Sutej Singh Pannu Lays Bare The Soul of Photography Through Unfiltered Authenticity

Earnest authenticity is bound to garner popularity and that is why Sutej’s works resonate so much with his audience.
Earnest authenticity is bound to garner popularity and that is why Sutej’s works resonate so much with his audience.Sutej Singh Pannu

The idea of art for art’s sake was born in France at the beginning of the 19th century and it was Théophile Gautier, a French poet and critic who popularized the concept. This idea that art should be created for its intrinsic value and not for any moral, political, or utilitarian purpose was heavily critiqued by various thinkers and artists, including Leo Tolstoy, who argued that art should serve a moral or social purpose. Vladimir Lenin also criticized the concept, viewing it as detached from the struggles of the masses. Without a shadow of a doubt, I belong to the Russian school of thought when it comes to having a grand purpose for the creation of art.

However, this debate is very much alive in the modern day and age but with an added twist. It is not merely a binary between aesthetics or creating art with a social message, but more importantly, finding a balance between the two, while simultaneously making it accessible and even sellable. In a global capitalist system, we have seen a widespread democratization of art. Anyone can pick up a camera or a paintbrush, hone their craft, and start creating to share with the world. Showcasing one’s work of art has become easier than ever thanks to social media. But social media is a double-edged sword. With tons of artists displaying their works, how does one stand out, without giving in to populist trends and by maintaining their distinctive artistic identity? At the same time, one’s art must be accessible to the masses and generate enough popularity on social media, the world’s largest gallery. It seems popularising good art in the age of social media is a difficult nut to crack.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to Sutej Singh Pannu, a 1991-born contemporary Sikh photographer and videographer from Chandigarh. I believe he has managed to crack this code all the while maintaining the delicate balance between creating authentic art and ensuring its commercial viability. Earnest authenticity is bound to garner popularity and that is why Sutej’s works resonate so much with his audience. He is not just a photographer but also a storyteller. When you look at his portraits, you do not merely see a person. You get to know the story behind that person. Maybe it’s the twinkle in the eyes of the aged Punjabi man or his bright smiling face, but you can instinctively tell that the photographer’s practice resonates with the subjects he captures.

"When I approach older folks, I am very much interested in knowing how have they made it this far in life. Life can be extremely challenging. Just approaching them I feel a lot of acceptance towards life. I see they are not resisting life. Even when I am approaching them they are not questioning me a lot. They instantly say yes to these photos and the reason why I give them a print is because they are not on social media. There is no way I can tag them or they can reshare the image so that is why I want them to have that piece of work that we have collectively created. A lot of them do not have smartphones so I can’t tell them that I will WhatsApp them the image or something like that. Instead, I give them a print, a tangible thing, and that is what that generation is used to. You know even a print for them is a luxury. The last photo series I did, which I will be publishing soon, I asked him when was the last time he got his photo done. He said it was for his Aadhaar card and he took out his Aadhaar card and showed it to me. Even that 4x5 print is a luxury for him. So it is very touching for them and doubly touching for me to see how small experiences like these can lead to a higher form of healing for them. One of the older men in one of my videos said that one of his kids had passed away and he was worried about his other kids and wife, and how they would survive. He took the photo I clicked and put it right next to his son’s photo, beside his wife. The old man said that doing so felt therapeutic for him. At that point it is not just a photograph, it goes beyond that. I feel grateful knowing that my practice has been a healing experience."

Sutej SIngh Pannu

Sutej’s presentation is unlike most photographers. He treats us, the viewers, to not just the final output but also his process of developing a photograph. And no, it does not involve him describing his state-of-the-art photography gear or going into the technical dos and don’ts of photography/ videography. His self-awareness and empathy shine through how he approaches his subject. He connects with them on a humanitarian level and not just as props, which is the possible reason behind his subjects having such genuine facial expressions and body language. There is a simplicity in his approach which makes it all the more elegant. He approaches his subjects just the way you would strike up a friendly conversation in the streets. Photographing them is just the icing on the cake but telling their stories are more important to Sutej’s practice. It is through his eyes, his lens and most importantly, his words that we get to know each person being photographed. It’s precisely why I love watching his reels so much.

Earnest authenticity is bound to garner popularity and that is why Sutej’s works resonate so much with his audience.
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"There was this shopkeeper in Taran Taran Sahib, a popular town in Punjab. I approached him with a friendly greeting. Growing up in India whenever we used to go to school we used to see these stationery shops or a shop where a lot of chips and candies were being sold and there was always an older uncle sitting behind the counter. So I approached him, asked for chips and then instead of just going there asking for a photo, I wanted to give him some business in some form. So I bought some chips or candies and then I asked if I could take a photo of him. And for a second he was awestruck. 'You wanna take a photo of me?' he asked surpsingly. The fact that somebody was taking time off their schedule to simply stand there and talk to him and then wanting to click his photo thoroughly amazed him. So that was an experience which left him in a very, I would say, soulful place, as well as me. It was such a small day-to-day thing for anybody but for him it was such a huge thing. Even that video capturing this interaction touched a lot of viewers on Instagram. Beauty lies in these small things. When I gave him the photo he got up from his seat to hug me and you don’t expect such an old man to suddenly hug you. It was an emotional moment for me and is embedded deep inside my memory."

Sutej Singh Pannu

A major part of Sutej’s practice is wedding photography but I will not separate it from the way he approaches street photography and captures portraits or human stories. His choice of subjects in portrait photography often involves couples whether it be an old man and his wife or two sisters — love and connection are thematic pivots to Sutej’s practice. The same practice translates into wedding photography. Many purists may vilify Sutej for embracing wedding photography and all its mercantile connotations but in doing so, they are ignoring what Sutej brings to the table. He takes the rather set-in-stone/lacking experimentation field of wedding photography and elevates it into an artful realm. With an experience of more than a decade in the wedding photography industry, he reinvents the old and golden times bringing back a 90s nostalgia style with his distinctive newness. Many of his wedding photography series remind us of what our mothers would be wearing or doing at weddings. He manages to execute this with immaculate simplicity and elegance.

Historically speaking the wedding photography industry has been primarily dominated by male photographers. While interviewing Sutej, he shared with me something quite interesting that you do not usually hear from most wedding photographers. A marriage is a divine union and in the process of having documented that for several years, Sutej has been able to spiritually connect with himself and his practice. Sutej’s spirituality is based on the ability to connect with the divine feminine energy inside him and maintain a balance of the masculine and feminine energies within, in the right proportion. His spirituality alters his perception and his artistic approach. I guess, when the spirit of the artist is pure, the art is bound to shine through.

"I started as a teenager in the wedding industry. Eventually, you start seeking validation from other people, you want to impress other people, and you want to get more likes. You want to do what other people are doing as a content creator but when you tap inwardly, when you connect to your home ground, to your roots, to yourself, to the soul itself, then things start happening very effortlessly. You begin to connect with the right people effortlessly. After connecting with my spiritual side, I have been able to manifest certain kinds of clients whom I want to work with. I have always been persistent with my craft but as I grew up, I eventually became more self-aware. I started to see things without any sense of ego."

Sutej Singh Pannu

Earnest authenticity is bound to garner popularity and that is why Sutej’s works resonate so much with his audience.
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Sutej is also giving back to the photography community through teaching. He provides insightful online classes in photography, videography and editing. He is tapping into the commercial aspect of his art form, and as we have discussed before, any artist must do in this day and age. With more than 15 years of experience, he is an expert in his field. His current strategy involves producing more content and tapping into more digital products. His online video courses, which he is currently building for platforms like YouTube, can help students learn how to monetize their craft. It focuses on teaching them to produce authentic content first and then commercializing it to make it a full-time job for themselves through which they can achieve financial freedom. Sutej says that teaching has been a rewarding experience and like all good teachers, he continuously learns from the process and hones his craft.

"Teaching others has been an exciting journey for me. When I started, I would always message a lot of photographers if I liked their use of colors, their presentation, or their lighting. Just like I was as a beginner, today, there are many people out there who would like to learn from their peers as well. So that is why I feel like the more knowledge you share the more you learn yourself as well. So as I am sharing with other people I am also learning on the go about my craft because it gives me time to sit down and come up with courses. The more you share the more you learn yourself."

Sutej Singh Pannu

Sutej’s identity cannot only be contained as a street photographer, a wedding photographer, or a teacher. He is all of them but also a true visual archivist. Sutej’s love affair with photography began at the age of 11. Growing up in Jalandhar, he watched his father take photos of him and his mother, who used to archive all the photos growing up. That core memory has been in every step of his artistic journey. His family was the reason why he chose photography as his creative expression and we, his viewers, couldn't be happier about the pivotal choice Sutej made twenty-one years ago.

Follow Sutej Singh Pannu here.