Artist Spotlight – Varun Bhasin
In Conversation with Varun Bhasin: Soldier, Husband, Father, Traveler, Wedding Photographer.
“It is the Soldier, not the minister, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.”
~Charles M. Province
Words will always fall short if we try to articulate the essence of a soldier and what he or she does for a nation and its people. But we DO believe that a soldier is the pride and joy of any nation. And to know that a soldier in the Indian Army has something in common with us, is a part of our community of Indian Wedding Photographers is something that we feel very proud to talk about.
Today we bring forward the life of a soldier who has been serving our nation for fifteen years. He loves his country, his uniform makes him stand out of a crowd but what he has in common with us, is his passion for photography. As a soldier, he knows the value of human life and as a photographer, he also knows the significance of those little and fleeting moments in a persons life that can mean everything. He is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Indian Army and Wedding+Travel Photographer Varun Bhasin. He has traveled to 23 countries in the world and plans to increase that number to 50 before he turns fifty years old!
Your father served in the Indian Army before you. Did that play an important part in your desire to join the Indian Army? Do shed some light on your journey to becoming an army officer.
The process of becoming an army officer actually started very early in my life. My father always encouraged us to take our own decisions and also taught us to face the consequences that came along with those decisions. Having traveled the length and breadth of the country with my parents and having seen every possible situation that an army officer could and might be faced with, this subconscious decision was made in my mind long before I sat down to give the exam for the defence forces. To be honest, the exam to get into the Military Academy and the 6-day interview that follows was actually easy for me because my whole personality by that time was shaped to meet the pre-requisite of an army officer.
The one factor that always pushed me was my inherent need for freedom and to be able to sustain everything on my own, and what better way to do that than to join the army. Till this day “freedom” is the one thing that I value the most in my life, freedom of being able to express yourself and decide your own path, freedom from vices and judgment and freedom to construct a life of your own choice and flavour.
Those who serve the nation, specially as soldiers, are always an inspiration to the rest of us. You also drew inspiration from your father and it played a big role in your decision to join the army. But what inspired you towards photography? When did you decide to pursue it simultaneously as a career?
The decision to pick up the camera was not really inspired by a particular person or any personality; it was purely the need to express my mind which has always been creative. For the longest time, I have been writing poems and articles, sketching or doing something creative so I have an alternate vent and keep my soul fed with emotion and positivity.
I was made alive to the aspect of photography while serving in Ethiopia as part of the United Nations peace keeping mission, where I saw life from a totally different prism. It is perhaps one of the hardest parts of the world where humans are probably living a whole century behind the rest of the world. I started clicking pictures with a film camera borrowed from my brother. I was refused access to a lot of places and thus the hustle ended in me not having substantial stories in print but a lot of learning.
I came back and was deployed in the valley in hard operational conditions where I followed this new found obsession to travel and click pictures. To be honest, I have always carried a camera in my backpack, even to operations, along with my rifle. It may sound a little dramatic but it’s true. So what started as simply a need to express myself gradually became an intrinsic and inseparable part of my life.
In addition to weddings, your website and social media feeds are full of travel pictures. Was it wanderlust that led you to the genre of wedding photography since it allowed you to travel quite often?
Yes, pretty much. Traveling has been an obsession with me for years now, so much so that my mates in the army called me “passport” as a nickname. I ventured into wedding photography primarily because I found that weddings are a whole package of vibrant emotions and moments and also that they fuelled my need to be on the road and travel. Although I don’t really like to be called a wedding photographer or a travel photographer, I have travelled to some really unheard-of places in India just to shoot a picture. But that doesn’t necessarily make me a travel photographer. I simply call myself a photographer. The freedom that comes from letting go of genres and titles is very pleasing to me.
So you are a soldier, a photographer, a traveler and a writer. At the same time, you are also a son, a husband and a father to a baby boy. How do you balance all these hats that you wear – serving the nation, time for your family and yet managing your artistic and creative streams?
I actually have a theory for this which my wife thinks is hilarious. It’s called “the pivot theory”. I believe that if, in your small existence on this planet, you become very good at only one thing or one aspect or get really embedded into any one realm, you start turning into a machine and become mechanical. I feel that 24 hours in day are more than enough for an individual to have so much variety in their life that the sheer excitement of the next task will always keep you charged and going. Over the years I have perfected the art of dividing the day into many unrelated and non-interfering parts. I have a slot for office and army related things. I have a slot for being home with my wife for dinner and lunch or a chat in the evening. I have a slot for my creative endeavours – writing, editing or watching photography tutorials etc. Of late, with the arrival of Rikaar, our little baby boy, I have created a really late night slot called “the stinky diaper”. Playing with him and talking to him goes on simultaneously.
As far as family and personal relationships go, there can’t be a better way to feel alive than coming back to a family that welcomes you and loves you unconditionally. It does take a whole lot of investment and it does come with a cost of time, but it’s the only investment that truly pays. Just keep expectations to a minimum and love to maximum.
You are a self-taught photographer. Do you ever feel at a disadvantage from your peers who may have trained formally, have more experience or generally achieved more in the field? How do you manage to stay ahead of the curve?
I have always been an extremely competitive person but I’ve never felt insecure watching other people create amazing images. I’m being totally honest, I’ve never felt self-conscious, sad or insecure in this regard. Instead, when I see phenomenal work, it makes me think about how it was done and if I can do better than that. I have a close friend called Ramit Batra. He’s a leading wedding photographer in Delhi and has been a much needed helping hand for me in terms of learning.
I am happy that I’m getting good work based on the kind of images I take and the portfolio I display – it gives me a lot of satisfaction. Getting ahead of the curve was never my intention, I’m just glad to be a part of it; my intention has always been to be better than the previous shoot I did. That’s all.
Serving in the army is, undoubtedly, a tough job. But when it comes to photography, do you find it challenging as well?
Oh yes, it is a very challenging pleasure to attain. Wedding photography is like being responsible for the only real memory of the most important moments in the couples’ life. The pressure and responsibility that it puts on me is a lot and I love it. It helps me to push myself and think more creatively. As far as my travel photography goes, the challenge lies in getting it right the first time, because who knows if I will visit the same place again. Being a self taught photographer I do struggle with a lot of technical gaps in my photography, but that’s a challenge that I relish and work on constantly.
The Army is a hard taskmaster, you have a full time job that requires your 100% physical as well as mental presence. In that scenario, how do you find time to shoot weddings? Have you ever had to let go of a wedding photography assignment because your duty to the nation came first?
I try to plan my leave in such a way that it coincides with my shoots. I don’t really take too many projects and, thus, not much leave is needed. But nevertheless, my travel, shoots and leave are planned meticulously. Yes, I have had to forgo many projects because of my responsibility as a soldier, which always comes first. Projects, shoots, festivals, birthdays, wedding, family, I’ve had to let go a lot. But that is part and parcel of the life I have chosen.
We’re sure that you find a lot of pleasure in both the professions and it would be unjust to ask you which you love more. But is there any common thread between the two that binds you to both?
Yes, you’re right, I can’t really pick one. The army has given me everything I have today, not just material but also emotionally; it has shaped me as the person I am today. Photography has given my soul a window to peep out of and find a medium. I am bound by both equally and both balance my life with their presence. Without the army I would’ve never had the freedom to be able to pursue my photography. It funded my obsession. On the other side, photography keeps me in touch with my inner self which I think is essential for the pivot to stay balanced (the pivot theory).
Do you wish to become a full time photographer eventually? As a soldier, what would you like to say to the youngsters who are the future of our country? As a passionate photographer, how would you motivate budding amateur photographers?
Yes, full time photography is on the cards. I have a plan in mind and will work on it to ensure that it fructifies in the way I see it. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.
As a soldier, I’d like to say something to those who are on the fence about joining the armed forces. There’s no better place than the forces to bring out your innermost strengths and assets. You will learn the true and deepest meaning of friendship and brotherhood. There are so many young hearts who I’ve had the honour of grooming. I can say with conviction that the defence forces is a life choice not a job. It’s tough but it will make you a winner. But whether you choose to serve the nation or not, respect and be thankful for what you have and don’t ever stop learning.
For the young photographer, I can say this: don’t shoot to create a beautiful image in every frame. Instead before every frame, take a moment and think why you want to shoot it and what do you want to derive out of it. Photography is a way of expression to treat it with respect and reverence. Never rest and keep your mind alive to the surroundings and every minuscule aspect of it, keep shooting and stay happy. 🙂