Start With What’s Personal to You - Nilanjana Bhattacharjee

I realized photography was going to continue being an essential medium of how I saw the world and myself in it.

1. Tell us about your background and journey.

I was raised in a 14 membered Bengali joint family in New Delhi, the experiences and dynamics of which shaped my passion for understanding societies through the stories (of culture and history) that shape them. I was trained in Sociology at University of Delhi and went on to do a Master’s in Development Studies from University of London. 

I was certain I wanted to work in development because the sector’s existence is shaped by storytelling – in research, intervention, impact and advocacy. After my Master’s I began working in grassroots development with urban poor communities in India through Participatory Research as the guiding methodology, which allowed me to work directly with communities in planning, implementing, and sustaining development interventions. 

These experiences and the perpetual background of the important role stories played in my household that shaped how I communicate with the world and what shapes my world, brought me to begin dabbling in alternative mediums to development that could have a larger mobilizing impact on communities for issues of social concern – and thus began my hunt for integrating storytelling in different ways (photography, poetry, prose) about the cultures that we impact or are impacted by into my job as a development practitioner as well as my passion as a visual narrator.

2. How and when did you realize your passion for photography?

I think my interest in visual narrative/ photography began in the early years of under graduation and became a significant tool of extending my textual research/ writing and artistic curiosities into visual narrative during my Master’s. 

It was especially while undertaking a qualitative Participatory Action Research on women sanitation workers in India with my previous organization that my inclination of building visual narratives for personal stimulation led me to create an entire visual repository of the findings from that study; one that captured the context and reality of my research and lent greater understanding to people outside the development sector when trying to understand communities/ statistics/ injustices removed from their daily lives. 

The visual repository became another form of a knowledge product from a research intervention that stimulated more discussion, recall and added more comprehensiveness to the methods of research and interpretation. I realized photography was going to continue being an essential medium of how I saw the world and myself in it.

3. What are some tips you would like to share with amateur photographers?

I wish I had something profound to say, but I don’t. Because I am a full-time development practitioner who also photographs to tell stories at a personal and professional level.

I can only tell you what works for me - start with what’s personal to you. All of us have experiences and circumstances that shape us through the people, incidents, habits and practices they bring. Which ones particularly shaped you? What is personal to you? What is the sound, light, setting of the narrative you want to tell me when I ask you to tell me your favourite story? 

Only you can hear, see and remember it the way it happened (to you), while many others may know how it happened (period). The minute you bring that distinction and ownership into a narrative you want to visually create by building on your dialogue with it, rather than the dialogues that work for others/ are safer/ or simply exist, you create a value of new (visual) knowledge. One that is at least worth a thousand words, as they say.  

4. What are the important skills one should have to be a successful photographer?

Ethics. Storytelling. Visualization/ frame building. Technical skills. Networking. (In that order).

5. What are various opportunities available for aspiring photographers?

There are various photography grants, scholarships and art residencies in India and abroad that a committed Google search would tell you more than you need to know about (or me). However, opportunities that are often not categorized as pure photography often go unnoticed but can bring so much to the table, if combined with other skills. 

For example, reaching out to social impact/ intervention/ research institutions and pitching ideas for building the visually-driven aspects of their ongoing projects across India or beyond. Tapping into different industries, particularly those that rely on communication as an essential part of its tangible outcomes/ goals is something that really worked for me and many around me.

6. Which is your favourite book and why?

It has to be The Cultural Politics of Emotion by Sara Ahmed. Because it reminded, confirmed, and (re)introduced to me (in the most sublime language) how we as people are perpetually shaped by our emotions... and how our emotions are perpetually, unfailingly and incorrigibly shaped by the words (texts), and photographs (visuals) we are fed every day and in turn the larger histories we consume/ learn about/ dismiss from them.

Interview by - Shamayla

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