Log / Photography

The insider-outsider conundrum with Brooklyn-based photographer Nick Sethi

American-born Indian-origin photographer Nick Sethi on the making of Khichdi, a photo book that captures India and its relationship with gender and culture over the span of a decade.

By Rohini Kejriwal on 20 August

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Khichdi has been made in collaboration with designer Brian Lamotte

Over the past 10 years, photographer Nick Sethi has been visiting his home in New Delhi, India, to capture the shifting sense of Indian identity. With a keen interest in themes like how technology is shaping our culture, gender norms in the country and the merging of the East and West, he created a humongous archive of photographs from the interesting position of an insider, yet flavoured by his Western outlook.

In 2016, he visited the country for the umpteenth time with his friend and designer Brian Lamotte, who casually suggested a photo book on India that brings out Sethi’s unique insider-yet-outsider perspective. Two years later, after sifting through nearly 50,000 images of the country and settling on 846 photographs, he released Khichdi, a photo book akin to his own jumbled up experiences of India.

Sethi takes us through his journey of finding his roots through this decade-long project, and his love affair with India.

Design Fabric (DF): Khichdi features an impressive 846 photographs taken over a decade across India. How long have you been curating the images and laying out the book? Was this a dream project that was actualised?

Nick Sethi (NS): Yes, of course it was a dream project! The images were shot over a 10-year period, but the editing and design took about a year. In the decade I’ve been working in India, I’ve shot around 50,000 images, so it was really a trial and error process to find what made sense in the book. Since it is about growth and change, I don’t think the project is complete yet, and I’m sure I never will. I finally thought I had enough material varying in time, style, and subject matter to put together the book that I wanted. The book is really a response to my experience in a place, so I wanted to capture the feeling I get when I’m in India…one where everything from a street corner to each individual to each piece of garbage on the ground is worth exploring. So yes, it’s consciously very, very dense. Also, the more I included, the more complex the story and connections got, which I really like. I’m really happy with it being totally overwhelming, hopefully in the best way possible!

Khichdi captured India’s rapidly changing identity, with a strong focus on gender issues

DF: Having been born and raised in America, what is your connection to India now? Do you feel at home here or like a stranger?

NS: Although I was born in the US, I still have a lot of family in India, so I’ve been traveling there since I was a kid. Most of the themes I try to explore stem from things I noticed or questions I’ve had since I was very young. At this point, I land in a perfect sweet spot as a photographer. I look different enough for people to be interested in me, which makes it easier to hang out and make photos together. But at the same time, they can tell that I’m Indian, so there’s a level of trust built in. I never learned to speak Hindi when I was younger, so I’m at a point now where I can speak enough to communicate, and even negotiate decent rates for rickshaws, but still have to use the experience of photographing as a means of communication.

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From Khichdi

DF: I read that you stayed in India in 2007 for a year. Is that when your love story with India officially began?

NS: Yes and no. To be totally honest, I wasn’t too happy moving to India in 2007. I was a senior in high school, and was touring with friends’ bands, so I felt pretty uprooted when I got there. But I do think it was really positive because it was the first time I started photographing as a means to connect with the people there. Through this, I developed more questions than answers, which led to my way of working and exploring the country. I also ended up making a small documentary for a class in school about a group of magicians living in a slum, and doing this really showed me how fulfilling it is to collaborate with people and tell stories. All these feelings and experiences eventually led to the foundation for the book.

DF: You have captured India’s rapidly changing identity in the book, focusing on gender, technology, and the influx of western culture. Can you put to words your understanding and experiences in India that shaped this book?

NS: I think my understanding is that I don’t understand India (laughs). It really runs on magic for me, and is a place where hard work and destiny play equally important roles. Because India is so picturesque but has also been photographed a million times, I set out to make a project about my personal relationship with it, focusing on the things I find interesting as an Indian but also as a foreigner. Things like the third gender, gypsy tattooers and their art and the way scrap materials from the West are recycled all speak to me personally. It’s really a project about the complexity of identity, and the process of trying to figure it all out.

As far as India’s identity goes, I think it’s at a very interesting crossroad between their traditional values and increasing westernisation, and it’s truly exciting to see what will happen in the next 10 years.

The photographs in the book have been clicked over a decade

DF: Did you consciously try and stay clear of stereotypical images of India, or were the cliche truck art and sadhu images too good to pass on?

NS: Definitely not. They’re both in there! But I was conscious to display everything in a way that felt new and true to my experience. Some of my favorite images are in really complicated, dense spreads, that you need to spend some time with just to figure out. Things are on top and behind each other and upside down and hidden. Nothing really exists by itself because that’s not what I experienced there. Everything is interconnected and presented in a new way.

For example, the sadhu images are flipped sideways and run as full spreads, vastly different from the normal ‘Nat-Geo’ style of framing them with a white border. This makes them larger than life, but also makes you physically turn the book sideways and deal with the object in order to see them clearly. The truck decals are slapped on top of the photos in a seemingly haphazard way, just as the actual decals are placed on the trucks

DF: Your took your friend/collaborator Brian Paul Lamotte, a graphic designer and publisher, for a trip around India in April 2016, which is when the book became an active reality. What was that trip like? Tell me about the collaboration.

NS: Brian brought so much into the project in terms of taking all this work and inspiration and turning it into an actual design language that eventually became the physical object. As I mentioned, destiny and serendipity played a huge role in my experiences in India. Brian and I have been friends for a while, and been stuck in fairly stressful situations. But we always made the best of them, which is why I invited him to join me in 2016. He came along as a friend, with no intention to work with me on the project. But while we were in India, we both started noticing similar and different things that would inform our work, and eventually started talking about how we could design and produce the book together. We spent a month clicking photographs and collecting inspiration, and immediately came back and spoke to our publisher David at Dashwood Books. He was on board with us working together, and essentially gave us carte blance to make the best and most authentic book we could, no matter how weird or unorthodox it was for a photobook. It was really a mix of David’s trust and support, and Brian’s unrelenting hard work that made this book a reality

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The Very Special Edition box set

DF: The Very Special Edition of the book is being presented in a box with stickers, t-shirts, images of gods and other flashy Indian curiosities as well as zines. Tell me about your choice of adding these and how you went about sourcing them.

NS: India is such a sensory place that sometimes, you need to really feel, hold or smell an object to fully experience it. For years, I’ve been collecting and making little things but I only had my personal collection of each object. I shared them with Brian just as an inspiration for the book, but after some discussions, we decided to recreate and expand on this collection as a special edition for the book. For that, we went back to the same markets to source the materials and products needed to create it on a larger scale, and it ended up turning into an expanded, more tangible version of the book that we’re both really happy with. Because of the press size, the book took longer than expected to print and bind. So we also worked with the printers to make a bunch of zines, which tend to explore more specific ideas.

DF: Do you prefer experimenting as a photographer and not being pigeonholed?

NS: I try to have a strong photographic voice, but not get too caught up in having one specific style. Like most things in life, my work changes and grows over time, and I’m really happy to have the full scope of my work housed together in the book.. Because I have the luxury to spend so much time there, I don’t see any moment as too precious to not experiment. It’s a constant work in progress, so I like putting some time in between my trips to come back with new ideas, technology, and ways of working.

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Bobicol, whom Nick trained as a photographer, with his friends

DF: Who are some photographers that inspire you and your work?

NS: I end up finding inspiration and references in so many places. To be honest, my friend Bobicol is one of my biggest influences. He’s a kid who lives on the street in Delhi, and he’s featured very heavily in the book. He’s 13 now, but I’ve been photographing him since he was six years old. I usually end up giving him my camera to run around with. His style of photographing is solely based on energy, rather than what the end product will look like, which is really refreshing to see and makes for some great photos.

As far as actual working photographers go, Boris Mikhailov and Araki are my favorites because you can see that they have a crazy perspective on the world but also a lifelong love for making pictures and experiencing life.

DF: What is your next magnum opus going to be about?

NS: Hahaha, I think this book is just the tip of the iceberg of my life in India. There are still 49,000 images waiting to be seen, with a lot more to come. I’m trying to keep re-contextualising the work in different ways and am really happy with how Khichdi came out. It’s a great baseline to introduce people to the many parts of my work. But I think the next step will be to dive deeper into some of the specific themes. Either way, I’m very excited to keep going!

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