What it is like being a female fashion photographer in India today
Highs and lows—three women reflect on their journeys
From being a male-dominated industry, fashion photography has come a long way; female photographers are now occupying gaps in the landscape and filling these with their unique perspectives and personalities. For ELLE India‘s February issue, which celebrates the fabulous and feminist world of Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, we worked with four female fashion photographers who crafted nuanced and striking imagery. Here, we spoke to three of them about their experiences, and what they make of the female gaze in fashion photography:
Manasi was studying visual communication and had almost taken up a job with The DBB Mudra Group when she came to the realisation that a desk job was just not for her. It was then that she began experimenting with photography; her first camera was a birthday present from her father. “People started praising the composition of my photos and I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot?’,” she says. Before pursuing it professionally, Manasi enrolled at the Light and Life Academy in Ooty for formal training. Once back in Mumbai, she worked with Farrokh Chothia to learn the ropes of the profession. “The actual learning happened on the job,” she notes.
Apart from working with leading fashion magazines, Manasi has worked with noted designers like Urvashi Joneja and Anavila, and brands such as Tommy Hilfiger and Ed Hardy. As a female freelancer, Manasi believes she is lucky to have had pleasant experiences for the most part. She says, “All my big jobs have been given to me by creative heads of companies who’ve been men. The only funny part is that there have been times when I’m on set and people ask, ‘Who’s the photographer?’ when I’m standing right there.”
The female gaze:
“Somewhere, there’s a little more of the sexual and sensuous element when men shoot women. Personally, I approach it as an art form, in a wholesome way. When I’m shooting nudes, I make sure the photographs have a flow and reflect a complete movement. It’s not about the body as such. Male photographers may also be doing that though,” she says.
Manasi is excited about the direction the fashion photography industry is moving in and the change that newcomers are heralding. “There are lot of cool kids experimenting with flashes and light photography,” she says.
All photographs courtesy Manasi Sawant
Not many bio-technologists double up as photographers and, as someone who’s not much of a talker, Neha finds she can express herself better through the visual medium. Her interest in art piqued in the second year of college, and she was drawn specifically towards photography. She turned to YouTube tutorials to pick up the basics. “As a teenager, I used my point and shoot camera and took a lot of photos which I’m sure were stupid,” she chuckles.
After obtaining her degree, Neha decided to take the leap, and try and build a career in photography. She reached out to numerous photographers asking them for a chance to assist them. However, her first job was not the initiation she had hoped for. The photographer she was assisting would harass her and make her run his personal errands. “I was stuck on a 10-day trip with him. And he said they hadn’t booked a hotel room for me, and that I’d have to share a room with him. I was ready to sleep in the car at this point,” she recalls.
A member from the production unit then stepped in and reassured her that there was a separate room for her. A light guy also approached her and offered to put her in touch with other professionals she could work with. This led her to Suresh Natarajan, whom she assisted for a year. The turning point came when she started assisting Porus Vimadalal who, Neha believes, helped her understand the art as well as the commercial aspects of photography.
Like Manasi, Neha too has worked with clients who, for the most part, have been professional. “I’ve never faced the gender wage gap,” she says. Neha has shot celebrities such as Janhvi Kapoor and Katrina Kaif, apart from shooting magazine editorials and portraits.
The female gaze:
“I’ve seen a lot of nude photographs of late that feature women. Perhaps, a little too many. I haven’t seen as many nude photographs of men. Maybe society is trying to accept it [female nudity],” she says. “Also, usually, you see that women are asked to smile and indulge in soft movements, whereas men are asked to straighten their back and keep their movements playful. Every subject is a character. Photography can reveal who people are, and I wish we saw them for that.” Case in point, her most recent beauty shoot for ELLE India, featuring model Tara Parambi: “She has tattoos, a buzz cut and is slightly muscular. It was so nice to see traditions being broken,” Neha says.
All photographs courtesy Neha Chandrakant
Nishat devoured fashion magazines as a teenager and was always drawn towards fashion, but her introduction to photography came through art. She came across the works of noted American photographer Imogen Cunningham, known for her botanical photography as well as nude self-portraits. “One of the first photographers I discovered, when I was 17 or 18, just happened to be a woman. Imogen’s images stayed with me… She couldn’t find anyone to pose nude for her so she just did it herself,” Nishat says. She studied photography in college and has been shooting since, but took it up professionally only in 2016. Since then, Nishat has been the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and is the author of the novel Seriously, Sitara? and the fashion tome Suneet Varma.
Nishat points out that majority of people in the editorial teams of fashion magazines are women, so you tend to work with like-minded people. She does acknowledge that the industry is dominated by male photographers. “A female stylist once did tell me that male photographers get more breaks and are more likely to be taken seriously than women,” she recounts.
The female gaze:
“To say that women and men approach photographing women differently is a bit of a generalisation. If you look at certain individual male photographers, you will find that they are just as sensitive and compassionate as women looking at women. But on the whole, I do feel that you do have a more sexual gaze from men than women,” she says.
Nishat brings an interesting perspective to the whole debate. “The nude has become an art today and, in art, the woman’s body has been objectified. So that when women think of themselves, they are considering themselves from a man or another person’s point of view, looking at themselves in a sort of objectified fashion,” she says. According to Nishat, in a way, fashion too does the same. “Because you’re looking at women to sell things to women. Also, you’re projecting that here are the women you should be aspiring to be, or this is how you should aspire to dress.” At the same time, Nishat feels a bit conflicted about whether we have internalised objectification so much that we’re making it an art form. “Is aspirational something that can be achieved or something that can be never achieved? I don’t know what to do about it except to be aware and see where that takes me,” she says.
While the industry today doesn’t resort to Photoshopping as heavily as it used to, Nishat points out that the men you see in magazines are not necessarily fit, pretty or young, “whereas women usually are two of those three things.”
Going forward, Nishat would like to see women across ages better represented on the glossy pages of magazines, as well as a sharper focus on what women are, rather than how they look.
Amen to that.
Hidden in Plain Sight by Nishat Fatima
“The Hyderabadi Muslim wedding occupies a special space in the female world in that it still has a Zenana and a Mardana. That means that men and women occupy different spaces. The Zenana then, is for women only. Women dress up for other women, are watched and documented by other women (often, even the photographers and videographers are female), and are free to be themselves. As a Hyderabadi Muslim woman, I am both participant and documenter to this essentially hidden aspect of Hyderabadi life in its customs, manners, fashions, rituals.”
All photographs courtesy Nishat Fatima