“I think the trigger point for my projects often ends up being about understanding where I fit into the world,” reflects London-based photographer Vivek Vadoliya. Growing up, the British Asian artist’s perception of beauty was complex – epitomised by the quintessential English Rose, the Bollywood starlet, and, above all, the fairness embodied by them both. Vadoliya internalised these ideals. But, by his mid-twenties, he had realised that they were absurd.
The gradual shift in Vadoliya’s understanding of beauty contributed to the development of his artistic practice. “[Challenging my own ideals] has really fed into the types of people I photograph and how I show them,” he explains. The artist’s work is grounded in an anthropological approach, which foregrounds the overlooked communities and subcultures on which it centres.
For Through the Eyes – a new creative series from Ace & Tate that, through talks and the commissioning of new work, invites visual artists to explore different themes – Vadoliya was keen to create a body of work distinct from his traditional practice, while still interrogating the topics that most interest him. Responding to the theme ‘optimism’, the artist created a series exploring the question: How can we celebrate and embrace each other’s differences to create a new lens of beauty?
The resulting project explores conceptions of beauty in relation to optimism. Framing his subjects’ bodies from every angle, Vadoliya’s images sanctify the expanses of skin, the rolls of fat, the curves of flesh, frozen within them. “I was looking for different body types, shapes, but also a sense of confidence and ownership from each of the subjects,” he says. “For me, beauty isn’t just about physical characteristics.” Vadoliya observes that we live in a time defined by division, and, despite progression, the notion of beauty falls victim to that. Through the series, the artist presents his own optimistic understanding of beauty, and, in doing so, encourages us to develop our own.
In the below interview Vadoliya discusses his commissioned series and the personal experiences that contributed to its conception.
The focus of your series is personal. You write about experiencing paradoxical perceptions of beauty during your cross-cultural upbringing: lighter skin is extolled in Asia, while, in the West, being tanned is considered beautiful. Do you often draw on personal experiences in your work? And how do you think that your personal history shapes the work that you make?
I think the trigger point for my projects often end up being about understanding where I fit into the world. I grew up in the suburbs outside London, so was always seen as Indian in my local town, whereas when I visited India while I was growing up I was always seen as British. It has taken me a while to own that and use it as a unique perspective that shapes my work.
You are both a photographer and filmmaker. How does working across both mediums shape your photographic practice?
When I first started doing both I felt as if they were very separate, but I’ve slowly developed a way to make my films more photographic and my stills more moving. It’s something I like to play around with and explore in each project now.
What are the greatest challenges that you have faced as a photographer both creatively and professionally? How do you stay optimistic?
When you work for yourself and you’re trying to develop your own identity as an artist it is always challenging. You go through so many peaks and troughs. With every success you feel so energised, and uplifted, and then all of a sudden that can change in a few days or even a few hours.
For me it is about constantly learning and enjoying the times when I am not so busy. I try to stay optimistic and use every opportunity to develop myself knowing that the opportunity could be just around the corner.
You worked in advertising for four years – an industry that, traditionally, employs both beauty and optimism to sell things. How did your experience of this industry shape your approach to these themes in your photographic work?
It’s been an interesting process over the last few years for me to unlearn some of the rules of advertising and become a little more free. I feel like we are starting to finally move away from a place where the idea of perfection is fundamental within beauty. That being said there is still a lot of work to be done in the east – in places such as India and China.
Working in advertising has made me question and always challenge the status quo in a way. I am grateful for that. It has been fun to loosen up and become more abstract and playful with the way I shoot my work.
When did you realise that you had internalised certain beauty ideals, and how did you develop a more optimistic approach to your appearance and the appearance of others?
I think we all grow up with internalised beauty ideals, it comes from the people around us and the things we consume while growing up. I think it has taken me until my mid-twenties to really accept and challenge those ideals. That has really developed the types of people I photograph and how I show them.
What do you want viewers to take away from the series, and what did you gain from creating it?
I want viewers to enjoy and appreciate the other people around them, no matter what they look like. It is about taking the time to have open conversations with people who look different to you. I think in doing that you learn something about other people and, in the end, yourself.