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A Body of Work: In Conversation with Photographer Shivaji Storm Sen

The human body is a tool of unparalleled power for expressing emotion beyond the use of normal utterances. Artists have celebrated the naked human art form since classical antiquity. From Ancient Greeks and Roman sculptors and painters to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the love of the human body and its contours have expressed not just beauty, but also deeply-felt emotions for centuries.
As artists, we look for inspiration in myriad places, and have found others whose work speaks to us. One such artist is photographer Shivaji Storm Sen whose body of work captures the beauty of the human form at its rawest. In a country, where social norms and conservative attitudes sometimes stifle creativity, there are a few artists whose work breaks the stereotypes and defies taboos. Shivaji Storm Sen’s repertoire of nude photography alludes to such rebellion as can be seen in his extensive body of work. We got on a call with the artist to find out what makes him tick and what inspires his fixation with capturing the human form at its barest. Here are the excerpts from our long, insightful conversation.

The urge to express oneself creatively can sometimes be repressed, till it forces its way to the top. Yet if you look back, patterns once ignored, start making sense. Shivaji’s early beginnings show a similar path. Having started in the video gaming industry in 2005, he couldn’t resign himself to normalcy and realised that photography was his calling, later shifting to pursuing photography full-time in 2010. As a child, he was drawn to painting, something that hinted to his latent talents. “It was a different era, photography wasn’t that big in India. I wanted to pursue the subject professionally, and committed to pursuing a 1-year Masters programme from Arts University, Bournemouth in the UK. I spent another 3 years in Wales, Cardiff working and teaching photography,” starts Shivaji.

“Formal education is important if done from the right school. In India, most of the content taught in art and photography schools is very India-centric. As I was pursuing my Masters, I realised that a good institute and teacher can help broaden one’s horizons. They teach you where to look to learn, forcing you out of your comfort zone. When I returned to India, we were at a turning point with photography seeing a resurgence. The industry was maturing, and I went the Bollywood way. With friends who were actors, I started to shoot actors, who would recommend me to their contemporaries. Soon thereafter I tried my hand at editorial photography, working with Filmfare, Grazia, Huffington Post, Femina, The Week and Fountain Ink, before finally making the shift,” he reveals.

The shift happened all too naturally. What had once started out as a hobby became the medium with which the artist could convey the world from his perspective to others. It was his way of contributing to the world, and his pictures spoke of emotions that can hardly be expressed in words.

Sen says, “I always say that any art is about intent. If you are shooting nudes — they can be erotic, non-erotic or pure documentation, or it could be all of the above. Sometimes they can blend into one another, or can be starkly different. This expression is about what’s in your head, and you have to be honest about it. The female form naturally interests me, and although I have shot male erotica before, I lean towards capturing the feminine form in its many dimensions. It’s a personal choice and an inclination, and doesn’t reflect on anything beyond.”

We in India have had a rich cultural legacy of celebrating the human form for centuries. Somewhere along the ages, our disposition swayed ways for Victorian conservatism, the shackles of which seem to tie us even today. Yet that’s not the way it should be.

“Nudity is not unnatural. It is one of the most natural things in existence. We are born naked, and it is the most basic of our instincts, yet we have turned it into something vulgar altogether. The reason nudism is associated with sexuality, is because that’s how we’ve made it. To add to that, there isn’t anything wrong in pursuing the art of presenting the sexual as an artist, as long as your intentions are clear and that’s what you are aiming for. It is because of unmitigated sexual repression that we still grapple with gender identity issues and other aspects of humanity. Art challenges these societal notions. To break free as human beings. Why are we so averse to something so natural? When you are born naked, that’s how you are born, clothes don’t belong to you,” he explains.

The photographer adds, “When I create, I sometimes do it out of anger, sometimes out of pride. If someone says you cannot shoot that, I become pressed to do just the opposite — there shouldn’t be anything that can’t be shown. This is my voice to show what skin should be or what it is. But it’s always about the intent.”

And that intent must show through with the artist’s craft. There is a fine line between fine art and softcore porn. How does one differentiate? What separates nudity that is creative rather than crass, especially since the expression is so subjective? For Shivaji who pursued this line of inquiry as part of his Masters’ thesis, the answer is quite simple. “Porn only has one purpose — to excite. Something artistic will provide for more than just excitement. Porn may offer a one-off value, and may not even be equal for both genders, but art is a lot more inclusive for both the genders. It has a lot more to offer the viewer visually, emotionally and aesthetically. Much more than just physical excitement and sexuality.” Art, thus, doesn’t always tantalise, it offers  a window to the artist’s expression.

But how do artists in India cope with eliciting this authenticity? In a sometimes conservative society such as India, the societal stigma against a particular art form can be termed offensive, and artists have faced the wrath of audiences who may not see an eye to eye on such issues. Are there any specific challenges?

“The struggle is not something new,” says the artist. “Everybody who is going through a change, suffers the stigma. Take for example, a woman who wants to be shot or be part of an image, a painting, wanting to express herself, may want to be part of the project, but may be guarded. There are a lot of artists who want to work with their bodies, create self-portraits, but the whole struggle isn’t new. They’ve been struggling for a very long time. It doesn’t help that we are a very conservative country at large. It doesn’t help that we are still heavily influenced by religion” he elucidates.

At the end of the day, an artist hopes that his work finds resonance with those who view it. For Shivaji, it is no different. He reveals, “I want people to fall in love with my subjects. That has been the one constant across my works.”

Yet censorship can be found in the most abstruse of places, which is why the artist strived to evolve to different platforms. “Platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr, where a lot of artists now gravitate to find audiences, have been heavily censored lately. Yet platforms such as Behance and Patreon allow artists to be able to connect with patrons and fans who can help support financially. I’ve started putting my work there. In fact, I’d just started a new project in March with my partner, where we escape to different places for 3 months in a year, and travel and shoot and share it on Patreon. Our first trip to the Czech Republic and Austria happened, but was cut short because of the Covid-19 situation. We can’t wait to get back to travelling.”

Check out the maverick photographer’s portfolio on Patreon to show your support. Link as below:
https://www.patreon.com/shivajistormsen

RAPID FIRE:

Who is the easiest celebrity to work with?

Vicky Kaushal

Black & White or Colour?

Depends on the image.

Your favourite camera to work with?

Hasselblad

What about the lenses?

Just a prime lens, with a low-aperture, I don’t like telephoto lenses.

What’s your favourite meal?

Mutton and rice or steak

Your favourite photograph from those you’ve shot?

I can never decide. But I don’t have too many favourites.

What track is repeating on your playlist?

While shooting I listen to a lot of Lana Del Ray and Cigarettes After Sex.

What’s your biggest regret?

My undergrad, I wish I had studied art instead of a Bachelors in Management Studies.

What keeps you busy during the quarantine?

Jhadoo pochha, sleeping, chopping vegetables — isn’t that the same for everyone? (laughs) My day revolves around editing during most parts of the day. I also play a little bit of Catan.

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