Sanjit Das on the intimate connection in photography

18 April 2014

Panos Pictures photographer Sanjit Das travels through the transforming economic and political landscapes of developing countries in his work. His first project for us chronicled the individuals living in the community around the Brahmaputra River in Asia. We spoke with him to find out what inspires him in choosing the subject of his photography and how he captures the rhythm of life around him.

Describe the moment when photography changed your life.
I only started taking pictures late in my life. Until my late twenties, my life had been relatively uneventful, sitting behind a big screen, doing graphic design. But every time I left Delhi, where a red-hot economy brought exciting changes every week, and went home to see my parents in the foot hills of Darjeeling, a small town in the Himalayas where it often seems time stands still, I would wonder about the direction that India has chosen to head towards -- a free-market, capitalist, winner-takes-all economy. Looking back, that dichotomy of views -- from the windows of a car in Delhi, to the windows during a train journey to my parents -- have grown to bifurcate my photographic attempts. I have spent a considerable amount of time documenting social issues and equal time (if not less) in recording India’s move towards one of the fastest growing economies of the world.

Describe what kind of photographer you consider yourself to be.
I think of myself as a chronicler of sorts. My role as a photographer is merely to share what I see and bring it to a wider audience. By no means do I wish to influence my audience with what I notice, but I almost always want to tickle their imagination a bit and try and make them look at the big picture within the issues.

If you had one word to describe your work, what would that be? 
Intimate. All my personal projects fall into the category of long-form documentary photography. I am not a single-image maker. Single photos are powerful; most of the historic images are single images, but I was (and still am) always drawn to a narrative form of photography, something more personal, something more intimate.

What is the most important photograph or body of work you have worked on to date?
For the past 4-5 years I have been working on a project photographing my parents. This project is an exploration of two people’s lives together -- what a long term relationship entails, as I am about to get into one myself. It’s not just about my father; the images that I am making have my mother with him as a couple. It’s an attempt to explore the landscape of a long-term relationship, and I am doing it through my parents, who have been married for over four decades. I have tried to capture the rhythm of their home and their partnership, and how those forty years have made two people into one entity -- this idea of Mr. and Mrs. Das.

Give us your top three "must-do" photo assignments or personal projects you want to someday shoot.
A photographer is known by the body of work they have. I am drawn towards long-term projects that go past the news cycle and focus on the underlying social and economic issues that drive the news cycle. For the longest time, I have been working on issues relating to poverty, human rights, health, and similar social documentary issues. I somehow feel I have not photographed the other side -- the richer side. I want to work with the rich, challenge myself and see if I can make photos in the same intimate way as I do with the less privileged. Another one of my must-do projects will be to spend time with a celebrity. The dream project will be to spend a few days to photograph a musician or an actor/actress, a global leader or a politician, and see what makes them different, how they cope with being in a crowd -- catch them in lonely moments, explore this idea of being a celebrity. Celebrities do not easily impress me, and a project like this could be a window to explore the people behind the glitter. I love road trips, and one of the must-do projects before I get too old would be to shoot a project on the Istanbul-to-Kathmandu route while on a motorcycle road trip.

What do you think about the Global Imaging Ambassadors program?
I find it quite interesting that Sony is interested in the kind of work that documentary photographers are producing, and how they are interested in investing in longform storytelling. With the advent of digital photography, there are many more photographers now -- which democratizes photography, but what stands out is the quality and the skill of the narrative. I am glad we have partners like Sony who are willing to support such work and help fellow professionals, especially in the documentary field.

What is your favorite feature about the Sony RX1 or other Sony products you have used?
I must admit, I love this camera. I really (really!) like the small size and the amazing image quality it offers. I usually shoot quite slow and prefer to be discreet (more like a fly on the wall), and this camera, with its fixed 35mm lens, is an asset. I carry this camera in my bag all the time; I just wish I could turn off the display screen somehow.

Learn More about Sanjit Das and see his projects, visit his Global Ambassador page here.