It’s easy to picture Arjun Kamath as a man who’s always been pulled in two different directions. Rather than let fate decide which side wins him over though, the photographer and filmmaker has always chosen the more difficult path of standing his own ground. Allowing everything to pass through him as inspiration until he filters out the best bits into his work. It’s indicative of an artist whose come of age in a digital era, and it’s this same dualism that led him to reimagine his earlier ‘Coming Out’ photo series, which went viral in late 2015, in an all new video montage avatar. By setting his powerful, surreal images of a lesbian couple’s journey out of the closet only to be ‘forced back in,’ to music, narration and film editing Kamath’s added even more depth to the original in a format that doesn’t seem derivative at all. We caught up with him to find out what drove this uncommon decision, and how he manages to steer clear of controversy despite his penchant for tackling complex social ills through his work.
[Watch the video below]
As a creator and consumer in the world of social media, Kamath’s understanding of his audience has only grown with each personal project’s success. “At first it was just an idea that I wanted to try,” he explains, ”but then I realized that this new approach might actually help me enhance the story further, while still appealing to a lot of people whose patience would have been too limited to actually immerse themselves in the original version of the series.” He’s speaking, of course, about the attention deficit nature of most young people on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. That’s why he urges people on his timeline to take out just four minutes of their time and watch this video, a feat which would have taken far longer had they decided to go through the original series, which featured 30 photographs accompanied by short, textual narratives for each. The audience had to navigate each image in the correct order quite meticulously to follow the story to its sad but powerful ending. He’s also hoping to send the experiment out to a few film festivals in the experimental categories.
Needless to say, ‘Coming Out’ widely resonated with a global audience when it was self-published on Facebook last year, and it was even featured on the UN website, a startling achievement for someone who had never expected such a response. One might have called it a good bit of luck had he not followed it up with an equally powerful ‘Avani’, which reflected some of India’s most deeply entrenched issues of patriarchy. Sharing similar themes of surrealism, detailed storytelling accompanying each photograph, and character development that would be better suited to films, it’s clear that Kamath’s work is emotionally charged with the kind of sentiment that is relatable to huge amounts of people. He insists that the obvious virality of his work is anything but intentional though.
For one thing, he wasn’t trying to be a spokesperson for the LGBTQ or gender cause; it was a far simpler thought process that led him to the issue. “Whenever I feel there is any injustice of some sort that I can see clearly with my own eyes, I feel like I can say something about it through my work. How people then perceive it, is entirely up to them.” For another, however, Kamath never writes with an audience in mind. This is important when you consider he’s spent as much time networking and building a reputation in LA as he has in Bangalore and India. “The only way I can do it is to follow my heart,” he says, acknowledging that it sounds cheesy even as he surges ahead. “That way, even if nobody likes it, you’ll know you did what you felt good about.”
The first version of this narrative inspired thank you letters and lovely messages of encouragement from LGBTQ people from all over the world, right from Bangladesh to Malaysia. Many felt personally touched, and encouraged to face their own demons, and come out to the world themselves, they wrote. And even while the accolades poured in, there was a surprising lack of anti-gay trolls attacking his work, a factor that’s always intrigued us about his work. Ask Kamath why he thinks that is, and he admits that he puts a lot of thought into his stories, always preferring to be sensitive rather than sensational. “I’m not trying to create something controversial,” he tells us. “I feel like I have a responsibility when over 30,000 people follow me on Facebook, and the goal is always to create something intimate and emotional, over something that’s crass. That’s what I told my crew as well when we were creating this series.” This might sound contradictory to his ’don’t-keep-your-audience-in-mind-clause’ but that’s still proven true in the way he controls every detail of his personal projects. Kamath admits that whether it’s the styling, the music or the casting (which he has always done via Facebook) he handles each and every piece of his project as the ultimate decision maker, a creative director all around.
“I only bring people on board who will listen to me,” he laughs. But when he continues he appears to be a collaborative spirit. “It’s not about telling people what to do, it’s just that even when I am working on somebody else’s vision or project, I respect my role and job as a cinematographer. Still, I try to use people’s talents as much as possible, and am more than happy to listen to suggestions as long as I feel that it is in tune with the story.”
Ask him about his process, and he says the story or the script always comes first. “If there’s one thing i’ve learned it’s that you can have the best of everything but if your story isn’t strong, everything falls flat. It’s like trying to cook an elaborate meal out of rotten ingredients. It’s never going to taste good. So I put a lot of time into developing the script and I make sure that whatever i’m doing, i have fun doing because there’s no point doing any of it if you don’t enjoy it. None of these projects have any gain for me financially, it’s purely about creative satisfaction.”
But this need to tell stories above all else, it wasn’t always the case. For a long time, he felt the photo stories he worked 5/6 years ago were hollow. “I wasn’t thinking about the story enough. Now a beautiful image without a story to back it up is void to me. So I try to support it with a stronger story and then the images have something to stand upon.”
As far as this new version of ‘Coming Out’ goes, it truly does feel like a completely fresh approach to the previously captured content, like something more has been unearthed by exploring a new format. He tried a bunch of permutations and combinations in his approach, worked with people he trusted, puppeteered a bunch of creative professionals right from the Voice Over artist to the musical scoring, and the end result is something that’s as moving as the original series, only far quicker to process. Plus the added layers of melody and the tonality of voice only add more layers to a project which had depth to begin with.
Interestingly, Kamath’s experience with the LGBTQ community has been surprisingly limited and that’s what drove him to pursue this even more. Having spent over seven years in an all boys school of at least 3000 students, he finds it unlikely and strange that to this date, he doesn’t know of a single gay person from that school. And while he counts many LGBTQ individuals as his closest friends in L.A. he has only interacted with members of the community at a professional level in India, but nothing more intimate. In many ways then, ‘Coming Out’ also represents Kamath’s own way of interacting with people he yearns to know better.
Having just graduated with an MFA in film and television production just a few days ago, Kamath’s only hope now is that more people can enjoy and feel something after watching this video as he pursues new ideas. For those interested in what those might be, he’s currently excited about a Hindi feature film whose story he’s been working on for a while. Even as he’s made peace with the fact that he wants to keep leading his double life in both LA and India, he signs off with a statement that simultaneously captures his dualism while ringing true in all his works we’ve seen thus far—“I guess i’m neither here, nor there in many ways. I’ll go wherever the project demands but even though I want to stay in the mix here in L.A. my stories always seem to be Indian at heart.”