Photographer Ranjit Sinha talks about breaking out, breaking rules, reinventing the self and sharing his understanding of photography.
“Life has been a series of right angle turns,” says Ranjit Sinha. “But remember, four right angles make a square, a complete shape, a house – that house has been built in my mind and I know what I need to do to complete it.” Photographer, teacher, communicator and mentor, Ranjit has searched all his life, personally and professionally, for this home. He spent the first twenty-five years of his life in a town in Bihar but life took him first to Kolkata, where experience proved his best teacher and amateurism his greatest strength. Today he lives, works and teaches out of Hyderabad, a city which simply “smelt right” to him.
At Goethe-Zentrum, Banjara Hills, where his exhibition of dance photographs, a collaboration with the dancers of Sapphire Creations Dance workshop, Kolkata, has just concluded, Ranjit stands surrounded by his friends and work that lies unmounted, ready to be packed away. He seems content.
“I am a dancer when I shoot dancers,” he says. “It’s about being a part of a language and expressing it in a completely different form, something that can’t happen until I am with them, weaving in and out of their space; their tool is body and movement and mine the camera.”
The camera is now an extension of Ranjit’s mind, but it wasn’t always so. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot but got badly hurt and was completely lost. I knew life would require a radical change but didn’t know what it was. It was my younger sister that saw my interest in photography and suggested I explore that option,” he says. He joined the Bharat Scouts and Guides as a photographer, an experience he describes as “a lovely schooling” that endowed him with both professional and personal discipline. He then did a short stint at The Indian Express in Bihar but was soon drawn by the bright lights of Kolkata. “When I moved there I realized that I knew nothing about photography and being from Bihar proved a disadvantage. Calcutta was closed to outsiders, especially in the field of art and literature.” He recalls sitting for days outside reputed photography studios just so he would get to see how things work. “It took me several months before I saw what a professional light looked like but when I got started, I broke every rule because I didn’t know any of them! I did not understand the subtleties of lighting so I’d use crazy dramatic lights,” he says. He experimented with different films and colours, expressing himself in a radical and experimental language that spoke loudest to an industry equally radical – fashion. Ranjit has since worked with some of the biggest names in fashion, from Tarun Tahiliani to Sabyasachi to Vogue to Linen Club. Hyderabadis may recognize his touch best from the Kalanjali billboards; his work with the store is what brought him to this city. Ranjit remains a successful advertising photographer. He has worked on an international campaign, Make Art/Stop Aids, and is now involved in a unique project in collaboration with Nokia, Oxfam and NGO Hard to spread awareness about sustainable use of water and transportation.
Passing the torch
It was that feeling of being an outsider in Kolkata that urged Ranjit toward teaching. “That was the first germ,” he says. “I told myself that someday if I did learn something, I would teach it to others. Today I am a teacher, and while that angst has gone away, I know it played a big role in shaping my life today.” When he was approached by National Institute of Fashion Technology in Kolkata to share his images and work with the students, he did not hesitate. Nineteen years later, he runs his own school Beyond Snapshots in Hyderabad. He also teaches intermittently in the Institute of Craft and Design in Jaipur and lectures in other places. Beyond Snapshots opened two years ago with the help of a former student from Lakhotia Institute of Art and Design. “Today, the school is like my family,” says Ranjit. “It’s very much like Shantiniketan, with an open classroom system. I live there and students can walk in and out when they want, explore the equipment and wake me up in the middle of the night for anything photography related.”
For Ranjit, photography is about having an eye for frames. “The art of seeing comes before the science of capturing,” he says. “Right now the industry is filled with photographers who cannot see,” he says referring to the large number of photographers that have entered the scene thanks to advances in digital photography. Does Ranjit think quantity will eventually lead to quality? “I hope so,” he replies. “It should once the euphoria dies down. It will take about five years and by that time I hope to have contributed something that will help that process.”
While he is known for his unconventional visuals, his personal photography remains simple in technique but rooted in theme and context. “My personal work requires just me and the camera,” he says. He is planning a project, ‘The umbilical – a journey in understanding’, which is an attempt to restore the significance of the lifeline in people’s minds. It will also help him finish a book he is working on and thus take the last right turn to complete his metaphorical home. Ranjit does not believe in doing overtly abstract work that viewers cannot relate to. “I am a communicator first and understanding the need to communicate has brought a lot of checks and balances that have fine-tuned my language.” Art, he feels, is for sharing. “What’s the point of doing ‘bathroom singing’ all your life?” he demands. “Take your craft into the world; maybe you have something that will help someone else.”