Please tell us about yourself
During the second year of college, Tejal Patni took his friends to a railway station and photographed them as models, baked in warm sodium vapour light. The photographs, film pushed to its extreme by three stops, were dark and moody, and outrageously different. Tejal, who has been based out of Dubai since several years, is one of the most sought after Indian fashion photographers. His aesthetic is strongly distinctive, but can probably be traced back to those early images under the railway lamps. “I somehow developed my understanding of light by shooting at night. My awareness at that time wasn’t much, which is why my response was entirely instinctive. I loved how a street lamp or a dingy railway light would translate to these bizarre, atmospheric images.” Much of his work today is unlike the organic nature of his early influences, but he continues to build worlds that are bizarrely imaginative and intricate.
With vivid imagination and a unique vision of beauty and future, Dubai based photographer and director Tejal Patni is on his way to join the elite league of the best fashion photographers in the world.
Tejal was born and brought up in India and moved to Dubai in the 1980s. He graduated from Sir JJ School of Applied Arts in Mumbai, and later studied filmmaking at the London Film Academy. Over the years, he has worked with some of the biggest fashion brands across the world including Harvey Nichols, Bloomingdale’s, Caprese, and magazines like GQ, Grazia, Harper’s Bazaar, etc. The annual calendar he creates for the Middle East’s premium fashion brand Splash has been highly instrumental in getting him a much deserved wider recognition. And that’s not surprising at all because his sharp instincts, his inspirations and his unique vision – all come together on the stage of Splash calendar every year to give a spellbinding performance.
Over a few emails and a phone call, we have a conversation with the man himself about his work and life. Read on:
Tell us something about your childhood. Where did you grow up?
Our family is originally from Kutch district in Gujarat. My father and mother moved to Bombay after they got married. I was born in Bombay and grew up in one of its suburbs called Borivili.
In school, I remember being naturally inclined towards drawing and various art lessons. In the late 70s, my father got a job in Dubai as an art director at Lintas (advertising agency), and in 1980s, the whole family followed him there. I have an elder brother and a younger sister, named Daryl and Tina respectively. They both are photographers too coincidentally , and are extremely talented.
What influenced you creatively when you were growing up?
As a child, I was greatly influenced by my father. His illustration style actually got me driven towards arts. From art direction, my father later evolved his career into photography, and I followed in his footsteps.
So when did you actually realize you wanted to be a photographer?
To be honest, I was never serious about photography even though I helped my father by carrying his lights and trying to be his assistant. Otherwise I was quite lazy and found this whole profession very tiring.
In the meanwhile, I had joined Sir JJ School of Applied Arts. And during the third year, we had a basic introductory photography course. I asked my father if I could borrow his camera for the class. That moment changed everything for me.
I suddenly had a 35mm film camera which I hardly knew how to use. All I did was shoot my friends during school picnics and outings. On some days, I would also invite my male friends and shoot them under street lights during the night. I just kept practicing. Making mistakes. Practicing some more. And after seeing the resulting images, we (my friends and I) felt that maybe – just maybe – I might have an eye for photography.
How was the experience at JJ?
JJ is a renowned Mecca for art students, and this is precisely what I experienced as well. I felt that the school still resonated with the echoes of the greats who had left their mark there. All we had to do was be serious about our learnings. I was really blessed to have some great tutors and classmates from whom learnt a lot, and grew in the process. I guess the biggest takeaway there was to learn from each other.
How did you land into fashion photography eventually, and that too for some of the biggest brands in the world?
I was always greatly influenced by fashion magazines while I was growing up. Even in the art school, I was constantly collecting fashion magazines such as Face and Arena. I was also influenced then by the British fashion photographers like Nick Knight and Sean Ellis, and various British magazines. I loved the shock factor. I feel that it’s very important to be shocking to get noticed.
Someone on DangerousMinds website had said this about your work: “I can’t recall ever seeing such bold use of patterns—entirely excessive, but somehow it works.” How would you describe your own work?
Can I say that my style is a result of trial and error? I am in control of my mistakes. It is this trial and error that finally makes something great appear. I don’t fear failure. I see it as a chance to do and learn something new. It keeps my work fresh and always evolving.
What has been your most challenging assignment so far?
The Splash Calendar is the most challenging assignment for me, as I constantly really try hard to change it, and myself, each year.
What kind of personal projects do you do?
I used to devote a lot of time doing many personal experimental works. Lately though, my commercial work has kept me incredibly busy. However, I’m always trying to bring a fresh perspective to my commercial projects. Each and every project provides some level of inspiration to me, and it’s important for me to find ways to make it stand out.
Who are the photographers/filmmakers around the world that you really admire? And what kind of films do you watch?
I love watching dark films and comedies mostly. Although I love watching Ricky Gervais and Ben Stiller as they simply make me happy. I was an avid follower of the TV series ‘Breaking Bad’ as well. And my all-time favorite film is Shawshank Redemption.
How was your experience at the London Film Academy?
LFA was one of the best things I ever did for myself. At LFA, I found my best tutor, my best friend and my partner in life. Moreover, I got to spend the best two years in the city I love the most – London.
Personally, do you prefer filmmaking to photography, or is it just a fluid stream you can move around in?
I love photography the most mainly because it gives me complete control. Filmmaking is also a lot of fun, but it relies a lot on the budgets and the stakes are usually much higher.
How does Dubai inspire you and your work?
I travel a lot due to my work, but at the end I realize that Dubai is probably the best city for me. Yes, it has its good and bad just like every other city. But I love the fact that it’s so young and full of opportunities. It has a great leadership which believes in bringing and creating the best.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am currently working on a solo exhibit, and would love to do a short film soon. My highest priority right now though is to spend time with my daughter.
Tell us a bit more about this exhibit.
The exhibit will be about my work, and more importantly, about my work process. Most people have this perception about me that I am very post heavy. But that’s not entirely true. My work is a lot about the sets, about how everything is created. And all of that is then enhanced during the post-production. And I want to communicate that through this exhibit.
So yes, I am still deciding where I want to have this exhibit. Ideally, I would like it to be both in Bombay and Dubai because these are the cities which have given me so much and now I want to give something back to them.
What’s on your mind right now?
I am thinking about retiring (laughs). I mean I really want to do something different. I am very bored of what I am doing. There is nothing very exciting in the fashion photography scene right now.
There is a beautiful line in your bio: “I think there is something deeply fulfilling about the whole idea of Locomotion.” Please tell us more about this.
Not sure if this is easy to explain. I have a very short attention span. Not just as a photographer, but as a person. I can easily get blanked out. And it’s mostly because I am actually visualizing about whatever someone is saying to me. For example, if you are telling me about an incident, I would be completelyvisualizing it in my head. That’s the idea of locomotion. Everything is constantly moving for me.