Looking through Vikram Kushwah‘s dream-like work, it’s clear to see that the New Delhi-born photographer is a real fantasist at heart. Growing up in a boarding school with the enchanting Himalayas as the backdrop, Vikram’s childhood and love for all things magical has clearly influenced his work today.
All photography by Vikram Kushwah
Vikram moved to London just three years ago and his career is already proving successful. With three critically acclaimed exhibitions under his belt, not to mention an international artist award and interest from the likes Vogue Italia, big things are predicted for Vikram Kushwah. I caught up with the ambitious photographer to find out a little bit more about his work and the inspiration behind his current book project Memoirs of a Lost Time, a collaboration with writer, Trisha Sakhlecha.
Vikram Kushwah Illustration by Estelle Morris
What first inspired you to start taking pictures?
The fact that photography is a direct representation of reality, yet it almost never fails to lie. It does so by allowing you to stage a setting, something that reality doesn’t allow you to do. It just exists and takes shape on its own. There’s this tension that I’ve always associated with photography and reality. You think of something and a picture is like a memento you keep, to remind you of your thoughts.
You grew up in a boarding school in the Himalayas. How does your background inspire your work today?
It was a very big school and I had a lot of free time to explore and to read children’s storybooks. I took the stories as real happenings since there was nobody there to tell me otherwise. I was also close to nature and a bit of a dreamer; I was bound to be growing up in a place like that. Every Sunday I would watch tadpoles in a pond for hours, waiting for ‘papa frog’ to turn up and make a big splash.
Students were given a lot of freedom to discover themselves in this way. I saw magic and sorcery as real life, holding a very strong bond with wildlife and the natural world. When I studied the mystery filled art of Surrealism and the romantics’ pastoral, it took me right back to my childhood. Each of these elements play a strong part in my work today; some conscious and some sub-conscious.
How much of your Indian heritage can be found in your work?
None. My formative years, from when I was two up until sixteen, were spent in a boarding school. Although it was in India it was a typically English school, maybe because it was founded by an English lady during the British rule during 1937. Though I come from a very traditional Indian family, my roots actually took shape at school where I spent two-thirds of every year since I was thirteen.
What encouraged you to move to London?
It has to be the rich art and cultural heritage of Britain. The exposure, the opportunities to progress, innovate and transform, the resources to learn, the vast open country. All of this creates, within me, a mental space from where I can continue to grow as a photographer and artist.
Do you think living in London has inspired your work in any way?
There’s so much for this ‘mental space’ to soak up here. The English countryside takes me back to my school days, back to my storybooks about pastoral landscapes and wooden cottages surrounded by forests and meadows, peasants and farmers. I keep looking for a tumbling Alice, ghoulish wolves and evil stepmothers; I sometimes do find them.
Earlier this year you shot the photography for Hairspray: The musical. What was it like working with team behind the production?
It was a totally new experience. I enjoyed the rehearsals as much as I enjoyed photographing the play. I was left on my own and given complete freedom, and I really enjoyed the space on the balcony where I shot from. The atmosphere was exceptional and one could really see the hard work being put in by the very young actors and crew. By the end of it I knew all the lines by heart!
Your work tends to combine both elements of fine art and fashion editorial; is there one medium you most enjoy?
There’s a definite crossover no matter how much I want to pull them apart. I have these peculiar ideas and strange stories in my head, which inform my pictures, and they never escape the thought of fashion. Not just in terms of clothing, but also in the sense of time and place. For example, there was this one picture that I only wanted shot with a certain type of Peter Pan collar. Afterwards I knew the picture wouldn’t have worked without it.
There are lots of elements in my photos that act as pieces of information about my work. Fashion is essentially one of them. The information is subject to interpretation and that’s when the mind starts to wander and stories begin to take shape.
What is the story behind Ofelea?
The Ofelea series is a portrait of my imagination and memories, often twisted by the dark underlying layers of the storybooks I read as a child. The series of pictures is a juxtaposition of the Freudian concept The Uncanny; the constantly recurring mysterious environments in the Surrealist art movement and reconstructions of my distant childhood imagination.
There is an interesting story behind the name ‘Ofelea’. To begin with, my Ofelea had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Ophelia is in fact the protagonist of one of my favourite films, Pan’s Labyrinth; this is what originally drew me to the name. During the research stage of my project, I studied both romantic and surrealist art. Here I came across the famous painting Ophelia by English painter John Everett Millais, a co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. I learnt that Millais‘ drowning of Ophilea was a depiction of Shakespeare’s very own character, thus bringing all three Ophelias (very co-incidentally) into the equation.
What was the inspiration behind your new book Memoirs of a Lost Time?
This book project was actually Trisha’s idea. She knows my work really well and we both draw inspiration from similar aspects – escapism, daydreams and so on. We all know what clothes designers make, what song musicians write, but we wanted to know more about the formative days of such creative individuals: the elements of childhood that ultimately inspire their work today. So we set about capturing the memories of their bygone days in our own dream-like style. They themselves feature in the photographs, though nothing too defined. We’ve left the images open-ended – just like dreams and fading memory – yet there’s a strong flavour to each story.
Each chapter takes you into the personal and never seen before world of our subjects, presenting photographs, a short story and an insightful interview. Each section weaves in and out of reality where you begin to drift into a realm of imaginative possibilities, yet always remaining attached to the facts that were. It’s a representation of not only what was, but also a very whimsical take on what could have been.
What was it like working with Trisha Sakhlecha?
In a way it’s like working with myself. We share a common paradigm in terms of aesthetics. We’re the best of friends too, which always helps. We can rubbish each others’ ideas without hesitation and more importantly the process of storytelling and taking pictures doesn’t feel like work to us; it feels like we’re in a trance. We definitely compliment each other well: she’s the more organised one, whereas I can lift heavy things. It’s a balance.
What can we expect to see next from you?
Memoirs of Lost Time; it’s only half complete. There are some real surprises yet to come in the forthcoming chapters. We’re hoping to release the book mid-2012.
Oh and Vogue Italia are also interested! They’re publishing one of my photographs in their January 2012 issue, featuring London-based fashion designer Elizabeth Lau.
Exciting times lie ahead!
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