NITYA RAO is a Boston/Bangalore based multimedia journalist, specializing in documentary and wedding photojournalism. She's also my college friend and a fellow Bangalorean. And I love that she brings contrasting worlds and disciplines together in her work in meaningful ways.
PERSON OF INTEREST is a continuing series of informal chats with fellow independent thinkers bound by a common desire to create new meaning. Dvibhumi Lunch Box is my dabba of mental nourishment and I'm sharing it with you. Tuck in! - Vyshnavi
How does a journalist, documentary photographer, wedding photographer and UX designer, fit into one person?
I like meeting new people, so that is the driving force behind all the work that I do. I thrive off traveling alone, making conversation with strangers, and I am often consumed by a sense of restlessness when I have stayed in a place for more than a few months. I think these personal quirks lend themselves really well to the kind of work that I enjoy doing. I'd say that curiosity and propensity for risk-taking and a love for art and artifacts are the dots that connect each of these creative pursuits. And of course there are technical aspects common to journalism, photography and UX research - like good interviewing skills, building a narrative and the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the other. I'd really like to be known as a visual anthropologist and ethnographer whose preferred medium is photography.
Which has been your most fulfilling assignment so far?
It is still a work in progress, but the election project I have been working on since 2014 has been a lot of fun. I have been traveling around the country photographing prospective MP's and MLA's on their election campaigns. I've hung out with Rigzin Jora in Nubra and Leh, with Kiran Bedi in Krishna Nagar, Delhi, with Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, Smriti Irani in Amethi and Shashi Tharoor in Trivandrum.
Each journey has been special and really humbling. I have seen so much of India, yet there is so much more to see, and so much that I don't understand. Campaigning is incredibly high octane, exhausting work, so it is a bit of a physical endurance challenge as well to keep your energy levels up through the process. Eventually, I hope to produce a body of work that documents my 'Great Indian Road Trip', viewed in the context of politics, electoral campaigns and the quest for power.
Your wedding photography is very different.
I approach wedding photography as social or cultural anthropology. I'm not really interested in focusing on individuals. My motivation has never ever been to make pretty pictures of anyone. That's just a byproduct of what I do and it helps fund my travel and personal projects. I use weddings as an opportunity to observe how families function as units, to study the effect of income, education, technology, pop culture, fashion on how people celebrate.
Anthropologists call this participant observation and it just so happens that my participants are brides and grooms. I have no formal training in anthropology or social science research, but I try and practice all the techniques anthropologists use while doing fieldwork when shooting a wedding i.e. fly on the wall observation, rich media documentation, contextual inquiry etc.
Birth, death and marriage rituals are the ultimate agni pariksha of what an individual, family or community stands for. What's interesting is that this process of observation has helped shape my own identity, so it goes much deeper than following the bride. Indian weddings in the U.S. are especially interesting to document, because NRI's are often caught between the demands of their own culture while navigating a new one. Weddings then become an excellent opportunity to observe social phenomena like assimilation, cultural appropriation etc. I always leave these events feeling richer for the experience.
You work alone. What guides you?
I use close family and some friends as a sounding board for ideas. I also invest in a lot of workshops and master classes for mentorship from other established artists. I also like going to museums and galleries, read books and watch films for inspiration. I do like to photograph on my own - in fact, I think it is necessary for photographers to work alone. Where I like getting help is at the editing table and figuring out what form the photos should take. A really good editor makes all the difference in helping you sequence and refine your work. I still haven't found that person.
What other challenges do you face as an independent creative?
Career-wise, I suffer from the paradox of choice. I am envious of people who can focus on one thing and do it well. I don't have a lack of talent or drive, but there are so many things I think are cool that I am in constant fear that I'll end up being a dabbler in each and a master in none.
Watching The Newshour with Arnab Goswami (there, I said it!), Corner House Ice cream, Ice N Spice burgers and random Netflix TV shows.
And finally, what's next for Nitya Rao?
As far as my career goes, I have decided to focus more on being a UX researcher and acquire some formal training in social science research.
As much as I'd like to be a full-time photographer, my reasoning is that if I had some other job that could provide me with a steady flow of income, I could use that to further my artistic pursuits without the pressure of taking on commercial and editorial assignments. I am also learning how to code and am currently thinking about creative ways to use the web to present my election-related work.
(All images belong to Nitya Rao and have been used with her permission)