Aditya Mukherjee: Insightful Eye on India and Beyond

An emerging photojournalist with passion, talent, and craftsmanship, he’s still seeking the Leica of his dreams

Aditya Mukherjee is a talented 24-year-old photographer of Indian descent currently living in Singapore. He is a serious enthusiast of long standing whose pictures are clearly of professional caliber. No matter what camera he uses, his luminous, exquisitely composed images have that classic “Leica look” and we were not at all surprised to learn that his favorite photographer is the great photojournalist Sebastiao Salgado. An inveterate Leica fan, Mukhergee has often rented Leica cameras and lenses, but doesn’t own one quite yet. His dream outfit is a Leica M9 with 24mm, 35mm, and 50mm lenses. Clearly a photographer with a social conscience, he is currently working on a themed project called simply “poverty.” Here are his heartfelt observations on his mission, his technique, and his equipment as revealed in his thoughtful answers to our interviewer’s questions.

Q: What types of equipment and lenses did you employ to capture your beautifully composed and compelling pictures, like those of India that you sent us?

A: Some of the pictures were taken with Leica Rangefinder cameras and others were taken with DSLRs and various lenses. The reason is simple. Carrying film on flights is a liability these days. Hand checking each film takes a lot of time and sometimes airport authorities insist on scanning the film through X-ray. This degrades the quality to an extent where carrying film is no longer viable. So I have made the switch to digital.

I have never settled on one kind of equipment. I think my current style of photography is best served by an eye-level rangefinder. My interests in photography have changed and so has the kit. I was very interested in landscapes when I started out, so I used medium format. As I got interested in documenting the human condition, I was more driven towards rangefinders. I have rented Leica gear from time to time. Leicas have very little “cost” associated with buying into the system. This is because one doesn’t really need to “learn” using a Leica. It just becomes part of you and an “extension of your eye.” If I get a chance to turn pro, I think that would be the first thing I would acquire— an M9 with a 24, 35 and 50 mm lenses.

Q: One of the main reasons your picture are so engaging is their strong emotional and graphic qualities that grab the viewer. Do you try to express the storytelling element you refer to through individual images rather than in a series, or have you tried both these narrative approaches?

A: No. I have not consciously worked on a series yet. If a lot of pictures are taken in a place I am familiar with I think they naturally fall into a series—like the pictures from the village in India. That is my ancestral home. I went back there every summer since I was a kid. I know the place, the people. So it was very easy for me to show them the way I see them when I went there with a camera.

However, I have always tried to make each image compelling in itself and be able make each one tell a story independently rather than be part of a series. The power in pictures is that each image allows a viewer to probe into that scene in much more detail. The mind then extrapolates meanings that are not obvious within the picture. If we look at the famous Cartier-Bresson picture of a man jumping over the puddle, you can really let your mind wander. There is meaning to the half broken hoop, the silhouette, the railway station in the background. That is the power of an image. It takes you beyond the obvious.

Recently, I have self-commissioned a series entitled “poverty”. This will be a series in that there will be a general theme that runs through the pictures. I want to show poverty of the human condition. We generally associate poverty with pictures of Africa or developing nations like India. To me, that is not the whole picture. Poverty to me is a relative concept. It can be emotional or physical poverty. I see a lonely woman in her mid thirties in New York as poor as someone who can just about to afford three meals a day in India. And from what I have experienced, many a times people in the first world are even poorer because they’re unhappy with their lives. A lot of popular culture today is based on escapism and that reflects much of the society in the developed world.

Q: We can certainly see the influence of your “favorite photographer” Sebastiao Salgado in your work. How do you think his iconic images of steel mill workers in France and coal workers in India affect the way you take pictures, or influence the kind of subjects you select?

A: I think Salgado’s approach to documentary was quite novel in his day. He documented conditions that are persistent, not the headline news. These conditions are in a lot of ways economically driven. His pictures of the steel mill in France depict a structural change in the economy. Europe has gradually been moving into a knowledge- based economy from a manufacturing base. His pictures were taken as homage to the people who still make a livelihood from manual labor.

I am also driven to show a persistent economic condition in my pictures. I will be bold enough to use one of my pictures titled Farmer. The man in the frame is called Adip. I have known him since I was a child. He earns 50 rupees a day (Just over one US Dollar) working from dawn till dusk on farms he doesn’t own. That is not enough for sustenance. His wife in the background sells home rolled cigarettes. She earns the equivalent of 50 cents for every 1000 cigarettes rolled. There is an ever-growing economic divide between the middle class of India who live in cities, are well educated, and with white collar jobs, and the traditional agriculture-based society which is falling far behind in the economic growth of India. I wanted to show their condition in the picture. His eyes tell much of that story for me.

Q: You said at one point that you strive to merge your internal vision of the world with “what you see before your eyes.” That is a profound statement about your creative process. Can you say something more about that?

A: I think it is a challenge to communicate to the viewer what I see in the world when I take pictures. It is hard to communicate the “message” without using words to provide context for that picture. If I take a picture of the farmer I mentioned earlier, not many people would have sensed what I wanted to convey without some background information. For that matter not many would know the “Afghan girl” is really from Afghanistan in Steve McCurry’s famous picture, or her social condition. I think that is a challenge for most photographers—to communicate the entire message within the frame rather than using words as context. There are very few people who can do that. When I look at Salgado’s pictures, I think I can see get most of the message in many of them, especially his pictures of the gold mine in Brazil. The photographer’s message is crystallized in his vision and that’s what makes him great.

Q: What in particular about the Leica M rangefinder camera, aside from its minimalist elegance, fits in with the street photography and fine art images you create? Are there some functional elements or specific features that, as you say, let you take your image making to a higher level?

A: For me, the best camera is the one where I can see everything in the viewfinder and change every setting I want to- before I take a picture. And of all the cameras I have used, Leicas have been the best in these respects. I can keep my eye to the viewfinder and change everything with a Leica M6. So when I do see that split second when I want to capture a given scene, I have already captured it. I am not wondering what menu I need to select to change a particular setting. This is the problem with modern DSLRs. There are too many buttons, dials, etc. that can be quite confusing at least and require a learning curve at best.

Q: You mentioned that you like shooting with a wide-angle zoom when using an SLR, but also favor prime (single focal length) lenses at other times. Is the latter statement referring to Leica M lenses, and if so which ones are your favorites and why?

A: I have used a few different lenses when I have rented Leicas and one of my favorites is the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux. I like the Leica “glow” in black and white pictures and when you shoot with Tri-X it can give amazing results when the film is developed properly. And compared to a DSLR lens of the same focal length and aperture, it’s tiny. But based on my experience with Leica Ms, the lenses alone are a good enough reason for buying the M9, so long as one shoots digitally and can afford it.

Q: If we read between the lines correctly, it seems that you have shot extensively with Leica M rangefinder cameras. Have you made the transition from a 35mm to a digital Leica M, and what is your impression of how, say, a Leica M9 or M8 compares to and M6 or an M7 when it comes to your style or genre of photography?

A: When I made the transition to digital, a Leica digital rangefinder camera did not exist. Even a full-frame DSLR was prohibitively expensive for me, so I settled for a crop sensor (APS-C-format) DSLR.

When the M8 came along, I rented one. I was excited about the camera but the noise characteristics and its use of infrared filters on the sensor were not desirable for me. However the dynamic range was breathtaking compared to DSLRs in their class. The M8 really showed Leica’s determination to stay true to the Leica M line of rangefinders. It felt exactly like an M6 and you could hardly tell you were using a digital M instead of an analog M apart from the lack of a wind lever on the former. I found no discernible difference between using an M8 or an M6. Digital of course has its conveniences and is less labor intensive.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving going forward, both in terms of your creative process and “mission” and with respect to the equipment you will be using?

A: I would really like to have an exhibition one day. As I said, I have self-commissioned a project called “poverty”. A lot of the pictures from India are part of the broader concept forming that project. I would love to have it exhibited and thereby share my thoughts and feelings on this crucial subject with an audience. Apart from that, I would like to work with clients on longer-term projects with a given theme. Photojournalism appeals to me, but to tell stories I am passionate about, not headline news like Iraq or Afghanistan. There are various issues in the world that are stagnant and get little attention. I also want to explore the subconscious human mind through pictures. This is slightly tricky as the real world seldom looks like a dream. One needs to manipulate reality through a lens to render it “dreamlike”.

In terms of the creative process, I would like to experiment more. I am making lenses myself with varying degrees of success. I also want to go back to shooting film at some point when I can justify the time it takes in the darkroom. Equipment wise, I think I would like an M9 or the next version of the digital rangefinder when it becomes affordable. I really like the convenience of digital and all of the pictures above have been captured digitally. I would also like to use more lenses I make myself in my photography going forward. I love the surreal almost dreamlike qualities such single element lenses can render. My picture, “Lighthouse Dream” was taken with one.

-Leica Internet Team

To see more photos by Aditya Mukherjee click here. To contact Aditya Mukherjee, please email him at adi.mukherjee@gmail.com.