An Interview with Documentary Photographer Sanjay Austa

 (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

San Francisco Bay Area.

Sanjay Austa is a Delhi based documentary photographer who is widely published in International Media including the Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveller, The Sunday Guardian, Departures, Centurion, Mint-WSJ, Outlook Traveller etc. His photo-feature on the 1984 anti-Sikh Delhi riots was exhibited in California and UK by various human rights groups in 2009 and 2010 respectively.

He has done four photo books on World Heritage Monuments for Penguin Books. He is a guest faculty at various photography and journalism institutes including the Indian Institute of Mass Communication(IIMC), New Delhi, St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, NADT Nagpur and various Delhi University Colleges. Besides lectures he also writes travelogues and articles  on social, cultural and contemporary photography issues for the media. He was awarded the Karamveer Puraskar Award in 2010 for his photo-essays on social and cultural issues.

In this interview Light Stoppers talks to Sanjay about his career as a photojournalist and a documentary photographer.

LS: What is your dream destination if you get an opportunity to pick any place to build your next home?

SA: I have many dream destinations where I would love to travel but I have a  home in Himachal in the most beautiful place you can imagine,  so I already have a dream home.

LS: Do you have a formal education in photography?

SA: Yes I did a formal course in photography. I was also fortunate enough to learn the ropes on assignments as a journalist. 

Labour camp in Dubai. A construction labour checks himself in the mirror. (sanjay austa austa)

Labour camp in Dubai. A construction laborer checks himself in the mirror.

LS: How long have you been a documentary photographer? Why documentary photography?

SA: Its been almost 9 years now. I started out as a journalist so this genre was a natural career progression and it suits my style best. I have only changed the medium – from using a note-pad  to using a camera- but the nature of my work remains the same. 

LS: What is your photography style?

SA: My style remains  journalistic. 

LS: What got you started as a photographer?

SA: My first assignment – a two month Kanchenjunga expedition with the Indian Army started it all for me. 

LS: How many documentaries you do on an average per year?

SA: I work on  long term projects so they never finish in any given period. But I like to start at least three fresh projects each year.

LS: What kind of camera do you use to shoot?

SA: I use a Nikon D700. 

LS: What is your favorite accessory?

SA: Favorite accessories  are fully charged camera batteries. 

LS: What kind of lenses do you use and what is your favorite lens?

SA: I mostly use the 24-70mm Nikkor lens and 50mm 1.4 lens. Nikkor 24-70mm is my favorite lens so far.

The wrestlers are egged on by the older and retired wrestlers who function both as cheerleaders as well as referees. (sanjay austa austa)

The Friday Wrestlers of Dubai.

LS: What kind of lighting or lighting equipment do you use?

SA: I mostly use natural lighting.

LS: Do you retouch/ edit your work?

SA: I shoot in the RAW mode so post processing is important. I do some editing but its very basic. 

LS: What kind of photo retouching software do you use? Are you a Mac or PC user?

SA: I use Photoshop CS 5 and I am a Mac person.

LS: What is your workflow after a shoot?

SA: I start by deleting the photos  I don’t like. I make folders according to month and year and label them according to the assignments and begin editing right away. 

LS: Are you planning to buy another camera? If yes, what is it and why?

SA: No I  am not. At least not until Nikon comes up with a more versatile camera than D700.

LS: What was the most memorable shoot you ever did? And why is it so memorable?

SA: For me it has to be  the Kanchanjunga Expedition in 2004. It was my first major photography assignment and also the toughest- both physically and psychologically.  We were miles away from civilization and camping on a glacier for two months at 5700meters. Those days we used film and tripod and it was extremely hard to shoot in the biting cold mornings. At that height you got out of breath just by tying your shoelaces so photographing anything required a great mental discipline. 

LS: If you have a choice to team up with another photographer for a documentary shoot, who would it be and why?

SA: I don’t think I could team up for documentary shoots as these kinds of shoots  are usually done alone.

LS: Is there a shoot that went wrong for you? If yes, how did you handle it?

SA: Thankfully not yet.

Base Camp at Night 5700 meters. Nights like days in the camp were misty but one evening after dinner at i saw the tents glow in the moonlight. It took quite a while to adjust my tripod on the slope and take this slow shutter shot. (sanjay austa austa)

Kanchenjunga Base Camp at Night 5700 meters.

LS: What is the biggest challenge while doing documentary photography?

SA: Biggest challenge is always to win people’s trust and having them open up their lives to you to document.

LS: What do you think about documentary photography industry in general and India in particular at the moment? Where do you see it going in next 5 years?

SA:  Documentary photography  cannot exist without publishers, magazines and newspapers regularly publishing this kind of work. Unfortunately the  media worldwide and particularly in India is rapidly dumbing down. More pages are devoted to fashion supplements and other fopperies than to serious journalistic work. The photography books are ”coffee-tablers” -designed to suit and enhance the decor  of living rooms and hotel lobbies. So you have very general photography books being published. They all touch  very superficially on the exotic and predictable  aspects of India- like  religion, street-food, maharajas, tribals etc. There are no photography books on serious issues for example on the Naxals, insurgencies in the North East, displacement, human trafficking etc.   As far as the market is concerned I am not sure   if it is  expanding for this genre compared to the number of photographers getting into it.

LS: What is your inspiration?

SA: Unfortunately photographers and their work don’t inspire me that much.  My inspiration remains books and travel.

LS: Last workshop or seminar you attended. When and why?

SA: My last talk  was at the Media Conference at  St. Xaviers College,  Mumbai in December 2012. I spoke on ” Do we prefer Images to the Experience”. 

LS: Are you affiliated to any photography organization?

SA: No I am not.  I  write frequently on photography issues for the media and I think getting affiliated with  any photography organization could come in the way of my writing freely on photography and photographers. 

LS: What is your key marketing strategy for India?

SA: I have no particular marketing strategy except perhaps an updated  website www.sanjayausta.com. It has a lot of written content alongside my photography.  This makes for good visibility on search engines should someone want to hire me for any photography assignments. 

The boys loved to jump into the oceans from the shore. There was a competition on who would jump the highest and the furtherest. It seemed it was an impromptu game as all of them jumped with their clothes on. (sanjay austa austa)

Zanzibar, Africa

LS: How active you are online and what form?

SA: I am quite active in updating my website which is actually a  blog integrated into a photography website.  I also use  social media to showcase my work. For example I update my facebook page pretty regularly. I also use twitter pretty regularly @sanjayausta

  LS: What do you shoot apart from documentary?

SA: I do almost all sorts of photography  except commercial studio work. I mostly enjoy shooting news features for  magazines/ newspapers. 

LS: Is there anything you want to go back and change in your photography career?

SA: I could have started my photography career earlier.

LS: What is it that you are still learning?

SA: I am learning everytime I am on a shoot. Every assignment brings a new challenge and scope for new learning.

LS: What is your message for all those new photographers who are trying to get into documentary photography in general and particularly in India?

AS: I would say before picking up the camera its very important to learn to see generally. Its important to  be aware about the world around you in general  before one can start ‘capturing’ it. 

LS: Thank you so much for talking to us.

Most women in Jordan wore the hijab. I however did not come across a single muslim woman in the burkha. (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Petra, Jordan

3 Responses to “An Interview with Documentary Photographer Sanjay Austa”

  1. Ambika says:

    wow… this was a nice interaction.

  2. farah khan says:

    interview…is good

  3. H.V.Ramaswamy says:

    I want to contact Mr Sanjay Austa
    Pl reply me on my mail id

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