Ashima Narain, the photo editor of the National Geographic Traveller India magazine, talks about her journey in photography and documentary filmmaking
Every day, for nine months a year, thousands of flamingos flock the Sewri bay of Mumbai. Sadly, it’s the water body’s pollution that attracts the birds — it is surrounded by petrochemical industries, a fertilizer factory and a power plant. The flamingos come to feed on the algae that thrive in the waters. “Had this happened in any other country, the place would have turned a huge tourist attraction,” says Ashima Narain, photo editor of National Geographic Traveller India. Promenades with spotting scopes would have come up and nature-lovers would have lined up to see the birds. But in Mumbai, not many people are even aware of such a phenomenon, she adds.
In 2007, Ashima told the story of the magnificent pink birds through her 24-minute documentary film In the Pink. Screened on the Discovery channel, the movie marked Ashima’s entry into documentary filmmaking. It also paved way for the first study on the flamingos of Mumbai.
Ashima’s journey in photography began in 1996 when she went to study in England. After her return to India, she worked under photographer Farrokh Chothia and later joined Man’s World, a magazine that gave her a “fantastic learning ground”.For someone who has ventured into several facets of photography such as wildlife, fashion, portrait, advertising, wedding and documentary, Ashima feels that digital photography has brought about a “fantastic democratisation”. For, photographers need not be “weighed down by monetary limitations” that film photography imposed.
Does she ever miss the good-old days of film photography? “I do not want to romanticise films. Technology affords you a certain luxury. How you engage with it is up to you,” she says over a telephone interview from Mumbai. The latest ISO sensors, for instance, enables one to take good pictures even in low-light conditions without using a flash, she adds. But be it films or digital, it’s the photographer who has to work at “making that shot happen”.
Ashima has travelled across the country with her camera to tell the stories of our people. She has captured breathtaking scenes from the Maha Kumbh Mela, taken telling images of the weavers of Benaras, shot stunning photos of celebrities — but her heart lies in documentary photography and portraitures. Her photos were featured in Dining with the Maharajas, a coffee-table book and Time Out — 25 Perfect Places in India, a guide book.
The success of a photographer lies in his/her ability to develop a “connect with people whose stories you tell”. Ashima feels that she has been fortunate to have gained access into the lives of people from various walks of life, be it the last weaver in a family or celebrities who “allow you into their lives for 10 minutes.”
Ashima has done non-profit work for NGOs to “create awareness about the amazing work they are doing”. She has also shot a documentary film titled The Last Dance. It spoke of the how the Indian sloth bear, that has the same level of protection as the tiger in the country, is ruthlessly trained to dance for the pleasure of human beings. The film was used as a conservation tool to expose the state of the bears to governments and the police.
Ashima says that she finds it easy to bond with her subjects. “In story-telling, being a woman is a huge advantage.” She makes it a point to explain her intentions to her subjects before they are photographed. After her stint with the weavers, she gave them printed photographs as souvenirs so that “everyone felt rewarded”.