PHOTOGRAPHY London-based photographer Suki Dhanda, famous for her portraits of high-profile personalities, tracks a young girl growing up in Britain, Shopna, in an upcoming group exhibition. SHAILAJA TRIPATHI
It could have only been her deep interest in people that makes Suki Dhanda such an impeccable portrait photographer. Irrespective of the subject and factors like paucity of time — she tends to get little time to shoot high-profile subjects — her portraits are tender, revealing and narrative, just how the London-based photographer wants them to be. “A portrait can tell many different stories. I like to reveal the emotion or the deeper personality of my subjects,” writes Suki in her email interview.
As one of the main portrait photographers for “The Observer”, she has trained her lens on politicians like Tony Blair, musicians, film personalities like Sir Richard Attenborough, Jude Law, Rihanna, Burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, and designers like Paul Smith and Roksanda Ilincic. On January 23, ‘Homelands’, an exhibition, will open in the Capital with some of her images along with the works of several other renowned British artists. But what we will get to see from her in the exhibition is not her celebrated portraits but one of her equally poignant series on a British Asian girl called Shopna. Suki will be in India but she will give Delhi a miss and attend the Bangalore leg of the exhibition. Excerpts:
Nature of work in ‘Homelands’
The series is based on a young British Asian girl called Shopna, who lives in Whitechapel, East London, an area that has a large Bangladeshi community. I wanted to get a personal insight on Shopna as a teenager growing up in Britain while maintaining her cultural identity. Shopna wore the hijab for her own personal reasons, whereas her sisters chose not to wear it; I think it was more do with protecting herself from the boys in her community, as seen as looking more respectful. For her it was part of her everyday clothing just like her jeans and Nike trainers; it wasn’t a big deal. She was a regular teenager not much different from any other British teenager.
This project was completed before 9/11, so there were no particular political overtones in mind.
Drawing comparisons between herself and Shopna
It was interesting to make comparisons to my own upbringing. I found Shopna more confident, independent and self-assured than perhaps I was when I was her age. She certainly didn’t seem to overtly have issues about her identity and sense of belonging. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s, it was a background of social exclusion and a time when the political Far Right was prominent in many towns and cities in England. Racial differences were also very much at the forefront of many second-generation Asian experiences in the diaspora. During my childhood I travelled to the ancestral village of my parents in Punjab, India, where I felt remarkably at ease. It was very much like being ‘home away from home’. However, there were occasions when the ‘locals’ would make light-hearted banter about my accent, my intolerance of chillies in my food that suggested to them that I was not really an ‘apni’ (one of us) and generally questioning whether I was authentically Punjabi. I was not really one of them nor did I completely feel at home in England...but moving to metropolitan London in my 20s changed all that. I found myself being more comfortable in my own skin.
On Asian communities living in Britain and the USA
Growing up in multicultural Britain I believe British Asian culture is very much alive and has enriched everything from food and fashion to music and the arts. This makes Britain quite unique and it has created so many routes for my identity as a British Asian woman — which I am proud of. My work on South Asian taxi drivers in New York was one particular piece of work that has fuelled my interest in what makes us who we are when we leave our places of birth. How do we create our sense of belonging away from ‘home’? I found it fascinating that they where building communities and holding on to their cultural identity while on their quest for the American Dream.
On the genre of portraits
I have always been interested in people. Even when I was young, before I thought of taking pictures, I would sketch my family portraits. A portrait can tell many different stories. I like to reveal the emotion or the deeper personality of my subjects. Also, I want to catch the sitter in the moment, be that happy or sad or quietly detached. But the viewer will have their own interpretation.
On some of her most memorable, quirky and fun assignments
The most recent quirky assignment was shooting Uggie, the dog from the film “The Artist”, in his hotel room in central London. With the help of his trainer, we managed to get him standing upright posing for his picture. He was a true professional.
Beth Ditto (American singer-songwriter) was really fun. We just put some music on and with a little bit of direction she worked the mood. When everything comes together on a shoot it makes the whole process more pleasurable, especially when the subjects are up for doing things themselves. I find shooting ordinary people in their homes/ environment can be the most pleasurable. I will have more time for a chat and get to know them, which is often not the case with a celebrity. I have been very lucky to be sent to many countries to cover different stories — tea in China, coffee farmers in Rwanda, olive oil producers in Palestine.
On her interaction with high-profile subjects
On these commercial assignments I tend to have very limited time with the more high-profile subjects. So, it can be very intense capturing a good portrait in a very short time. One builds one’s confidence and technique over the years, experience counts a lot in these high-pressure situations.
I have shot Tony Blair a couple of times, the first time when he was the Prime Minister. We were waiting in the large drawing room at Checker’s and this head popped in and it was him. I expected him in a suit, so I was very surprised to see him wearing a purple shirt and tight black jeans. He was warm and friendly and happy to be called Tony rather than Prime Minister. I can’t say it wasn’t a pleasure to shoot Jude Law. We kept the setting very simple and he has one of those faces that just works well in front of the camera. Sir David Attenborough was very quiet and his thoughts were elsewhere through out the shoot, but he was very good on direction.
‘Homelands’ deals with the ideas of belonging, alienation, history and memory. Culled from the art collection of the British Council, the exhibition is a unique take on contemporary British art by the Indian curator Latika Gupta. Including more than 80 works by 28 leading modern and contemporary artists, they include Turner Prize winners and nominees like Jeremy Deller, Richard Long, Grayson Perry, Gillian Wearing, Mona Hatoum, Langlands & Bell, George Shaw, Cornelia Parkernee and Tim Hetherington. Apart from Suki, Mona Hatoum and Zineb Sedira will be in India for a multi-layered programme that includes artist talks, seminars, curator-led walks, outreach activities and workshops.
The exhibition will open on January 22 in New Delhi at Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), on February 28 at The Harrington Street Arts Centre in Kolkata, on April 27 at Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and in the last week of June in Bangalore.