THE ART OF BEING GROUNDED

 Photo credit Omi Chowdhury

Photo credit Omi Chowdhury

 

Those of us who are fortunate enough to experience art and fashion simultaneously know of Omi or his work through various avenues, from gallery shows to editorials, from the Smithsonian installations to his work as an academic, artist.

We caught up with Omi at New York Fashion Week, and then at Oslo Runway to have a proper chat about his life, his creative process, and the ongoing issues within the fashion industry.

Q: Your background is rather eclectic. Harvard trained war theorist and a fashion photographer are very different jobs for anyone. How are those two worlds converging in your current life?

"My work as an academic is far less flashy and more entrenched in the nuances of the subject matter as opposed to trying to reinventing the wheels. I simply have no illusion about the efficacy of my work within academia as it is numbers and assessments. My latest work which was just published in Israeli Affairs through Routledge is about Elite Level Diplomacy and its impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is academic observation and theory, and within a current climate of anti-intellectualism, this barely serves the purpose. So while I find the work rewarding I am under no illusion that it has its limits in a world governed by ‘stable geniuses’.

Now as an editor and fashion photographer I bring the same sort of skill set to writing but not within the visual process. The dissection process is not that different, but the objectives are, instead of just educating, it is a process of evoking reactions within the realms aesthetically pleasing products.

To be clear fashion and working on the field collecting data on war is as far as you can go from finding common grounds logistically and intellectually. The things you see and hear in a war zone or in a refugee camp are never going to escape you and you are never going to escape that. With fashion that impact is far less systematic and intrinsic. But both worlds are full of wonderful people trying to fend off disasters and creating beauty out of it. So the convergence never really happens, you just appreciate the different-ness of both worlds and try not to compare, because that would be absurd and truly pointless."

 Photo credit Omi Chowdhury

Photo credit Omi Chowdhury

Q: Most Fashion photographers come into the industry with backgrounds in fashion, you have not done that. your transition has been from street photography and war zone photography. what made you decide to come into fashion?

"I needed sort of a break from war before I broke, so fashion photography became that steady and continuous escape. I viewed art as a form of escapism, like religion or a tiramisu. After having a very serious kind of show in Boston I was introduced to a few people within the industry who worked for Helmut Lang and Dior…from there Vogue and everyone else came on board. But initially, I was reluctant to move in that direction. I found fashion photography to be frivolous and at times too repetitive. My view on that issue hasn’t drastically changed so I thought maybe I would be able to contribute to changing that a bit. Now I know that repetition is inevitable, frivolity is much needed especially if you see fashion as a form of necessary escapism."

The delicate dance of art and commerce is probably the hardest thing to figure out in this business
— OMI CHOWDHURY

Q: You have had serious art installations at places like the Smithsonian and Edward M Kennedy center, along with exhibitions in Copenhagen, Boston to name a few. Do you think being an artist and a fashion photographer is mutually inclusive or do you think the commercial impact of one’s work dictates how art within fashion moves?

"Finding your voice is necessary. Everyone starts off with having no voice but a whisper bickering away in their heads, in their work. And as you get used the process, the nuances of your own work, you make decisions based on your circumstances. Art and Commercial Fashion photography are not mutually inclusive nor are they mutually exclusive. If your voice, your work can balance the two that’s ideal. Some can, some can’t, some won’t and some are not allowed to. That is the reality of the business. But ultimately after hundreds of editorials if you can look at a random photo and say ‘oh that one is mine’, you have found a voice, and you better hold on to that. The rapid and cannibalistic nature of art in post-capitalist structures is going to come after all authenticity through replication, through repetition, and through outright thievery, but that voice that is entirely yours will always dictate how you survive the rising flood. So if you let just commercial concerns dictate your art or art dictate commercial concerns you might find either you are losing your voice or you are losing your appeal. The delicate dance of art and commerce is probably the hardest thing to figure out in this business."

 Photo credit Omi Chowdhury, shooting Alexandre Vauthier`s AW18 Haute Couture in Paris

Photo credit Omi Chowdhury, shooting Alexandre Vauthier`s AW18 Haute Couture in Paris

Q: Your most famous editorial works are filled with abstract expressionism and your backstage work for Vauthier, Lahav is considered staple in the industry, where do you find the inspiration to be so expansive in one front and so minimalist on the other?

I find it incredibly disrespectful when photographers post full outfits of a backstage before the show has been completed because they want more likes, views or whatever.
— OMI CHOWDHURY

"To be completely frank most editorials I see on magazines tire me. There is a certain never-out-of-the-box structure to them. And they are generally well received because we are taught to appreciate consistency in art. So something out of the left field will always shake that box and some people will come out and say, this is rubbish or this is great. Good art survives mediocrity and repetition; bad art incorporates them. Most of my interesting work (as in the ones that I revisit) are products of many people. It is a product of clients giving me full creative control, my assistants helping out with the lighting, post-processing, and my brain stealing bits of paint from everywhere else. It is a collage of collective experiences of living. So my visually expansive work is soaked in my own identity which is a construct of many different experiences with many different people.

As for my backstage work I am there to observe and fashion the art of a chaotic environment. Authenticity of the atmosphere is far more important than experimental artwork or editorials. So minimalism is the way forward there. I only shoot in BW for backstage so the clothes are not represented or seen in a disrespectful matter. It is worth remembering that as a backstage photographer your work secondary to the designer who is showing his/her/their work at a runway. And the clothes should be seen within that context, not through backstage shots. Backstage shots are the humanistic exploration of one’s process. I find it incredibly disrespectful when photographers post full outfits of a backstage before the show has been completed because they want more likes, views or whatever. But it cannibalises the work of the designer. We need to be clear about those boundaries and be respectful of the designer’s work."

 

Q: Your subject matters have gone from burning buildings, street protests to haute couture shows in Paris.... has that transition been hard? what skillset works for both as an artist?

"The transition has been/is hard, in terms of finding purpose within your work. It’s the rough headbutts of reality VS the vapid empty feeling of Instagram-snapchat Stockholm syndrome. Initially, I had trouble finding the point of doing fashion but that was more of a matter of mindset than an actual philosophical dissection. If you go back to actual philosophy you would find that life on a reductive level is pointless and if you keep on thinking that, then there is no point to doing anything in life. But my thinking evolved and I tend to agree with Camus and his position on the Myth of Sisyphus, where he concedes that life is pointless, and the rebellion is in form of doing things that bring us joy and provide some benefit to someone. So we all are Sisyphus in some way or form, pushing that dreaded rock up the hill…but the freedom is in between those repetitions. Freedom is in art, the rebellion it provides and the clarity it fosters.

That being said, when it comes to skillset, street photography (not streetstyle) gives you a lot of transferable skillset into editorials. They give you the ability to work within any environment. If you can survive and take good photos of a riot, you will be fine dealing with Bolshoi ballerinas in the middle of a freezing factory or a Victoria's Secret model in a church."

 Photo credit Omi Chowdhury, learn more about Omi`s art  here

Photo credit Omi Chowdhury, learn more about Omi`s art here

Q: Most of your fashion photographs have strong female protagonists and you have often spoken about more egalitarian and transparent way of constructing narratives. In the age of the #metoo movement and serious accusation of misconduct against certain prominent photographers, have you found it to be helpful that people finally seem to be listening and being more transparent about the pitfalls of the industry, or do you think this is more of a commercial concern for big brands and nothing more?

"The #metoo movement has been a long time coming. What has been going under the blanket provocative art with certain photographers is sexual harassment masquerading as art. And a lot of people are complicit in defending and at times enabling that type behaviour. There has been this old boys club mentality in fashion photography that has created these structural checks and balances to protect predators from consequences of such harassment and assault. And sometimes poor behaviour (sexual or otherwise) has been rewarded and applauded as a quirk of being an artist. That may have been acceptable during the time of Caravaggio, but we are in 2018 and this should not be acceptable, not matter if you are high profile photographer or if you are a lowly production assistant. The line needs to be clear and it is becoming clearer for a lot of people who don't respect the process of art and dehumanises its subjects as their playthings. It is endemic of a broken system and we have a responsibility to fix it. The problem goes far deeper than the fashion industry, the moral compass is broken. And when one compass is broken, we have to navigate that territory through a collective effort. Fashion does not exist in a vacuum. I am glad that we are taking the steps to correct part of the broken structure, but we are just at the tip of the iceberg. The long-term goal would be to educate children (as in boys) about what is acceptable, what is unacceptable and what is criminal. My general reservation about the movement is that you need to be clear about the parameters of the movement and the punitive aspect of it. As we have found out with certain people, there are a lot of grey areas that need to be addressed. As a man, my position is that women within the #metoo movements would have to accept the help of imperfect allies. Because the problem is so deeply rooted in the toxic masculinity of certain societies, that if you can't accept imperfect allies, then you won't have any allies. And this is one war you can't do alone. The whole of society needs to change, and that brings us to the last part of the question; do the brands, magazines and everyone else really care about this or is it a commercial concern now? It is both. The industry cares and it is a huge commercial concern. I would suggest that the bigger brands should have done more, should have done more sooner. But sometimes sticking your head under the sand is far more comfortable. All this is to say, we live in an imperfect world, but we don't have to accept that as the only constant, the rebellion is always forward moving and not retrogressive. So I hope this is not one of the #koni2012 movements that was just a flash in the pan. I hope there is substantive and actual progress that happens."

the rebellion is always forward moving and not retrogressive
— OMI CHOWDHURY

This article reflects the personal view of the interviewee, and not necessarialy the magazine.