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Photographing Communities and People with Suresh Naganathan

Suresh Naganathan is a Mumbai based street photographer born in Switzerland. In 2008, Suresh decided to move back to India, his parents’ country of origin. He picked up the camera in 2014 and has since  been exploring the streets of the world.

Suresh’s work has been featured in various places such as Eyeshot magazine, ‘11 Top Street Photographers’  by Lynn Smith and has been the finalist for Miami, Italian and Bangkok Street Photography Festival 2017, 2019 and 2018 respectively. 


"I don’t need to accelerate my journey, I just need to enjoy it."

Currently, Suresh is an active member of Instreet Collective and one of the founding members of Bambai Collective.

What fascinates you about street photography and photographing people? 


I’ve always been curious about people, their lives, their activities. Even as a kid, I would often take the bus alone, travel to an area of Geneva that I didn’t know, walk around and just observe people. Using a camera feels like a natural outcome of this habit. 


Although I started using a camera when I began traveling on my own, it’s only when I formally discovered street photography (circa 2014) that I felt that the puzzle of my life was complete. I am an observer, not an actor. I don’t want to change the scene that’s in front of my eyes. I want to witness it in all its little dramas. People are so interesting! They are quirky, funny, saddening. My aim is to take pictures of them and eventually, through my body of work, show what it felt like to live in the era in which we are living.


How has photography affected you personally?


Photography has made me a better human being. I’ve learned to pay attention to my surroundings, to details that most people miss. I have learned to be awed by the most mundane things; how the light hits objects, how people interact with each other, how there is beauty even in the most dire situations. It has allowed me to interact with people from social strata that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Thanks to photography, I am happier, more tolerant, more outgoing and I smile more.

What was it about India that made you want to move here? And how was it like growing up in Switzerland?


To be honest, moving to India was a bit of an accident. My job during my engineering days entailed a lot of short travels but I was longing for a longer mission, specifically in Asia. So I asked my company if I could do a one-year project there. I was supposed to be in Singapore but the project I had to work on turned out to be in India. The job was (at that time) interesting, it was also a way for me to connect back to my roots. After a few months, I fell in love, both with the country and my partner. 15 years later, I am still here.


Growing up in Switzerland was fantastic. I was born and raised in Geneva which is an incredible melting pot of cultures from all around the world. I had friends from every continent and had access to everything a child needs. I don’t think I would have been so curious about the world if I had grown up anywhere else.

Can single images be worth as much as a series of photos? 


To me single images are like the hit song in a musical album, the singles that are its showcase. They are great and I absolutely love them. But to me, focusing only on single images feels a bit restrictive in terms of story-telling. With a series, you have more space to explore: you can elaborate on themes, you can play with the flow of images, you can mix and match. The same as with an album by your favorite artists.


What are your thoughts on the importance of documenting communities in street photography?


There is always a thin line between documentary and street photography. I feel that one can and should document communities but not necessarily to send a message about it. To me, it’s more a question of access. The more we document a particular community, the more they trust us and invite us into their world. And that kind of access helps us photographers create more meaningful work. But I don’t want to be preachy or to highlight a particular issue. I want my pictures to show how these people live. The greatest compliment I ever received was from a member of a fishing community in Mumbai who told me that my pictures showed them in a great light, focusing on their culture instead of the things that are not so good. 

Tell us about an incident from your journey that left a lot of impact on you as a photographer? 


I cannot think of any bad incidents that happened to me. But I have a lot of good stories thanks to photography. I am (or was) inherently very shy but thanks to the camera, many doors opened to me. One of my first experiences was when I was in Vrindavan during Holi. I was taking pictures of a guy who then decided to invite me to explore his neighborhood and visit all his neighbors houses to take their pictures. Eventually, I ended up eating some prasad or the other in each of their houses and came back with so many beautiful memories. That’s the power of the camera. It opens doors and creates memories.

What do you think will be the future of photography? 

I feel that we are currently in a weird place: On one side, privacy concerns are heightened. A lot of people don’t want random people to take their pictures (while paradoxically, the same people provide their personal data to giant corporations for free). The world is becoming more and more uniform and a lot of things that made a place unique (like cafes in Belgium) are disappearing. So pictures taken in different parts of the world are starting to look similar. This is one of the reasons why people flock to Asia. Each country has still a unique flavor (at least for now). Secondly, there is AI that’s changing a lot of people’s relationship with photography: What is real? What is generated?


But on the other hand, photography has never been so democratized and ubiquitous. 30-40 years ago, only a select few could take pictures, people who could afford a camera and film. Nowadays, every one has a camera in their pockets and can take wonderful shots. I am hoping that we are going to see more and more pictures from smaller places, rural areas, slums, taken by the locals. They will show us things that we, outsiders, would never be able to see or gain access to. I wish I can help in this endeavor, maybe through workshops and classes. I want more and more diverse voices to show me things that I have never seen. That’s the superpower of photography, to show us a world that’s alien and interesting to me. I hope we get to see that.


Tell us about something that you wish you knew before you got into street photography?

Honestly, there is nothing that I wish I knew before starting. Every mistake, every experience, every little failures along the way are teaching me something. I don’t need to accelerate my journey, I just need to enjoy it. My only regret is that I didn’t fall in love with photography in my 20s when I had more time to really dedicate to it. But these things come when they are supposed to.

How do you think we can give back to the communities we photograph?

There is only so much we can do (especially as street photographers).  I usually try to show them in the best possible light. I will also send them photographs, take their portraits and if they call me for their festivals, I will take those pictures free of cost. The fact is that they grant me access to their world, so the least I can do is to send them the pictures. Eventually, I would love to print and do small pop-up exhibitions in their own community. Hopefully, this is something I can start setting up in a year or so.


Why do you think people should invest in buying photobooks and print? And what has looking at other photographer’s work taught you?

To me, looking at pictures on the small screen of my phone is such a poor experience. You cannot look at details, you can’t spend time with the images. Instagram is a consumption machine. It’s designed to make you scroll ad infinitum. And the insidious part is that it also rewards certain aesthetics: clean compositions or visual puns. They are easy to parse, easy to process and easy to forget. Some of the strongest images I have ever seen are complex images that require you to pay attention, to spend time with them, to analyze, interpret, look from corner to corner. Those things are impossible to do on online platforms.


That’s why I feel it’s important to buy books. They will make you slow down. You can’t scroll from one page to the next. You have to pay attention. And photography or any art form is all about slowing down and paying attention. 


Looking at other photographer’s work has taught me how much beauty and variety there is in the world. How many different ways one can shoot the same scene. How many stories there are out there. They inspire me to do more, to go out, to shoot and observe life.

Image copyrights © Suresh Naganathan

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