Heidi: What were you trying to express with this series?
Athul: I remember one morning listening to “On the Nature of Daylight” in the shower and feeling utterly broken and moved by that piece of music. This was in March 2020 and my mind was transporting itself into a series of what if’s – What if Achan (father) contracts Covid, What if Achan is no more, What if all this were to end soon, what if.. ?
This series beyond anything for me is to remember Achan healthy, all smiles, in the midst of the century’s biggest human tragedy. His face, his routines, his day to day objects and relive our time in nostalgic excellence for a future time.
How did this photo project inform your relationship with your father?
We were never close. There is a lot of gratitude and unspoken love, but we weren’t close. That is until the lockdown and what initially was planned as a two week escapade from the madness of Mumbai to my hometown of Trivandrum, Kerala turned out to be a six month lesson of living out of a bag and negotiating life and the relationship with my father.
Over that time period, the photo project broke the ice between us, inspired him to start sharing his life story, being more loving on the outside – all new in our 24 year old relationship. What started as documentation stretched to long conversations and a deep level of comfort between us. We became close over the course of 2020.
My biggest fear is of losing my parents. It’s a weird thing, two people that give birth, nurture you, teach you everything you know have to let go of their creation — who wants to fly away to pursue his/her own dreams. It’s a fine balance I have been trying to maintain since the last couple of years – managing my own ambitions as a travel photographer and the physical time I spend with my family. The lockdown came as a huge boon in some way.
How long did it take for him to become engaged in the project?
The very first time, he was very annoyed and complained how this “thing” I was doing was wasting his time and that the food on the stove was getting burnt. I realised my mistake and decided to pick a more peaceful time in the afternoon, distant from all the morning chores to do another round of pictures. From then onwards, he’s been a sport! I don’t think he still knows why I do this – that all this stems from a fear of losing him. It’s hard to put it in words, not sure I can ever put it to him.
What did you look for in each moment?
To sum it up in one line – document daily elements that make up my father’s routine in a beautiful manner. I have always wanted to shoot film and thought this would be the perfect time to have a go at it- not let the screen come in between us and disrupt that moment. So I taped my camera with a huge block of paper – a DYI attempt to mimic film and also pay homage to Achan who took all our family pictures in a similar fashion.
Where was the best light?
Noon, when the sun was right up! My favourite spot at home is close to the stairs which has a glass ceiling with slits that create beautiful shadows. Close to 12PM the light would just dance on this spot. Apart from that, the best time of the day was any time I saw a photo op and made the dash for it. Being a travel photographer, I am open to working with any kind of light that the sun gods are kind to provide.
Why did you refrain from taking images of your family until now?
I’m not sure why exactly. The camera has always been associated with work and I try to disassociate from work consciously in my personal time. I don’t even pack my camera when I come back home to Kerala to be with my parents. The focus has always been to spend time with them, be in the present moment. That approach is definitely changing internally after this project. I am planning to do a short documentary of both my parents, when Amma (mother) comes back home after a year of being stranded in Australia amidst lockdown.
You were formerly on staff at Conde Nast Traveler in India, how did that editorial experience shape your eye?
Massively! My visual vocabulary originated from the photo desks of Conde Nast Traveler India,and in particular heavily influenced by the former Art Director at the magazine – Himanshu Lakhwani who put so much time and effort into informing me the difference between what looks good and bad and taught me how to piece images together to tell a story. I have so much gratitude for my time at CNT and to the whole team.
Is it difficult to edit your own work?
Not really! Being a photo editor in the past, I quite enjoy the process. But it always helps to have time on your side. The more time you spend with the work, the more it makes sense, and you see connections. I would love to try somebody else edit my work, to see how that would look like. It could bring a new dimension in the narrative for sure.
What was the direction from Masque for this forage project?
Open brief! They gave me complete freedom to photography like an editorial travel feature. Documenting the location, the food, interaction between the head chef Pratek Sadhu and the locals, the roadtrip amongst the mountains — whatever I could weave in to tell the beautiful story of these chefs travelling to the farthest mountains in this country to source ingredients to prepare in their tasting menu restaurant back in Mumbai.
Do you have a process you relay for longer narrative arc travel stories?
I think when it comes to travel stories – it’s important to show variety. Not just show how pretty the place looks in terms of the landscape but also to show the life of it in terms of people, the food, the architecture, any wonderful moments that inspire somebody else to visit the place. If the reaction to a travel story is, damn I want to go here and experience this – then that would be a success. The words create such a huge impact in addition to the images – always helps to have a fabulous writer to flesh out the words. Otherwise the photographs just tend to exist in vacuum without context.
Where does your love of photographing food come from?
The love of photographing food comes from the love of food, which comes from all the lovely meals Amma made while I was growing up. More than anything, the passion that chefs put in to create gorgeous plates of food that pack not only copious amounts of flavour, but also look like art, inspires me to photograph food and specifically restaurants. I love shooting restaurants and the life in it.