Nothing about Nick Sethi’s photography aesthetic is mannered or clean. The most tell-tale sign of having been mentored by the global photographic world’s most perennially talked about photographer, Terry Richardson? A penchant to be a provocateur, probably. We first came across his work contextualizing street children in Delhi, put together post months of shooting them, and despite nearly cringing at the sheer carnality of some of the shots, we knew we were hooked. And we knew we’d happened upon a visual artist who wasn’t afraid to stray miles away from any kind of conventionally-pleasing spheres. His street children project lies somewhere between the clichés of poverty porn and the sympathy-eliciting variety, which is interesting, because as someone who’s been entirely brought up in the US, his work on India is more informed from a humanistic perspective than so many others who actually eat, breathe and sleep within the crooked borders of this country.
His Pul Ke Niche book cover reads: “What is remarkable in Sethi’s pictures of the children and families living under a freeway in New Delhi is how they boldly avoid the usual traps of photojournalism in depicting poverty – there are no sad faces, begging hands, or juxtaposing of rich and poor to illicit sympathy. Even though they are desperate, blowing-the-lid off poverty in India is clearly not Sethi’s objective, instead he portrays the ‘wrongness’ of their predicament, and their humor despite this, illustrated in a series of often surreal scenarios.”
Aside from this, the remainder of his portfolio boasts an equally exploratory approach. His message is not one of exclusion and eagerly defined rules. He prefers to exist outside of them and we preferred to push his buttons a little to uncover why, among many other things that intrigued us about him.
HG: What’s the most dangerous thing that appeals to you?
NS: “Exactly what I’m doing right now… Going to India, not speaking much Hindi, and trying to shoot crazy things and deal with new people every day. It’s so exciting, but pretty scary as well.”
HG: 1 musician, photographer and author each that inspires you.
NS: “Musicians - Trash Talk. I’ve never seen a band work so hard for so long, period. They keep getting more and more successful, and they deserve every bit of it.
Photographer - Jim Goldberg. He seems like he just really understands people.
Author - I would have to say Dave Shrigley. Short sweet, to the point, and funny!”
HG: Describe your dream shoot to us.
NS: “I would have street kids modelling for some super high end brand, and all the kids would be getting paid an insane amount of money, and everyone would be super happy, and I would fly 50 of my friends from NY over, and we would have a huuuuuge party with a sick DJ and tons of food (fancy catering, but also fast food), and have a slip n slide and water balloon fight, and just take photos all day.”
HG: One song you’d want played at your funeral?
NS: “Popcaan - Everything Nice. One of my current favorites that always puts me in a good mood!”
HG: Favourite picture you’ve ever taken and why?
NS: “Bobicol flexing in the street. It was the first time we met. He’s a street kid in Delhi, and a good friend who introduced me to tons of new people and experiences, and he’s pretty much the reason why I keep coming back to India.”
HG: How does your city/indian origin affect your art?
NS: “Most of my work comes from being Indian. I was born and brought up in the US, and growing up I didn’t know much about Indian culture. But more and more every day, I find something Indian that interests me. I think having all these things in the back of my mind my whole life led me to explore them now. I wasn’t ready for them before but now’s the time!”
HG: If you could choose only one place to live for the rest of your life and only shoot in and around it, which city would you pick?
NS: “Delhi for sure. Every area is so different and has so many things to shoot. I would love to go into every house or apartment in Delhi, and meet the people who live there, and shoot photos of them. But to narrow it down even more, I could probably be in Chandni Chowk for the rest of my life and never get bored.”
HG: Three things you absolutely need at a shoot to be at your creative best?
NS: “Music - It puts my mind, as well as my subject’s mind at ease, and lets us forget about ‘taking photos’ and lets us get in the zone and just experience things.
Trust - I need people to trust me and I need to trust myself. I usually know what I want out of a shoot, and it’s usually something weird and hard to explain, so there has to be a sense of trust so we can nail it.
Fun - There’s enough negative things out in the world, and I don’t want to add to that. Especially when I’m shooting people in unfortunate circumstances. My favorite part about photography is making something and having a laugh with people.”
HG: Analog or digital?
NS: “Both! I grew up in a digital age, and spent so long rebelling against it and only shooting film. But after assisting some photographers who use only digital, I really found how to make both work for me. Everything has a different feel to it and it’s good to mix it up and use.”
HG: What moment in your career did you realize you could start playing hard to get?
NS: “I’m nowhere near that level. Obviously I would love to keep doing bigger projects, and getting more funding to put into my work, but I still appreciate every person who likes my work, does an interview, goes to a show, hires me for a job, etc.”
HG: In what ways is your style of photography challenging?
NS: “I think my style is challenging because it never stays the same. It needs to keep changing and growing, so there’s never any time to rest. I, along with many of my peers, need to keep trying things that have never been done before, and can’t be easily explained. We kind of just have to do it and hope people get it, and then keep moving.”
HG: Why do you think you’re so drawn to the provocative/shock value?
NS: “Just because it’s new. There’s enough people doing the exact same thing out there, but anything new is shocking. We gotta keep switching it up!”
HG: Do you approach your personal projects the same way as your commissioned projects? If not, what do you do differently?
NS: “I really try to. At first I was pretty hesitant, but the more I do commissioned work, the more I realize that I was hired to shoot MY style, so I should just do that and trust myself, and that’s when I get the best results. I think this is true for all photographers too!”
HG: Your personal favourite solo/group show that you’ve done?
NS: “I really can’t decide just one. Each show was great in its own way. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people believe in my work and help me hang shows in insane ways and really back me up on it. From doing a show in a gallery with the lights off so people have to use their phone flash to see the work, to showing work in a barber shop, and clothing store, I try to keep mixing it up so it never gets boring.”
HG: What was it like shooting under Terry Richardson?
NS: “It was great! I got to work on so many great projects at a really young age, and had a lot of fun, and learned so much about how to communicate with the people you’re shooting. I think Terry has made an enormous contribution to photography, and I’m super lucky to have worked with him.”
HG: What was the most interesting thing you discovered while shooting street children in India?
NS: “How much fun they are. I’ve never met people who wanted more to just have a good time and take photos. I didn’t really have money to give them, and they understood that, so we just chilled and had a great time together. I did make them prints and gave them polaroids, and they were more than happy with that.”
HG: One thing people assume wrong about you?
NS: “I would hope this isn’t the case, but I’ve heard people say I’m taking advantage of the people I shoot in India. This just isn’t true, because I involve myself fully in the situation, and shoot as a participant, not an outsider. I love to have fun, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention to what’s happening around me. Hopefully one day, I will be able to help the people I photograph more monetarily, but for now I can just hope that we had a good time together, and hopefully open the world’s eyes to them and their eyes to the world.”
Visit Nick Sethi’s website to see more from his stellar body of work.