terms of technique but by looking at the work of as many photographers as possible to improve their visual language. I am an avid photobook collector and it is my main source of inspiration. It is difficult for me to recommend one book but what I would recommend is for people to check out the Magnum website and pour through the books that are available there (pro.magnumphotos.com). Looking at pictures and really spending time with them helps improve your eye. I also think that it is important to do a workshop early in your exploration: street photography can be misunderstood or considered easy (for example, thinking that shooting anything on the street is street photography). Attending a workshop can put you on the right track early on and then the rest is up to you.
Do you take photos for yourself or for others?
I think that if tomorrow the whole internet disappears, I will still be out on the streets taking pictures. For sure, I would be lying if I said that I don't want an audience. Having people look at my pictures and appreciating them is a great feeling but photography is more important than that. I need to shoot to feel alive.
We noticed that you are shooting mostly the local places of Mumbai for quite a while. Are you doing any project or series in Mumbai?
As I live in Mumbai, it is my primary subject to shoot. I feel that the city offers the most diversity in the country in terms of urban landscapes, people, culture. Yet, I feel that it is much more underrepresented than say a Delhi, Varanasi, or Kolkata. If tourists come to India for photography, they will usually give Mumbai a miss.
Through my pictures, I'd like to put Mumbai on the map as a place worth visiting, exploring, and photographing. I also have a dream to publish a book of my pictures here.
What message would you like to give other practicing street photographers?
First of all, I think it is important that you enjoy yourself shooting on the streets. At the end of the day, shooting pictures of strangers is a strange hobby to have so don't do it for anything else except to have fun with it. Respect the people that you photograph, you wouldn't be there without them; show empathy. Take it as a great, long adventure where every street corner can have a treasure. You'll get richer in moments, life experiences, and also hopefully in a few pictures that you can keep to remember them.
Take a further look at his works at sureshn.com