We cannot freeze time, but we can freeze moments in time !
Shailja Bhatnagar, our next pathbreaker, Professional Photographer, shoots for architects and interior designers, highlighting their work through a rich visual medium.
Shailja talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about dabbling in each and every genre of photography, from nature, food, weddings, products to industrial photography.
For students, if you want to have a shot at photography, focus on your basics, understand the nuances of art, and observe things around you !
Shailja, Your background?
Hi, I am Shailja Bhatnagar, a professional photographer. I hail from a highly educated family where knowledge, learning, and culture hold a very special value. My father is a masters in economics and my mother is a PhD in Sanskrit. Education has been the priority in my extended family as well. We come from a very colourful and tasteful state of Rajasthan, I have always been attracted to words, bright colours, art and culture, and music.
As a student in school, I was never interested in studies, instead, I have always been a curious child and wanted to know more about everything. Soon I realised that though I was not able to register anything that I read, I was able to understand and memorise whatever I saw, heard and felt. My parents understood that and suggested that I take up fine arts as a subject in school so that I could score well in my board exams and at least pass school.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I did my bachelors in Fine Arts from Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi followed by a basic and advanced certificate courses in Photography from Triveni Kala Sangam, New Delhi.
I also did my Postgraduate Diploma in Professional Photography from Light & Life Academy Ooty.
Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
My love for arts and bright colours helped me channelize my energy into creativity. And whenever I got time, I would study. I secured admission in Jamia Millia Islamia University into the bachelors in Fine arts course in 2004. It’s a four years degree where I learned to handle different mediums, colours, tones, shapes, and all aspects of fine arts in great detail. It enhanced my observational power. I developed the ability to visualise anything that I read.
During my BFA, in my third year, I found the love of my life in Photography. I would spend the whole week in the darkroom, washing my films, developing and printing my images. The darkroom soon became my second home and I started skipping other subjects in fine arts. When I was running away from painting, sculpture, and calligraphy, I was getting closer to the camera body and felt it as my own body part.
I started conversing with my camera, telling it what I wanted, expressing my vision, and handling it beautifully. It helped me understand the machine in a better way and I think my camera also understood me. This is how I started my career in photography where my camera and I were not two different identities.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I chose photography as a career path because I felt that clicking an image is a shortcut. I am a really lazy person who can create shortcuts to organise herself. My other classmates chose graphic designing which involved long working hours and clients interfering in their work.
My parents did not like the idea of me taking up photography as a career. In August 2008, I chose to work as a graphic designer in a photography company. For me, the transition from processing an analog camera image to processing a digital image was very difficult. I learned the required software, printing techniques, and worked on a heavy-duty digital camera.
I earned and saved money to buy my first digital camera, Nikon D-90 which was for 60,000 INR in 2010. Also, I was able to save enough to do my specialised certificate course in basics and advanced digital photography from Triveni Kala Sangam. This one-year course cleared all my doubts, teaching me in-depth about the how’s and what’s about the camera, the subject, and helped me make a career in photography. When my parents realised that I was earning to further invest in my career, they started supporting me.
For a good seven years, I dabbled in photography in each and every genre possible, from nature, travel, culture, food, local architecture, portraits, babies, weddings, pre-weddings, birthday parties, family functions, products, to anything under the sun. During this phase of my life, I have worked for free, sometimes unpaid, faced competition and opposition, and also done work that brought me name and fame. I applied my learnings during jobs in my next company. I also shared my knowledge with my teammates and learned from them.
After seven years of exploring my interests in photography, I realised that I am more attracted to non-people photography like food and beverages, architecture and interiors, industrial and machinery photography, home decor products etc.
My first job in photography was at yebhi.com in 2011, as a junior photographer. I travelled 5 hours every day, and my salary was 5000/- a month. I got promoted as a photographer and the salary became 15,000/- a month. At yebhi.com, I worked as a retail photographer for their various clients in Apparels, Footwear, Appliances, Electronics and accessories, Jewellery and lingerie.
In my 2nd job as a photographer in fabfurnish.com in 2012, I used my past knowledge and experience, trained my assistants, and was a part of the core studio team. As a team, we designed 14 studios in our warehouse. I worked as a Photographer for their various clients in Home décor and Home furnishing.
At FabFurnish, our goal was to create studios that reflected natural home settings and shoot interiors such as furniture, kitchenware, furnishing, and other home decor products. Here, I worked on a larger canvas which gave me exposure to the bigger picture of retail home furnishing photography as well as the different aspects of working in larger teams with a bigger vision.
After quitting FabFurnish, I freelanced for 3 years to understand different clients and their requirements. During my freelancing days, I worked in a movie as a photographer, worked for NGOs, short portfolios, and high-end garments.
As a freelancer, I have worked with several NGOs pro bono, as a way of giving back what I have learnt through my experience and skills, to drive societal impact in whatever way I can.
In 2014, I joined Havells India Ltd as an employee and did their in-house photo studio setup. I shot industries, corporate meetings, portraits of management, and products. I have also freelanced and given consultations for studio construction during this period.
Havells was a completely different opportunity for me as I moved from the world of retail and fashion photography to industrial photography. Havells is a reputed brand in the Indian Electrical equipment market.
Hence, their shot requirements were different from any of my previous assignments. While shooting their products we had to work within strict guidelines such as ensuring a white background, taking clear shots of products with all angles covered and bringing out the details in every shot. It was much more technical with a lot of attention to the details.
In 2015, I resigned from Havells India Ltd and joined Light and Life Academy Ooty, for my postgraduate diploma in professional photography.
Light and Life Academy Ooty is one of the top photography institutes across Asia. I wanted to take up this course to explore photography from a different perspective.
The course which I chose was very intense. Day and night, we did only Photography. For one year, I did not party, nor did I watch a movie in a movie hall. And there are no malls in Ooty. Life shuts down after 9 PM in Ooty. We used to get up at 4 AM to shoot sunrise and often slept at 6 AM after shooting star trails.
I chose architecture and interior photography, food and beverages photography, and fine art photography as my specialisations. To complete my diploma, we had to submit a project. Because of my past career record, and the clients I had, I was able to pitch to a hotel management company in Indonesia for my architecture and interiors portfolio. This was a great opportunity for me to travel and stay at one of the most exotic locations, Bali and build my portfolio in architecture and interiors.
Also, for my food and beverages photography, I was able to pitch to clients in hotels and restaurants in Delhi.
In August 2017, my photography in architecture and interiors got published in the society interior magazine. Since then, I have been doing architecture and interior photography as my main genre of practice. I also do product photography for home decor brands, and industrial and machinery shoots often.
How did you get your first break?
I initially started my career in graphic design working on children’s albums. My first break was at yebhi.com where I joined as a photographer’s assistant. I got this job through an interview.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
I work in a male-dominated industry and it was a bit of a challenge for me during the early years, being the only female photographer especially in the construction industry. But I found my way through.
One more challenge is getting clients and establishing your credentials in terms of your work. Photography is a highly competitive field and one must know one’s worth and charge accordingly, but at the same time, know when to negotiate especially when you have an opportunity to work for interesting brands that can give you recognition.
Where do you work now?
Today I am intensively shooting for architects and interior designers on a contract basis. I have worked for DLF, Mahagun and Amrapali group. One of my best projects I have done is Fatehgarh hotel, Udaipur.
Also, as a Fine art photographer, I have done three exhibitions where I displayed my digital photography printed on canvases. My first exhibition happened in Thyagaraj Stadium, New Delhi in Nov 2018.
In September 2019, I joined Chiiz Photography Magazine as a co-founder. The magazine publishes photographers from different genres across the globe. Also, they conduct workshops in photography. I did 4 workshops with chiiz. I also trained interns in graphic designing, telecalling and designing the chiiz magazine. In Chiiz, I added another skill to my portfolio, website designing. I also helped 2 fellow photographer friends in creating their portfolio websites. In May 2020, I left Chiiz and fully focused on my own business.
What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?
It is very important to have a solid foundation in order to be a good photographer. Focus on your basics, understand the nuances of art, the colours, shapes, backgrounds and how they create moods, emotions on canvas. Photography is more about our interpretation of the world around us through our images, by capturing the beauty of our world.
What is it you love about this job?
I love the fact that I get to see the beauty all around and help my clients expand their businesses. An additional perk is, I get to travel to exotic places as an architecture and interior photographer and bring out the opulence of such places on screen.
How does your work benefits society?
I believe that my work in architecture promotes the work of architects visually, whether it is a good design or a sustainable building or a commercial project.
As photographers we have the power to bring out powerful emotions in people through images that compel them to act in a positive way !
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of the best projects I have done is Fatehgarh hotel, Udaipur. As a college pass out, with no experience in Architecture photography, I got the opportunity to shoot such a huge and lavish property. We shot for 48 hours at a stretch. This included sunrise, Sunsets, moonlit property shots in the Aravali range, night shots with the best of dusk and dawn shots. They used my images on social media and on the website.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
A lot of my learning came from my initial jobs and listening to people whether they were senior photographers or architects. In a profession like photography, always keep your ears open, watch youtube videos, enroll in workshops and experiment to keep yourself updated. Also, develop the skills to observe things around you, because that is much more important than the technical aspects. Capturing an image is all about understanding the moment. There is no shortcut!
Earlier I used to get work through word of mouth and recommendations. But now, as it’s the digital age, it’s more competitive, it’s important to do networking with Organic SEO. Apart from just being active on social media, one needs to keep working and sharing to get feedbacks from industry experts.
I would like to continue in the field of architecture since that is the future when it comes to sustainable buildings.