The Conventions of Beauty an Interview With Sujata Setia by Grace Jaskot
The photo industry is obsessed with the young and the beautiful. That is why there are countless photographers taking photos of babies, flowers, and women in dresses. But that is easy! That’s what “works.” Of course babies are beautiful. The trick is finding beauty in less obvious places. Sujata Setia’s photography does just that. The beauty in her images does not come solely from her subjects, but also from the compelling narratives she conveys.
Sometimes, photography can feel like a vending machine: put pretty pictures in, get adoration from your audience out. This can feel dependable and safe. In a world that tells you that your audience wants to see “beautiful” photos, Sujata had the courage to break out from that box and choose subjects whom she enjoys photographing and who exhibit beauty in a more nuanced way.
Sujata believes that art is visual as well as emotional. Artists who go for conventional “beauty” are actually only looking at the visual aspect of art. For Sujata, it is more an emotional journey. Her art is derived from narratives, stories, and emotions, rather than physical attributes. She has never really paid attention to how conventionally beautiful her subject is, as long as they have a story to tell. Her photography feeds us the human experience we are all so hungry for.
Sujata resorted to photography when she was going through her darkest time. Photography became a way for her to heal internally. She dug deep into her life, the life of her daughter, and those of the people in her immediate surroundings, because that’s where she thinks inspiration really comes from. Every time there is a crisis in her life, she finds that inspiration surfaces. She lives somehow vicariously through her images. As a result, she never looked for conventional beauty to create them. She looked for narratives that would give her some sort of hope or show her the positive side of life, so that she could come out from the darkness.
This is why she is so attracted to a narrative style rather than just looking for, “Oh, is she pretty or not?” She has never been a part of that norm, that culture of photography. She couldn’t possibly fit herself into it.
The thing about the conventions of the photo industry is you can’t really run from them. They are often the bread and butter of how photographers make money. Sujata has found a way to balance the opposing factors of what you need to shoot and what you want to shoot. She finds that with her students, when they start doing photography, even if they pick it up as an art form, as a form of fashion, they very quickly turn it into a business, and all they want are the numbers in the bank at the end of the month. They start taking the more conventional route of, “Oh, we need to get this many likes on this image.” They mold their photography to fit certain trends in the industry.
Sujata started that way as well, of course, like almost all photographers do. She wanted to take up photography as something that would bring money to her bank account. She realized very quickly, though, that it was taking the passion out of her love for the art. So, she divided her business into two parts, doing her dutiful client work with part of her time, but spending the other half of her month doing work that truly came from a space in her heart. She does this to be able to stay in this industry, continuously. For her, it’s like a marriage—you have to balance it out. She does the conventional stuff, and then she does something that truly makes her live in this marriage, forever and ever.
That’s the art that she posts on social media. She started doing so without even hoping for the number of likes that she has started to receive. But she never asked for those likes. She never sought them, and she’s not doing anything to please anyone, yet the likes keep coming. This is a true testament to the need we have as humans, even in a digital space, to connect to one another, to the emotions and tropes we all experience.
A lot goes into creating this magic. From timing, to posing, to lighting, to setting, Sujata makes decisions to convey her narratives skillfully.
When it comes to timing, some of it is obviously “created” magic—Sujata has realized over time that magic is not a sheer coincidence. It is actually a very calculated risk that you take in your art. And for that, Sujata says you need to have your shot description written down before you go out to shoot. Always, before she steps out, she writes her shots down in a very detailed manner so that she knows what elements she’ll need while she’s there on location. She knows that you cannot wait and hope that the magic will naturally happen. You have to pose the shots; you have to place your subjects in a scenario and then wait for the natural course of their love to take place.
In a particular shoot, she places them in the right spot, and then waits for that moment when they do exactly what she was hoping for them to do. She quickly presses her shutter, to get an adorable photo of an older man giving his wife a flower. Older individuals can be like children, and their level of patience is extremely low. You have to work around that. Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to give them a flower. The moment you pass on a flower to a child or an elderly person, they will very easily be able to express their emotion by handing it over to someone else. That’s the easiest technique, and that is what she does—try to simplify her process.
For Sujata, the technical aspects are very important. When it comes to posing, she likes to think of it as a triangle. So, the heads need to come closer. The moment that happens, the emotion comes through. She always looks for a moment when the subjects are looking into each other’s eyes. Sujata places them at an angle to her camera, not facing it, but parallel to it. In the case of elderly subjects, most of them do not have the physical strength in their arms left to be able to hold their grandchildren in a position Sujata may want. She has to make it as comfortable as possible for them for 10 seconds while she quickly takes the shot. Her shutter speed is always very high, around 1200, and on continuous focus, so that she does not miss these moments.
Sujata’s photos feel very much like dreams, almost like paintings of memories. This is achieved by the choices she makes when lighting her subjects. Sujata is continuously looking for good light. To her, good light is light that is falling very softly on the subject. She finds her best light right before sunset. Sujata looks for extremely soft light filtered through any natural resource, say tree leaves, for example. She is always searching for a sort of rim light around her subject. When you add a rim of light, it creates a beautiful, three-dimensional aspect to your image. The softer the light is, the more beautiful your narrative is going to look, the more your story will stand out. The light doesn’t become too messy or overpowering in the image. Sujata says light has to basically complement your narrative and not take away from your story.
Many of Sujata’s photos juxtapose the young and the old. This makes it clearer for her audience to see that the two might not be that different after all. In most of her photos, the elderly seem to be just as playful as the children. Sujata has a lot to say about age and growing older. She really wants to celebrate aging. She finds it incredible how her subjects truly are like children, how they really want to celebrate. They don’t want to be grim about their situation. They don’t want to talk about sad narratives. They just want to enjoy the little time that they have remaining. This has changed the way Sujata feels about growing older and has helped her heal tremendously.
Sujata recently experienced a tremendous loss in her life. This elderly couple series has helped her because, in a way, it allows her to keep seeing the lives of the ones she misses, which she wasn’t able to photograph. She tries to recreate that magic, to recreate that life that could have been possible, through these images.
For her, spending time with these elderly people is absolutely incredible. They are always so full of love and blessing and forgiveness. There is no ego, and they display a certain ability to forgive themselves for all the faults they’ve had in life. They do not live to others’ expectations, nor to an industry’s expectation. Much like Sujata’s work, they exist for themselves, and others revel in their beauty.