Artist Spotlight – Shreya Sen

In conversation with Mumbai-based wedding photographer Shreya Sen

Being a photographer wasn’t part of Shreya’s plan. Her life was on track to become a psychologist. She was pursuing her Masters at John Hopkins when a few disheartening aspects of the profession led her to leave her studies. However, her penchant for observing people and studying human emotions drew her towards photography. Her love for human interaction found a creative outlet in photography, and capturing precious moments in people’s lives became her passion.

Almost 6-7 years later, today, she has made her mark in the Indian wedding photography field. Her work is driven by an understanding of the importance of real moments and the desire to make pictures that can be passed down for generations.This conversation is an attempt to get to know more about the person behind the beautiful images.

Do you think your background in psychology has helped you as a wedding photographer?

Photography was an extension of my purpose, to do something meaningful for others. I do think my background in psychology has helped me in the obvious sense of being observant, anticipating and capturing the smaller subtle emotions during weddings. More than that, I feel it has equipped me with the most important tool of ‘empathy’ which is crucial in photographing weddings. One has to understand weddings tend to be chaotic and stressful where emotions are all over the place from overwhelming joy to anxiety to tears. Within that, a lot of my brides and their families often tell me that my calm disposition was a refreshing relief and it has definitely added to the customer experience for my clients.

Is it important to be involved and get to know the client closely to create good images?

I absolutely believe it is extremely important to get to know the client to create images that feel personal for them. As a lifestyle photographer, we are not just shooting an event in a person’s life, we are responsible to give them memories that carry their personality. I also take photography as an opportunity to give clients something tangible, that holds that abstract feeling of a moment and the bonds they share with their loved one. This is an extremely intimate space and to create these intimate images that transcend poses and carry something more, it often requires the client to trust you and allow you into their personal space. It requires establishing a comfort level where the client can get out of their own head and give into the moment as if the photographer does not exist. That is when the real meaningful images happen. Since my goal has always been to create classic images that carry authentic real emotions, establishing that comfort level has become a crucial part of that workflow.

Why do you think capturing real and intimate moments are so important?

With the danger of sounding extremely dramatic, due to certain experiences in my life of having lost family and loved ones, I personally believe that the only thing that truly holds value in this life is family, love and the experiences we have with them. These bonds will define us and at times break us when we lose them. Photographs are almost time capsules that we can keep coming back to. They can be our triggers that make us smile, laugh, reminisce, they motivate us, drive us to action, immortalise an emotion and an event, document our history; and at some point make us realise the value family, memories & these relationships have in our lives. Hence I treat photographs with my clients almost like heirloom jewellery that have to be taken with care, that often go beyond me as an artist, that have to taken with integrity, simplicity and grace so that they can be handed down through generations.

You have spoken about getting to know your client personally, and conceptualising their pre-wedding shoots around their personalities. Tell us about one such shoot that you loved planning and executing?

One of the couple shoots I had planned was a message in a bottle concept, where the couple had to write notes to each other without sharing, prior to the shoot. Then we put the notes in bottles and placed them in the sand on a beach.

Each of them had to pick a note and read it aloud to each other. The reactions were spontaneous and really sweet. The groom loved planning things so the whole step by step process of the shoot was a true reflection of their dynamic and he had also proposed in Goa on a beach, so it aligned with their story. The experience of the shoot itself became memorable for them.

It is close to my heart because I had not anticipated their reaction to the messages and though usually pre-wedding shoots tend to feel contrived this felt real and true to what they felt at that moment.

Tell us about a piece of work or a shoot that you are most proud of?

Last year I shot a Parsi family where I got to photograph 4 generations, including the client’s grandmom, her mom and her son. The family was a typical cacophonic Indian family – bickering, mocking and teasing each other. Indian families, mostly of an older generation, find it difficult to openly display their affection and love. At one point I asked the clients son to hug his great grandmom and it was the sweetest moment, she teared up quietly and you could feel every bit of love in that moment. My client called me a few months later that her grandmom passed away and thanked me for the special memories I had captured for them. When I opened up the folder and saw that image again, I remember tearing up and smiling. I think at that point, I understood the significance and importance of what I did.

Do you think being a female wedding photographer gives you an edge in capturing certain moments during a wedding?

At one point I did believe that I had that advantage as a female photographer to capture the intimate getting ready moments. However, I do believe that if photographers establish that comfort level with their client prior to the wedding and the bride becomes your friend rather than a client then gender should not matter in getting ready images. The advantage female photographers have is that we probably appreciate details such as jewellery, lehengas, shoes and designers better, and are able to understand the significance of those details for the bride. Often you end up complimenting moms, aunties and bridesmaids during the wedding, and they end up being ‘one of the girls’ which often results in more relaxed natural photographs. Also during couple shoots, while posing couples, it is often easier as a woman to break their personal space without them feeling uncomfortable.

You are also a maternity photographer. What do you love about shooting expecting mothers?

I love a sense of calm a lot of moms-to-be have in their last months of pregnancy. You sense that this is the time that moms share this indescribable unconditional love with their little one which is only hers. It is like entering a room filled with this tenderness and anticipation, and as a photographer, you know you are shooting the first page of this little human’s story.

Tell us about the people or work that inspire you.

My biggest inspiration has been my mentor R. Burman. I learnt everything about photography and aesthetics from working with him. Being influenced heavily by fashion and editorial photography, I love the classic style portraits of Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn & Peter Lindbergh to name a few. Prabhudu Dasgupta’s work is pure visual poetry for me and now Bikramjit Bose. Apart from him, I’ve always loved Raghu Rai’s photographs and how he layers his images and the way he aligns the chaos in India like a beautiful symphony. In terms of weddings, I’ve been a huge fan of fine art wedding photographers such as Jose Villa, Elizabeth Messina & Greg Finck.

You left your post-grad at John Hopkins to pursue photography. Almost 6-7 years later, today, do you have any regrets? What are your thoughts?

I absolutely do not have any regrets about leaving Hopkins and pursuing photography. Even the days I am extremely tired mostly after shooting back to back weddings, I still feel this adrenaline rush when I pick up my camera and this feeling that I am doing what I love and what I am meant to do. More than regrets, I do have a nagging feeling that I would want to use my background in psychology and bridge this medium of photography and films to create work that truly has an impact on people’s lives. Keeping that in mind, this year I am planning to start a new personal project called Project Heal and hopefully I can use this gift of creating stories and take it one step forward to talking about difficult topics such as depression, yet inspiring stories.

You shoot grand affairs of love between two people. Are you a person who is sentimental, and believes in love and romance?

I am a romantic at heart. I believe in unicorns, in soulmates, love hearing proposal stories, tear up listening to people finding love randomly, feel warm and gooey seeing old people holding hands and sitting on a bench. I soak up young adult books still and Dirty Dancing is one of my favourite movies. I enjoy shooting simple moments of love between two people, between people and their dogs too or their kids.

You got your certification for open water dive back in 2013. What other travel adventures have you embarked upon since then? Tell us about a few of your favourites.

Travel is my soul food. I love exploring new cultures and I am a serious foodie at heart. Diving is the only adventurous activity I love but it is more a meditative, relaxing activity for me rather than an adrenaline kick. In the past few years, my trip to Leh Ladakh, Greece and Bali has definitely been my highlight and I cannot wait to explore the Northern Lights this coming year.

Apart from photos, we see quite a bit of writing on your social media. Tell us more about the kind of writing you do. Which topics are close to your heart and why? Any book recommendations for us?

Before I found photography, I used to write. But quite honestly, I often find my writing to be dark and rather intense, and ironically my photographs are quite the opposite – they are bright and lit and (excuse the pun) probably has been a positive ‘light’ in my life. I usually write to provoke thought and make people analyse something deeper. My favourite books have always been Shantaram and God of Small Things. Currently, I am reading this beautiful book called Remnants of Separation by Aanchal Malhotra. I encourage everyone to read it even for photographers to understand that we could be creating images that are a ‘museum of memories’.

We heard that it was your one-year marriage anniversary in December. Congratulations! So, has anything changed? Do you think that being married has given you a different perspective or changed the way you approach or photograph weddings?

My own wedding photographs have immensely changed the way I approach photographs. It has humbled me in a way and pulled me away from this thought that I am an ‘artist’ and I am here to create these ‘visually-grand-beautiful-artistic’ images which I’ve begun to understand are not the images that have the real true value. The family group portraits, that simple photograph of the bride with her grandmom, the portrait of the bride’s mom who never usually puts make up otherwise, the father’s college friends who have all come together at the wedding after 25 years, the bride’s best friend who is constantly running around that at times you have to pull her to get one photo with the bride, the groom gently looking at the bride from the corner of the room all these seem like small moments but after my own wedding I’ve begun to realise the importance of these photographs. I remind my clients about these photographs and am extremely mindful of seeing to it that apart from the cool-silhouette social media worthy images, my brides and grooms also get to preserve these simpler moments.

Any resolutions/goals for the New Year?

My resolution for this Year is a bit different. I have been trying the philosophy of minimalism not just in my photography but also in my personal life. The past year I found myself trying to do everything and be everything. I had this laundry list of things I wanted to do from losing weight, to taking vitamins, going for meditation twice a week, opening up a studio, doing 4 posts a day on Instagram, travelling more, being less negative, being a good daughter, handling my finances, reading more, watching 5 movies in a week, checking all my emails everyday, doing up my house perfectly, trying flash photography, attending every workshop in town and just feeling an insane amount of anxiety feeling am not doing it all and not doing enough. I’ve also had an epiphany that doing it all does not keep the depression at bay or makes you happier. So my new year resolution is actually the opposite this year. It’s to do less and being happier with less. To slow things down even when it comes to photography. Hopefully, I can stick to this one and it clears a lot of clutter literally in my life and in my head and takes my photography to a different place.

See more of Shreya’s work on her WPAI profile page or her website.

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