The eternal student, Sanjay Marathe is a photographer who believes that understanding your subject is just as important as understanding your camera.
You shoot a variety of different subjects, from children to paintings. Which is your favourite subject and why?
When people ask me this, I prefer to say that I love photography. I wouldn’t like to categorise myself; however I like to explore different areas of the planet, different fields. As of now, I’m doing a lot of travel photography and also natural history: wildlife, plants, insects. I’m a member of the BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society) and I regularly go on outings with them.
Which came first: your love of nature or your love of photography?
I think the love of nature is something that is engrained in someone once he or she is born; it’s just a question of when they realise it. In my case, I realised my love of photography earlier because I turned to natural history only recently, in the last five years. Photography emerged earlier, when I was in the seventh or eighth standard. My father had brought a camera from Switzerland, a Yashica Lynx 5000, and I picked it up. Right from my second roll, I made it a point to try to eliminate the mistakes I had made in the first roll. From then on there was no looking back; that process continues today.
So you’re still making an effort to learn about photography, to perfect your photography.
Of course. I don’t think that process will ever end. Photography is such a vast field and it’s not independent: I cannot be a photographer if I don’t know my subject. To do justice to my subject, I need to know my photography, my camera, lighting, composition and also my subject. From time to time, I pick out a subject which interests me and I learn more about it. Currently I have enrolled for a course in entomology: the study of insects. Since enrolling on that course, I have shot so many more insect photographs which are meaningful because I know what the insect is, what it is doing and the reason behind it, rather than just taking a shot and not knowing what it’s all about.
Have you ever formally studied photography?
No. My way of learning has been through a lot of reading and a lot of practice. Whatever I learned through reading, I brought it into practice and tried it out.
Are there any photographers who have inspired you?
One person I would like to name is R.R. Prabhu. He was among India’s first commercial photographers. He taught me a lot of things not only about photography but also how to deal with clients, how to maintain food habits during shoots.
Yes, food habits. You see, while working, you tend to ignore your food habits; you don’t tend to eat on time. He told me to keep that in mind. He was a great person and a great inspiration to me. I also learnt a lot from his work.
What is it that inspired you about his work? Can you point to anything in particular?
Yes, I remember a series of photographs he took for a calendar about India’s artisans. He managed to give the pictures a natural feel so that they didn’t look posed. He himself was a good actor which enabled him to direct better, to get more authentic expressions from the models and to make them feel at home, something which was present in all those pictures.
You worked in Saudi Arabia for nine months. How does your experience of working there compare with your experience of working in India?
My job was to do various assignments for the Saudi Arabian oil company Saudi Aramco. The work experience there wasn’t very satisfying because there wasn’t too much variety. I also don’t remember ever having carried my camera outside. There was so much to be photographed but no freedom to do that. It was very risky; they didn’t appreciate that too much.
Has living in India inspired you as a photographer?
Yes, tremendously. The variety that India offers in terms of landscape, natural history, cultures, languages, is so unique. The art that you see in every place, from palaces to villages, is so unique and so original. The reservoir [of art] that we have is incomparable.
You work has taken you all over India. Is there any location that stands out in your memory?
Yes, one place that stands out is Mahabalipuram, near Chennai. There are monolithic temples there: imagine a huge rock and four or five temples carved from it. The amount of work that must have gone into, and calculations made, to make that sculpture is mind-boggling. I don’t know how they could do that even with computers!
To give an example, the roof of one of the temples has a floral motif at its border which is a raised motif, about half a centimetre high. To do that motif, they had to carve out half a centimetre of stone, all across the roof. That has also inspired my photography because if they can take that kind of effort to produce that motif, you never feel that you’ve done enough, no matter how hard you’ve worked.
Another example is the temples of Kanchipuram, especially the Varadaraja Perumal Temple, built by the Cholas in the eleventh century. From the corners of the ‘Hall of 100 pillars’ there are chains hanging which are made of stone and about 5-8 ft long. The entire structure is all one. Yet, they’re all there, all perfect. That image is enough to inspire me for life.
You are very aware of social and environmental issues. How important are these issues to you as a photographer?
Very important; these issues are very important to any living person, whether a photographer or not. Being a photographer, you’re concerned about pollution because if there’s pollution your photographs won’t be as good; the sky won’t be as blue perhaps. As part of my learning of natural history, two years ago I did a diploma in environmental education and after that I conducted a nature club for one year. I tried to give the students a feel of the richness that we have and why we need to protect that.