“In Conversation With Tarun Khiwal”
It is his pictures- they weave magic. You can meditate for hours looking at a Tarun Khiwal picture. The stuff that adds glamour to fashion is what he creates through his viewfinder. He is the reason why a book sells by it’s cover. Mesmerizing, enthralling and with all subtleties, every fashion picture clicked by this maverick is a frame freezer. Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Femina, GQ -the list is endless. Tarun Khiwal, the God of fashion photography in India, that’s how his peers and fans call him, gets candid in this tete-a-tete with Kiran Chopra.
Tarun, you make fashion famous with your pictures, please tell us what is your understanding of fashion…
Honestly speaking, I am still trying to understand that, it’s just moving so fast and by the time you get a little gist of what’s going on, you move on to another thing. So, I have stopped getting into understanding it. And, I did that many years back. In 1994 when I came here and started working, success came instantly. Suddenly, there were all these newspaper articles about me, my skills and my art. All of it was very overwhelming. I just thought I am the most happening thing. Then, I realized it was just killing me as an artist and so, I packed my bags and just moved out of it. And in those days there was no mobile, so I was completely gone way for three months. I even remember an article that came out that ‘Tarun Khiwal is absconding’.
So where were you?
I was at home with my parents and then I came back. Then again, Thanks to my friend, Harmeet Bajaj, who got me the permission to sit in the NIFT library, for almost four months, I would go there every day. That was also the time when Rajesh Pratap, Manish Arora, Namrata Joshipura were in their final years and that’s how I got to know them better, because I was hanging around with them.
I used to be reading a lot of books on fashion, trying to understand the industry per se and that’s when I figured out, there’s no point understanding it because if I do things my way, the way I think, only then it’s original otherwise I will be very influenced by what is written and it would only be an influenced work.
Weren’t you scared that once you go back, you will have to struggle again to get into the industry?
When I left my engineering for photography, I never thought that now I have to start all over again. I will tell you one very simple thing. In those days also, in today’s time also and in future also, the scope for photography is really bleak. There’s a photographer everywhere, so there is no room for a new guy. In fact there is no room for photographers, architects, designers, stylists, make-up artists- there is no scope for new people in the industry. But the good news is, there is always room for a new language. People who make it big are the ones who have something new to offer. Otherwise it’s like offering the same tea to everyone.
So was it that you took the sabbatical to understand the industry?
No, at first it was about getting my head back on my shoulders. I figured out that success had gone to my head. My attitude was something I felt, I had to work upon.
That’s quite surprising, as long as I remember, Tarun Khiwal never had an attitude…
Back then in 1994, I had. A couple of times, during my conversation with others, I realized, I had lost my control. I thought I was nasty and rude, although this was my own observation, nobody was telling me that. I realized that success came too fast and plenty of attention added to tons of articles made me impolite.
Is it that too much and too quick success was intimidating you?
It did. I am a person who has never had any attitude problems throughout my life. But I realized success was too fast for me. And, I was not able to handle that. So, I thought I need to just calm down myself and should learn how to handle this. Not that I hadn’t done my share of hard work. I did assist people for five years and when eventually I forayed on my own, it was quite quick. So, when people ask was success hard to you, I say no but then I did my share of hard work in learning.
Let’s put it this way, the time you spent learning and assisting was the fair share of understanding that you gathered before venturing out on your own, but it clicked instantly for you.
Yes, and I think I deserved it because I had indeed put in all my efforts to understand the art. In the very first year I had figured out that I know photography. But then, sensing and understanding it the deeper way was not there yet. The technical bit was too easy but photography cannot be done by only technique. I know there are so many photographers out there who can eat me for their breakfast in terms of technology. But, then there is a greater understanding of each and every image.
You mean the concept that goes with every image rather than the technique…the bigger image
Yes. See these days it is very easy because there is internet, in our times there was no such thing. People see images over the internet for references. There are a whole lot of kids who come to me and show me their work because they want to assist me. But they do not understand that they will have to spend some time to do that. They come with fancy pictures which makes me also wonder sometimes, if I have to do this how will I do it? Then my question to them is, take away all the layers of Photoshop, show me the raw picture. So as a ground rule, if someone wants to meet me, they have to get raw pictures. I want to see the photographers’ images first. Otherwise, they put so many layers that the original thing is gone. As I said, I want to meet photographers, not digital artists. At least, I get to know if I am seeing photography or ‘gimmickry of photography’.
So, what is your idea of a perfect shoot?
Well there is no such thing as a perfect shoot. For me, I have never done a perfect shoot. There is always some learning from the last shoot. And those mistakes are always teaching you. And I like that.
Has any concept or a fashion shoot ever intimidated you?
No not intimidating. It is always challenging and exciting.
Two decades of photography, what has been the learning curve like?
There is a lot photography has given to me. Because of this profession I have travelled all over the world to the places where normally people don’t go. To the glacier caves, underwater, places inside the jungle, on the road, on river banks. I have met people from all walks of life. And in my personal journey also side by side, I feel I am still evolving as a human-being. My learning curve differentiates with my learning from photography and learning on a whole as person which is much larger. For instance, the video ‘Free Hugs’, with my son is what my learning curve is all about. This is how I deal with questions with my family and in my everyday life.
This video I am talking about, basically came up because I wanted to explain to my kid, what is sharing all about. We went to this marathon in Delhi six years back and the idea was to share free hugs. I realized how everyone is in a cocoon and they don’t believe in the real thing. The first one hour nobody came to us. My son was so tired that I had to lift up his hand to hold the placard. Gradually, people started opening up. And we hugged almost a thousand people that day. This was my idea of explaining to my kid that sharing happens when you start it.
So, what I am saying is, for me photography is my expression. And I am experiencing life through photography. It has become my way of life.
People take photography quite seriously, they keep it to themselves and do not what to share it because they want to become super stars but all that is least on my agenda. I am just trying to have a blast in my life and photography is my party. I do not understand all this hype about creating a name. These are the images we make for ourselves or others. After all we are human beings, why do we miss that. Being a human being is much larger than being just a name and I do not want to skip that. Too much of attention, is not quite my thing.
My inspiration comes from life and not magazines, or surfing through internet for references, to check what is going on. I do what’s going on in my life.
International labels, international brands, global locations and many accolades, has Tarun Khiwal reached where he wanted.
Well, first, I do not have a destination and because I do not have a destination, I am like a traveler. I am just travelling every single moment of my life, with an agenda to enjoy whatever God has given to me. Whatever talent that I have, I am going to share it. Whenever I learn something, I like to share it with others. If I don’t do that I feel suffocated. And, you would see on my shoots, my assistants are doing most of the things and I am just guiding them. And we are all learning together. I think rather that’s what being successful should be, about imparting your knowledge to others in such a way that they are also able to succeed in life. In a way you give back what you have learnt and that’s how the circle of life gets completed. My studio is a place where people from around the world come and learn. So, if when you talk about reaching somewhere like, getting certain awards, owning that many cars or a farm house etc. to be happy, it is not so. I am happy even at this moment sitting here and talking to you. I have no issues, no agenda. I am just living life, moment by moment, trying to enjoy. At this stage of my life there is nothing on this earth which can make me any richer than what I am already, in every sense.
Tarun, you have just made one of my questions redundant as talking to you has made realize that this person here, is enjoying every bit of what he does. So, how do I ask him that how do you distress yourself!
(Laughs)People have started thinking that stress is a part of life; I do not take it that way. Stress can never be a part of your life, rather you are creating it for yourself. It is because of your agendas like- I will do this or that. Well, for the fact that I have been featured in Tom Ang’s book, ‘The Complete Photographer’ that features twenty top photographers in the world or the Hasseleblad Masters Award, – all these things are happening to me but I don’t carry all that weight on my shoulder. This is how I don’t create stress for myself.
The 2009 Marie Claire awards were abuzz with your contradicting ‘After-award speech’, what was it all about?
See, I said that I would like to see that in future, I am not nominated and the young generations, like my assistants, are. There is a new breed of photographers, give it to them. Although, my friends thrashed me saying that people who have nominated and awarded you, might feel offended. But understand, I am not saying this out of an attitude but with purity in my mind and heart. I am saying this because I feel content within; I have had my fair share of firsts and I think that’s good enough for me.
What is the driving force behind every shoot that makes it unique? What is the ‘Tarun Khiwal’ factor in your pictures?
I have no idea about this factor. I have never thought of, what should make it look like my picture. I only work with a free mind. I am not bluffing but when I work, I just go and sit in a corner quietly for some time, absorb the energy of that place and then, I start my work. I talk to the model and my team and I try not to over-direct them. I tell people to be themselves. I hardly interfere in their work; rather let the energies just flow. And the magic happens, because we are not over loading things, I let the idea be as pure as possible.
I just believe in that ‘very moment’. I feel the picture that I am trying to make, is already there, it just passes through me, in that very moment because I am so free of everything else that it just falls into my lap.
Do you have a muse?
No. Well I have worked with almost all of them who are very good, and they all were fantastic but just pointing out one is difficult for me .
So, what makes a good model- posing, expression or no matter what you can still take out a good photograph?
See, I will share my experience with one girl, which I never forget- it was Meghna Reddy. She was so involved in the shooting. She wanted to know so many things about the shoot, the entire process, she used to get involved in creative part of the shoot also not because she was a superstar rather she wanted to participate in each and everything.
But did that not irritate you rather?
No, absolutely not. I enjoyed the fact that she was so enthusiastic about the entire shoot. And in any case I don’t hold that attitude that you cannot ask me a question. I feel when someone is asking you something he/she is not only clearing his/her query but is also putting a test to your learning. I strongly feel that teaching is learning twice.
Who according to you are the best models?
There have been a lot of models whom I find excellent. To talk about the ones right now, new models like Archana Aqueel Kumar, Rikee Chatterjee, Pallavi Das, and then there’s always Indrani Das Gupta, Meghna Reddy and Ujjwala Raut.
Supermodels like Milind Soman, Arjun Rampal, Rahul Dev, made their own mark. The younger generation today, wants to be like someone else. These were the people who were living with their own beauties and flaws and the way they were. They never believed in being someone else.
All the new models want to become Mehr Jessia. She is like a goddess. She has her own personality. Yet I remember when I was assisting Prabuddha Das Gupta and he was shooting her, she was her own self, not trying to be Christy Turlington or Naomi Campbell.
See this is the reason we don’t have super models anymore because they are all trying to be someone else.
You inspire so many, who inspires you?
Everyone. I get inspired by everyone and everything around me.
Which fashion picture not clicked by you, impresses you the most?
Many – Nick Knight , Mondino , Avedon, Herb Ritts’ Steven Miesel images,– these were the photographers I was looking at.
And, I really liked Prabuddha’s work, that’s the reason I worked with him. It is from him that I learnt how not to apply any technique. The way he used to create the whole magic was amazing. I think many people do not understand the power of being simple. He would just carry a camera bag and take it out and just click, without any lights. It was simply incredible. It just blew my mind. And my learning with him was not only while shooting but also while travelling, while sitting with him, while having tea or coffee or during our candid conversations.
He was the only person who was able to overwhelm me with his work. I understood how to get deeper into things.
Tell us about your Fashion Movies.
They are just experiments and expressions put together. Sometimes when I am shooting I pick up the video mode. Then later on, I edit them. I am just very excited about venturing into this field. May be this is how it will be for the future. Basically, this whole exercise of what I am doing now, sometimes I sketch, sometimes I paint, – is there to express something inside me that I want to take out, in whichever form. When photography came to me, I felt that it is my language, where I can express myself in a much powerful way. I am feeling the same thing about video now. Film making, I think, is giving me a little more edge to express myself in a better way.
A Dream you want to come true
All my dreams are coming true. Whatever I want from life is coming true and sooner or later dreams always come true for all of us. You just need to believe in them.