Kaushal Parikh: Breaking Free from Banking

Kaushal Parikh describes himself as an ex-banker turned street photographer. He has shot street photography seriously for the last three years, drawing inspiration from Magnum photographers, as well as members from the In-Public collective. After shooting in what he describes as a bubble, he is in the process of building up an online/offline street photography community in Mumbai and also founded the India Street Photographers collective. During a recent trip to India, Eric Kim had a chance to speak with Kaushal about his work and technique.

Q: Tell us about your radical change from being a banker to a photographer. When did you realize that you didn’t have the heart to be a banker anymore and how did you find photography as a creative outlet?

A: Banking happened because in the ‘90s all Indian parents wanted their kids to be doctors, lawyers or bankers. My parents would have freaked if I asked them to pay for an education in photography. It wasn’t even an option that entered my mind. I studied Economics, joined a bank and within a year I knew I had to get out. But it was good money and I don’t come from a super wealthy family so the security of my job kept me there for seven years and in the corporate world for over ten years. It was in that period that photography found me and I latched on to it as a source of satisfaction and joy. My job stifled me as much as photography allowed me to break free.

Q: You have shot street photography in Mumbai seriously for two or three years practically in a bubble. Describe your frustrations to us.

A: I think until recently street photography was a misunderstood genre in India. It has existed for a long time, but not recognized as a specific form of photography. Some of the great photographers like Raghu Rai have a fabulous portfolio of street images, yet the idea of roaming the streets to photograph real moments of life was not widely practiced by most photographers and if it was the work was never exposed. Now, thankfully, with social media tools and with street photography gaining in popularity internationally the effects have started to trickle down into India and there is more awareness and enthusiasm toward it. Exhibitions in the genre are also becoming more common, which is a great platform for young street photographers.

Q: You have had some In-Public photographers give you guidance through your work, especially that of David Gibson and Richard Bram. Can you describe how they helped critique your work and what type of positive reinforcement that gave you?

A: I have never had a mentor in India who I could approach to critique my street work and guide me. I just didn’t know of anyone out there who did this kind of work. So I approached David and Richard, both amazing street photographers from In-Public, to advise me on whether I was heading in the right direction with my style and images. Their feedback was extremely valuable and inspired me to hit the streets with a renewed vigour and confidence. I now have a good idea of images that work or don’t work and that helps in my shooting as well as editing.

Q: Describe the streets of Mumbai. What makes shooting in Mumbai different from shooting street photography anywhere else in the world? In which ways do you find the streets generous and which ways do you find the streets limiting?

A: That’s an interesting question actually. Up until a month ago I had slowly grown tired of shooting the streets of Mumbai. I felt like the kind of moments I wished to capture were just not present. The streets were just a crazy mess and isolating subjects was virtually impossible. I guess all photographers go through this frustration at some time or another. I just needed a fresh perspective and I got that when you [Eric] came down to Mumbai to conduct a workshop. The way you reacted to the streets of Mumbai made me see it with a fresh pair of eyes. I realized that a lot of the amazing things unfolding on the streets were simply taken for granted and hence overlooked by me. It can be tough to shoot here in terms of dealing with the crowds and traffic and heat, etc. But the people for the most part are more friendly than aggressive, as long as you respect them and avoid exploiting the poor and homeless.

Q: You shoot a combination of digital and also do a fair share of work with your film M6. Share with us how shooting film is a benefit over shooting digital.

A: I love my M6 and will never stop shooting with it as long as film is available. The camera and I just fit and nothing feels more right in my hands. Shooting film is therapeutic. It slows me down and makes me more selective, which results in a bigger percentage of keepers per roll. I develop my own film and love the entire process. Not knowing what I have captured until several days later lends a degree of objectivity which helps when editing. I shoot a lot of digital as well, but I go back to my M6 at least once a week to maintain the discipline it teaches me. Even with digital I am more selective now and often end up shooting maybe 60 images in a three-hour walk.

Q: What is your vision of India Street Photographers? What do you wish to gain from it and what message would you like to tell others?

A: ISP is a collective of passionate and talented street photographers in India. I am in the process of finding good street photographers in the country and getting them on board.  It’s not easy seeing that most street photographers, like myself, have been shooting in a bubble. But thanks to Flickr and other sites I am able to see the work of many more photographers and have a wider base to source from. I set up ISP with an aim to increase the awareness of street photography in India and share the existing talent on an international platform. The type of street photography that will come out of India will have a very different look and feel to the international work that is currently out there; that is why I think it can add variety and generate a keen interest and following.

Q: In your street photography you are great at capturing moments and juxtapositions. Describe how you identify a scene you wish to capture and how you go about creating your images.

A: I walk really slowly often stopping and absorbing scenes unfolding around me. Sometimes I instantly see a moment and capture it and other times I build the image in my mind first before actually clicking. If I see an interesting man selling fish, I start to think of cool elements that could make the shot. Maybe a cat, or maybe a man walking by covering his nose, etc. and if one of these comes by I try and time it so that the seller is in the middle of doing something interesting as well like doing a trade or weighing the fish.  If I can get two or three elements to come together it usually makes for a better street photograph. The method I adopt to create an image is really dependent on my mood, how tired I am and how in the zone I am on a given day.

Q: In our previous conversations you have mentioned that Raghu Rai has had a large influence on your work. Describe how Raghu Rai inspired you and how you feel about his work.

A: I really love Raghu Rai’s body of work that he created earlier in his career on black and white film. His sense of composition and powerful storytelling through his images is what drew me to his style. I was inspired by his work as much as Alex Webb and Salgado have inspired me. I like to think that my style has evolved by taking little things I admire about various photographers and piecing them together to create a Kaushal Parikh style. It’s great when people today come up to me and say “that’s a real KP image”.

Q: You have done a fair share of documentary, travel and commercial work. Tell us why your heart is in street photography.

A: Street photography is the most honest and most challenging form of photography out there. With today’s digital technology almost everyone can take great images in the Himalayas or in Alaska. But put photographers on the streets of Mumbai or New York and you will end up with mostly unsatisfying images regardless of the technology at hand. Street photography is not for everyone and that’s because it’s not easy to make a good street image. It’s even harder to make one that someone would like to hang in their home.  But it is real and in a way it is a documentation of history. The Himalayas are not going anywhere (hopefully) but what you see on the streets today will be radically different, or even non-existent, a decade from now.

Q: What are some current photography projects you are working on or see yourself working on in the near future?

A: I am working on a project on Chowpatty Beach, a beach that exists bang in the middle of Mumbai City and attracts people from all over the country. It is a hotbed of action over the weekends, especially on Sundays. I have never worked on a street “project” before and I tend to get bored of things pretty fast so I hope I can see this one through.

Q: Who are some people you would like to thank?

A: My family, of course. My mom and my mom-in-law are my biggest fans and most of all I thank my wife, who has always been 100% supportive of what I do and was instrumental in making me follow my heart when she saw how the corporate world was tearing into my soul. My wife is also my biggest critic and I always take her feedback before putting my work out there. Over the last couple of years she has cultivated her knowledge of street photography and when we are out together she often spots a potential image before I do. Her enthusiasm is my positive reinforcement. I could never have done it without her.

-Leica Internet Team

You can find more of Kaushal’s work at www.kaushalp.com and can also check out some of his updates over at his blog. For more information about the India Street Photography collective, visit the website: www.indiastreetphotographers.com.