Photography: An Ingredient for Change
Souvid Datta is only twenty-two but is already making a name for himself in the worlds of photography and photojournalism. His photography provides a candid glimpse into the lives of people in places like India, Egypt, Italy, and more. In this sense, Souvid’s photography has an additional higher purpose; telling the honest, genuine story and struggles of people we may not have seen otherwise in order to initiate change. I had the opportunity to speak to Souvid about this higher photographic calling and what he hopes to achieve now through photography and in the future.
At what age did you become interested in photography? How did you become interested in photography and how did that interest develop?
My interest in photography is fairly new. I’d always had a mix of very academic and artistic pursuits, but it was only after finishing school and taking a year out and getting a chance to travel that I started to discover the power of visual communication and the perspective and purpose that a lens could bring to one’s outlook. It started with my iPhone and Ryan Air, then I won my first DSLR in a competition in January 2012, and since have rarely stayed put in one place too long or put the camera down. My specific interest in photojournalism took longer to articulate. Studying social sciences helped, as did writing for news outlets and believing in the need to inform the public. It was probably my visit to the Visa Pour L’Image festival in Perpignan that sealed the inclusion of photography within my professional pursuits. Thereafter, I found role-models and mentors, started taking on serious projects, and am still very much in the process of honing my visual language and vocabulary.
What does a typical day on the job entail?
I’m still a full-time student, in International Relations and Law, so a typical day really depends on how many classes or upcoming deadlines I have. On the shooting front, however, I initially structure things quite specifically: what research and information I need to understand before starting out; what minimum results I want to have achieved by the end of every day, every the week, and overall; what equipment I’ll need; which agencies, companies, fixers I need to liaise with etc. Once that groundwork’s done I move it to the back of my head and follow the story as it unfolds naturally. If I’m traveling I make it a point to start days early; catching the golden hours are a must for me. Before sleeping I always download, back up and take an initial crack at organising for my work flow.
What is your inspiration?
On a practical level, I’ve always been that guy who’s interested in pretty much everything. An idea can come from anywhere – a novel, a movie, a conversation, the weather, and the more you’re open to influences the better. Within the field of photojournalism, there are several contemporary talents, but the few names I keep coming back include: Steve McCurry, James Nachtwey, Dom McCullin, Tim Hetherington, Paolo Pellegrin, Jonas Bendiksen, Yuri Kozyrev. Getting my daily digest of imagery from sources like TIME LightBox, LensCulture, Photojournalismlinks or agency archives unfailingly sparks ideas too.
On the personal level there are two forces at play. I consider myself more of a journalist than a photographer. And working within this field comes with an empowering burden of responsibility – a social calling that what we do is important for the public, that the photographs can made a difference. This is a strong motivator. And yet I would be lying if I said my pursuits in the field weren’t, in some significant way, about the adventure, stories and personal challenges available therein. Photography is, at times, just the excuse. This is the other strong motivator. Finding the right, honest balance between these two driving forces is essential and one of my biggest struggles.
What do you hope to convey through photography to viewers?
In a nutshell, I want to take viewers away from their own agendas for a few seconds to provoke lasting, constructive and humanistic thought. I think photographs are quite unique in their ability to immediately evoke emotions and empathy. Like other media they are also good at recording history and to a limited extent, informing viewers. Clearly, they are and will continue to be an incredible tool for communication. Drawing from this, photographs for me essentially constitute a record of what we do and value. My work therefore treats imagery as having an instrumental purpose: to act as a loudspeaker for important stories, empowering subjects therein, and audiences who become more aware; to record important actions for the sake of history; and in an ideal sense to form an ingredient in the antidote to social evils. That said I don’t think that photographs alone can shake the world anymore. Change needs to filter through the variety of existing communicative channels, of which photography is just one.
Do you ask for permission to photograph strangers?
Almost always, yes. There’s a debate in photojournalism about objectivity: about the extent to which a documentarian should attempt blend into the shadows, and snap away, unnoticed, as some invisible observer. I’ve always struggled with that concept. First and foremost, I think it’s important for me as an individual to establish a baseline of respect and dignity when interacting with others. I’m a human being first, then a photographer. In that sense, introducing myself, explaining briefly what I’m doing, and asking for permission to shoot, is almost second nature. Especially in cases where subjects are in difficult conditions, I think this is baseline is paramount.
I do concede, that within photography as an art there is a place for an unannounced approach e.g. ‘candid’ or ‘street’ photography. ‘Invisibility’ is a useful skill to have, and of course, it can be impractical to ask the permission of every individual that falls into your frame. But even if mutual respect and dignity are established, the paparrazi or ‘street’ photography approach, from a journalistic angle, seems superficial and lazy.
Being a tall, quite imposing figure I’ve always found the idea of ‘blending into the background’ quite ridiculous. My alien presence is bound to effect subjects’ behaviours, in whatever little way, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise. Take this example: I’ve recently come back from working for three weeks in a large, gang-run red-light district in India. I’m a foot taller than those around me, I’m a non-client male inside a female brothel, and I speak and dress like an outsider. I’m not going to be there long enough to not stick out. Suddenly, ‘blending into the background’ is not just an illusion, it’s also an impractical approach. Photography, through your personal vision, will always be subjective. So getting closer to your subjects seems the best way to get at least a genuine personal testimony. In previous experiences and this one, I’ve always found that honest interaction, shared experiences and mutual respect work together to open the most doors, and bring out the most revealing human emotions and stories.
What barriers do you and/or young photographers in general today face? What advice do you have on entering the industry?
My generation of photographers faces more challenges than ever before: the legions of mediocre Instagramers; shrinking media outlets; citizen journalists; ubiquitous, affordable cameras; and the plethora of new online, multimedia and mobile platforms. Somehow, you need to stand out. Opportunities to do so exist, however, in the same scale as the challenges faced. What matters first and foremost is the same as ever: your work. Have a unique visual language, develop consistently original and impressive projects and be clear about your goals with them. Second, use the modern media tools to expose your work to peers, editors, curators, in a way that would not have been possible before. Establish your presence and identity in the field. And make sure to take full advantage of the hundreds of new photography festivals, competitions, and exhibitions, the several new business models – from self-publishing, to collectives, to stock-agencies – and use socia-media to bolster all these connections. We’ve walked into the industry in a time when the rules and games are changing. It’s up to us to take advantage of that.
What creative advice would you give to photographers starting out?
I’d definitely count myself as one of these ‘photographers starting out’, but some advice I try to remind myself of: (i) Break the lazy/fear barrier and just get out and shoot, shoot, shoot. (ii) Get a daily digest of current and old work from sites like the ones mentioned above (iii) Find creatives to work with and around that challenge you (iv) Don’t be put off by doubts or ruts. Keep battling. It’s part of the process. (v) Develop long-term projects. You don’t have to travel to exotic locations. Just find and pursue stories which resonate with you personally. (v) Be influenced and inspired, but don’t try to shoot like someone else. Trust your own vision, and be honest. It will reflect in your work.
What is your greatest achievement thus far in your career?
I used my photographs of Kolkata as part of a personal fundraising campaign for a street community there. I’d done a similar campaign before I got into photography, using just text, a website and a pledge video. But through the much more successful second campaign the effect of my images became quite evident. It reinforced my belief that visual communication is such an understated yet powerful part of the way we perceive things. All my heroes in the field have found ways to use imagery as an emotive, informative and action-provoking tool; this is something I aspire to, and saw glimpses of within this campaign.
What future projects are you currently working toward?
I’m currently working on three projects. One about youth diversity and struggles within London’s suburbs: exploring race, gender relations, gang culture, parenting issues and poverty. Another is a long-term, ongoing project about Kolkata’s biggest slums many of which are set to be destroyed over the coming two years. And finally, I’m researching and preparing for a big environmental story in China that I will begin shooting this December.
Where do you aspire to be in five years?
That’s difficult – I’m still figuring things out. I see myself working in multimedia reporting over the next few years. Short interactive films, with stills, interviews, narration, primary footage, graphics etc. often accompanied by text. Creating these involve some skills which I’m still only just coming to grips with, but I see the format as the future of storytelling and news packaging. Perhaps this will lead me down a more journalistic route; foreign correspondence has always had an appeal for me. Or perhaps I’ll move further towards film and documentaries. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, and other options exist, but a common theme is that photography will definitely continue to play an important role in my work. I just hope that 5 years from now I’m still curious and exploring – challenged, motivated and fulfilled by whatever work I’ve taken on!