Born with a visual anomaly, the first time he saw things clearly was through a lens. One of the city’s best fashion photographers, Sarath Shetty, talks about his romance with the camera

He is part of an industry where a dash of glamour is always welcome but Sarath Shetty doesn’t gloss over facts when he talks about the challenges of being a fashion photographer in Hyderabad. In 2003, as a young photographer with dreams in his eyes, he wanted to move to Mumbai. His friends and clients dissuaded him, citing that he could build his base in an emerging market like Hyderabad than being one among the crowd in Mumbai. Sarath stayed on.

Now, after a decade, Sarath is all set to move to Mumbai. “In the last 10 years, Hyderabad’s growth in the fashion industry has been slow. Mumbai has made rapid strides and the gap between the two cities has widened,” he says matter-of-factly. When he says fashion industry, he is not referring to the growing number of designers or mushrooming of malls in the city. He is referring to the lack of manufacturing units. “For a photographer, the bulk of work comes from shooting catalogues for garment manufacturers. Hyderabad has retailers but not manufacturers, unlike leading sari stores in Chennai. And none of the major fashion brands have their head offices here, which diminishes the work opportunity for a fashion photographer,” Sarath explains.

In his new studio in Madhapur, a ‘Broncolor para umbrella’ light costing upwards of Rs.10 lakh, occupies prime space. This is an expensive investment, Sarath confesses, far beyond the profits he makes from his shoots. “Unless I buy the equipment, I wouldn’t be able to use it to its fullest potential, test my skills and learn from the experience,” he says.

Fashion has been Sarath’s mainstay but he’s also dabbled with industrial, architectural and wedding photography. “It is next to impossible to make ends meet doing fashion photography in Hyderabad. One has to diversify,” he says.

Sarath says his creative urge is satisfied when he works with his designer friend Sashikant Naidu and makeup artist Sachin Dakoji. The advertising campaigns of stores, on the other hand, follow a template with little room for innovation. “People here want quick results and many don’t believe in sustained advertising campaigns and long-term brand building. As a photographer, instead of focusing my energy on doing a creative shoot, I lose time trying to convince someone to take up an advertising campaign. There are times when series of discussions are held for three to six months and no campaign comes out of it. This doesn’t happen in cities that understand advertising,” says Sarath. Worse still, Sarath points out, many clients prefer using free stock images downloaded from the internet to doing a professional shoot.

That Sarath is driven more by passion than commerce to work is stating the obvious. The reason has got to do with more than just professionalism. Photography changed the way he looked at the world around him. Sarath was born with a rare visual anomaly, with a power of 19 in the right eye and 16 in the left. “As a child, since I wouldn’t have been able to take powerful glasses, I was given glasses of lower power. This meant I couldn’t see clearly beyond 10-15 inches. I don’t ever remember seeing what’s written on the school blackboard. I never knew what ‘seeing clearly’ meant,” he recalls.

At home, Sarath’s parents helped with his lessons till VII standard and he was a topper. Then, his grades dropped and he was just another average student. His attention shifted to arts and gadgets, anything he could do with a near vision. Playing a sport was out of question. He turned a geek and pursued mechanical engineering. In between all this, he chanced upon photography and fell in love with it. “The first time I saw anything clearly was through the lens of a camera,” he smiles. Photography stayed on as a hobby while mechanical engineering turned out to be a disappointment, shares Sarath: “I thought I’d be able to design devices. I was so wrong. It turned out to be another memory test.”

Till date, Sarath hasn’t bothered to collect his engineering degree certificate. A self-taught photographer, he honed his skill over the years. “When I see engineers working in the IT industry and how monotonous their lives have become, I’m happy I followed my heart,” smiles Sarath.

The void

The lack of growth in the fashion industry, feels Sarath has made models move out of Hyderabad for better prospects. “In the mid 2000s, we had an enviable set of models — Madhushalini, Vidya, Farina, Karen Balm, Vasu and Sreedhar Rao among others. How many good models do we have in the city now? The best ones like Reha Sukheja, Sonika and Ricky Chatterjee are doing well because they’re taking up work in Mumbai and Delhi,” he says.

Creative and committed

Designer Sashikant Naidu, who has been working with Sarath Shetty for all his shoots in the last decade, says, “Sarath is technically excellent. The keen eye with which he executes a shoot and the quality he brings to it sets him apart. Even other established photographers consult him about the latest cameras and accessories since Sarath is technically up-to-date. He is excellent in his post-processing of the images as well. Sarath, Sachin Dakoji (make-up) and I have worked together for many years and there’s a creative comfort.”