Ones to Watch 2021: Ashish Shah

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

The landscapes and culture of his home give form to Shah’s images

Ashish Shah’s photographic style is strongly rooted in his homeland. Shah grew up in Dehradun, a city in the Himalayan foothills near Rishikesh in northern India, renowned for its spirituality and natural beauty. “[Much of my work] comes from the life I lived,” he says. “As a child, I spent a lot of time in the fields, rivers, mountains and mango trees. Life was centred around the basics.”

The sublime mountains that tower over Rishikesh, and the River Ganges that flows through it, provide a backdrop to Shah’s work. Colour saturated images of sun-dappled hills and lush vegetation frame portraits of women in saris, or men washing on the river banks. However, Shah’s photographs are not just about the beauty of the landscape. Instead, they focus on life relating to the land, situating Shah’s birthplace and current home as a celebratory site of Indian culture. His work hones in on traditional dress, “how Indians stand”, and rituals such as yoga, which are central to Rishikesh.

© Ashish Shah.

In December, Alexander McQueen commissioned Shah to photograph its pre-spring/summer 2021 campaign. The fashion house allowed the photographer the freedom to choose the locations, and Shah selected his hometown to increase awareness of north-east India’s landscapes and population. They also let him assemble the cast; for Shah, casting decisions broaden the perimeters of inclusivity and diversity. “I used to sit in cafes for two or three days and do street casting,” he recalls. “[This time] I focused on street casting because I have always felt in India that the modelling agencies have a certain vision, which wasn’t what I was looking for.”

The McQueen shoot was not the first time Shah has acted as both casting director and photographer. Much of his work is about “putting the right people in the campaigns”, so alongside street castings, he finds individuals via internet searches and reaches out to his network of friends. Shah is acutely aware of the need for representation. “Because of the high illiteracy rates in India, many Indians believe that the big brands and models that they see on TV are Indian when they’re not,” he laments.

© Ashish Shah.

Shah’s eye for inclusivity and authenticity compelled casting director MC Barnes, who nominated the photographer for Ones to Watch. “Shah’s work illuminates South Asian talent in its natural, raw form, along with beautiful fashion imagery that is empowering and sensitive,” Barnes says. “Unfortunately, in the fashion and visual industry, colourism is very much alive and thriving. Although we’ve pushed to be more inclusive, there is still a lot of work to do in the arena of inclusivity, which isn’t tokenistic or pandering to whiteness in any form.”

Shah’s photographic approach is an antidote to this whitewashing recognised by Barnes. “For a long time, what was happening in India was that we would all copy how Peter Lindbergh photographed. But he was working with models who had very different complexions to Indians. Even the colour of their hair was different,” asserts Shah. Indeed, the photographer’s aesthetics – the lighting, fashion and makeup – are designed to celebrate Indian skin colour and culture. It is this heightened awareness and authenticity that makes his work so urgent and compelling.

Alice Finney

Alice Finney is an arts and culture Editor and Writer, based in Berlin. A graduate of the Central School of Ballet and Sussex University, she specialises in writing about dance, design and popular culture. She has written for titles including SLEEK Magazine, INDIE Magazine, Mixmag, gal-dem, HuffPost UK, and Dezeen.