Meet Indian photographer, Upahar Biswas.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Born of a Christian father and Muslim mother, in a small town called Burdwan, I remember spending majority of my childhood with my elder brother, as both my parents were working. Introducing me to Guns N’ Roses, to Rahul Dravid to Reader’s Digest to French New Wave, my brother is a lot responsible for my wider vision and go-getting attitude. As a kid, I loved painting and sports. Had fewer friends and a less demanding life, till class 3, after which we shifted to Kolkata for a bigger, more ambitious life goals. The transition from Metropolitan to Cosmopolitan life wasn’t very smooth. Especially for someone who has never spoken in English earlier than then to finding herself in the middle of fluent English speakers in the age of 7 it got to a point of struggle. I had the option of giving in to it and another option I had was winning it. I chose the latter. My mother used to spend a couple of hours with my studies every day, after her office and domestic work.
When in middle school, I managed my studies with my interest in arts and sports. With a keen interest in fine arts, I was notably the go-to person in any art fest in school and my skills in sports made me the games captain of my house. That was a special day when my parents were invited as guests on the day of investiture. I wasn’t a confident person before that. Thanks for my school, apart from basic learning, it showed me a path that I could follow to shape my future.
After school, I had fewer friends who chose a similar line of career as I did. “I wanted to do something creative ” – is all that I knew in the time of choosing college and courses.
St. Xavier’s College had started a new course on that exact year named – Bachelor of Multi Media. No one knew the future of this course because it was introducing only on that year ’11. I chose to take up the entrance exam because as it appeared I met all other criteria. As a backup, I also had applied to another college called Gokhale Memorial College with the course “Advertising and Marketing”. It so happened that I didn’t get through to Xavier’s College hence I went to Gokhale to peruse my studies. After the end of the first year, I decided to appear for the entrance exam in Xavier’s once more with better preparation and aim to get through, on the second time. Was lucky on the second chance. A course of my choice in the best college, like-minded people using the language of creativity, I lived in adrenaline for good. Subjects included Photography, Film Making, AFX, VFX, Animation, Sound Designing, and others. I enjoyed almost everything but I loved making images the most. I decided I want to be a photographer.
Describe the city you’re living in and what it’s like to live there.
After moving from Burdwan in class 3, I shifted to Kolkata.
My city Kolkata, also known as The City of Joy – is best known for its culture, love for literature, football, street food, politics, and art. I belong from the city of Rabindra Tagore, Mother Teresa, Sourav Ganguly, Howrah Bridge, Roshogolla, Trams, Metro Railways, and Indian Museum. Kolkata is an educated and peace-loving city, except in recent times. Known for its hospitality its a perfect place to study and of late its good for startups. It’s not very competitive, here, mainly because we like to go at a slow pace.
My city Kolkata, also known as The City of Joy – is best known for its culture, love for literature, football, street food, politics, and art.
What is the best and worst thing about living in your city?
Best – Apart from the cultural and intellectual pride, Kolkata is an Economic city. Anybody who has basic demands can sustain here very well. Manpower is in abundance which is good news for start-ups. Also, we have a brotherhood among different religions here, its a relief, if we have to compare with other states. Kolkata is empathetic.
Worst – After all the giving, I wish people were more professional, competitive and had better work ethics here. Due to the lack of challenge, people like to work less, earn less and lead a slow, sober life.
Give us 3 words that describe what it’s like to be a creative in your city.
How did you start your career in art?
When in my 2nd year of college while working on photography assignments, I got a major boost from my photography Mentor, I.B Ma’am. It was then I realized I could make some money by doing small jobs. But who will hire me, where can I apply?
It was almost 5 years ago and freelance photography wasn’t considered a mainstream service. People did it either commercially or for a hobby.
I had joined an e-commerce company as a par-time, where I went after college. I never got paid for the dirty works I did there, but I am thankful for that phase. I was a learning process. In the mean-time, I had applied for Times of India who obviously didn’t trust me back then. I did quite a few collaborations, free-portrait sessions with my friends and launched them online. On being noticed online a few commercial projects started coming in – which included freelancing with Times of India, Shooting Portfolio of upcoming models and shooting basic fashion shoots for some start-up e-commerce site. I kept working on these small projects all my college life, till that one day when I finally passed college.
As college ended, I got a placement in an advertising agency as a graphic designer. As a mom, like any other moms will, insisted that I join the day job. I realized that wasn’t making enough time for photography and eventually the small projects stopped coming in. As a way out, I spoke to my boss, gave him ideas of pitching for photography services to his existing clients. The idea was to develop good content for our company’s clients which included art and copy. I started getting photoshoots, this time from my company. Bigger in idea and team and budget.
After changing two such companies with time, I joined the 3rd company which was again a start-up designing agency. I was one out of 3 employees in that agency. By then, it was 2016, I had already done a national campaign and multiple small to medium photoshoots, alongside my day job. One good thing about all the agencies was they allowed me to do freelancing on the side. I made it clear with them the fact that I can’t leave my freelance photography for my day job. So, the 3rd agency gave me a swanky new cabin to work on brand identity. It was a horrible feeling to do the same thing for someone elsewhere I knew I could do the same for myself. My office was on the 7th floor and pre-pujo decorations lit the Park street roads. New advertisements had hit the market and in the millions of hoarding the year, one hoarding was shot by me for a national campaign. I could directly see the hoarding from my office window and thought to myself – I may not be a brand yet, but I have an identity. This hoarding that I have shot has caught millions of eyeballs, I may have one client, this agency doesn’t have that either. If I don’t build on my brand now and waste my art/talent on a day job, I may regret later. On day 4 – I quit my job with a verbal consent from my father who always encouraged me to start on my own and my brother who has always supported me with my decisions. I had no saving, no clientele, no family connection in this field. I took the risk.
I took the risk.
Were the people around you supportive of your decision on working as a creative?
For me, the support of my immediate family matters alone. Let’s not forget the fact that my parents are from a generation where photography is not a mainstream source of income. Having said that, they are people who appreciate evolution.
When I decided to quit my day job, my mother was worried because I was stepping out of a salaried construct. She did not make it very evident, rather chose to allow me to go ahead. Perhaps even today she feels a day job would be more relaxing for me because it’s time-bound, organized and less stressful. In fact, it took her a lot of time to accept me in the same light as my professional acquaintance does.
My father is the coolest guy ever known to me. He is positive, encouraging and never afraid of failure. The fact that I could choose to start on my own in a creative field is only because of him.
If I was a dentist instead of a photographer, I think my brother would still support me and helped me in seeing the wider, bigger, better picture of the same. I am extremely lucky that my family is on the same page. Only because of this mental peace and moral boost my life is easy.
What are some goals and ambitions you have for your future work?
It looks futuristic – I want Kolkata to accept fashion/glamour/ lifestyle photography as it is in Bombay in India. Bombay is the film-city of our country. Almost all the shoots happen there. I would like it if Kolkata brands never have to leave the city for their photography and filming solution.
Also, as a fashion photographer, I would love to work in the fashion capital of the country – Milan, to shoot fashion.
I want Kolkata to accept fashion/glamour/ lifestyle photography as it is in Bombay in India.
If you could collaborate with any person in the world who would it be?
In some parallel world, given a chance, I would love to collaborate with :
1. Lady Diana 2. Nelson Mandela 3. Audrey Hepburn
(thankful for the struggles, hope, and emotions they have contributed to the world)
How would you describe the women around you?
Women around me are just the way, the world today needs. When I see them I see the intelligence, endurance, determination, and power. Also the kindness, the empathy the fierce and wildness that we have in our hearts. All this and a lot more is a celebration in itself.
Were there any local female creatives that you looked up to when you were growing up?
My growing up happened with the emergence of the internet. I spent more time browsing through work that inspired me and connected with people who share the same interest as mine. Also because my interest wasn’t conventional to find people with the same interest. It’s still a struggle that way.
While growing up, I was very much active in almost all the photography enthusiasts’ sites like Flickr, 500px, Getty Images, Shutterstock, Pinterest, and later in Behance. I was there to see more photos, created by different people from the various parts of the world. There was a lady, her profile name was Green Olive Mama – her style of shooting was very simple yet artsy. I was highly inspired by her.
Are there any challenging aspects of being a female in your industry?
There is no denial about it. Challenge comes in various forms and I am sure it is the case with every single female out there.
So, I was shooting in the premises of a temple this one time, as an official photographer, with special permission. Wearing all-covered Indian clothes with a camera in hand. I looked different, maybe a little too free-spirited, independent, and flamboyant to be overlooked. Hence a security guard noticed me and signed at the “No photography” board. It took me a maximum of 5-6 seconds to explain to him that I was official with permission, while 2 more laymen came hard at me, calling my name. Hearing that 3 more ladies come and join them. In a matter of less than a minute, that’s how long I took to produce my permit to the security guard, I was literally mobbed.
I travel very often and in most situations I travel alone. I recently returned from Jammu and Kashmir for a landscape photography assignment. Of course, you have to be careful but I must say, if I hadn’t risked it, I wouldn’t have known how empowered the woman inside me is. All the challenges I have faced as a woman stands no chance right now. To me, the choices have been black or white without any grey area. Either I let the disadvantage to womanhood win over me, or I win it over. Who wouldn’t choose the latter? Tell me.
Most certainly I would like to see many more women join the clan. It’s one decision away from achieving.
Do you have any advice to young women who are aspiring to work in your field?
Most certainly I would like to see many more women join the clan. It’s one decision away from achieving. Apart from spilling the creative beans and marketing yourself mighty well, be prepared to be extremely strong in the head, set a goal, meet various kinds of people, be open to shouldering new opportunities, work hard and before you know, your work will take you elsewhere. Never let anyone take advantage of you and never exploit others.
Remember, you are the Goddess, if anyone can, it’s you.
Photos courtesy of Upahar Biswas.