“Four artists drawing inspiration from travel, to explore new ways to create in real time.”
Whappening India had Homegrown from the get go, with the artists’ love for travel forming the very crux of the collaborative project. Trupal Pandya, Zia Sen and Helen Stimson, have been friends since they joined Fashion Institute of Technology, New York. They formulated and honed the idea behind ‘Whappening’, and Akanksha Sonthalia soon became a part of the grand scheme as well, made concrete by a name, theme and a project schedule that all followed quickly thereafter. A month later, they were in India on a four-week trip exploring the Western Coast of the country, as well as the capabilities and limitations of their own artistic aspirations.
The four of them contributed their individual strengths to create a body of work that combines the elements of travel and documentary photography (Trupal), styling/art direction/hair and make up (Zia), fashion design/styling/music (Helen) and modelling/dancing (Akanksha). The underlying currents of culture and travel run a consistent stream in their works, as the four creative minds came together to search for creative actualization. The wildly expansive project, abstract and organic in its evolution, leaves the viewer with a range of questions and a maddening urge to pack one’s bags and get on the next bus out of the city.
Whappening India took the time out to answer some of these questions about their epic roadtrip for Homegrown:
1. Tell us about how much each of you had travelled before this project, and why you chose the Western Coast of India for ‘Whappening India’.
Trupal: I am a travel photographer and have travelled all my life. I have been all around India documenting subjects like Aghoris, Eunuchs, Holi in Barasana, tribals of Chota Udaipur etc. I recently went to Ethiopia to document the vanishing tribes of The Omo Valley.
Zia: I feel like I had traveled a fair amount prior to this trip. I’ve been traveling internationally with my family since I was pretty young and, of course, now individually as well, since I go to university in America. I have travelled all along the North Eastern coast of America as well as some of Northern California. I was also a national athlete in both basketball and football in India and travelled a lot for that when I was growing up.
Helen: I hadn’t done much traveling before this. The only other places outside of the United States I had been to were Guatemala (to work at a vocational school) and London (to visit my sister who attended school there).
Akanksha: I definitely define myself as a nomad. I have been travelling extensively for as long as I can remember. I am the typical traveller who documents almost everything in a journal, with mini-sketches and photographs to accompany my adventurous lifestyle.
We initially chose the western coast of India because we (Trupal and Zia) were most familiar with it. Our houses are in Vadodara and Bangalore respectively and so we thought it would make a big difference in our ability to gain access to places and in finding locations.
2. How did the idea for ‘Whappening India’ originally come about amongst all of you?
Zia: Whappening seriously just grew out of the fact that Trupal and I would work a lot together on school assignments where he would shoot and I would style/assist in photography. In doing so, we would casually discuss the possibility of travelling and doing similar shoots in India. When we threw the idea at Helen one night, she made us believe it could be more achievable and on a larger scale than we expected. We then began discussing location ideas and made a rough map and began collecting resources for the trip. We knew immediately, that we would also want an Indian model, which is why I reached out to Akanksha (fellow Bangalorean). I knew she was more than capable of modeling for us but wanted more to contact her because I believed she was a like-minded artist who was yearning to express herself creatively through her profession.
3. What did you anticipate to be the most difficult part about executing it and what did it turn out to actually be?
We heard last minute that our Hair and Make-up artist couldn’t make it to the trip and so we definitely anticipated that this would be our biggest challenge. In the course of our travels, however, we discovered that our greatest challenge was uploading and sharing our art with our followers in real time. We were working insanely long shifts in the summer heat in India and it was exhausting but tremendously rewarding when we could see feedback and viewership numbers in live time. In the last 3 months we have had over 8,000 page views on our website.
4. How do your location recces pan out? Tell us a little about how you zeroed in on the final locations for the shoot.
Zia: We didn’t really do recces in advance, we just kept driving and simultaneously scouting for locations. We stopped wherever we thought it would be a good spot. Often, Trupal and I would drive out or walk around while Helen and Akanksha were doing touch-ups, to get a feel of an interesting area and then escort them down when we zeroed in on a particular spot. As for the locations in general everyone wanted to include the white desert and Goa and Akanksha introduced us to Hampi, as she had lived and worked there previously. We did rely a lot on local recommendations for areas and landscapes and usually asked people we met on the way for help if we needed it.
5. Which are the cities and areas you have travelled to so far, and what are some of the most interesting stories you’ve come away with?
(Kutch) Bhuj, Mandvi, Vadodara, Champaner, Goa, Bangalore, Hampi.
6. Whom is the initiative funded by?
It was funded by Trupal, Helen and Zia, and Akanksha paid for only her flight tickets.
7. We absolutely love your blog and how it conveys different perspectives from the same project:-
(a) Trupal, tell us a little bit about your train of thought as you go about a shoot, and the process of your conceptualisation.
I went with the flow, took advantage of every possible thing on the way including wind, water, people etc. There was no one to tell me what to do so I had all the freedom to experiment with locations and shots. I wasn’t successful all the time but got amazing images most of the time.
(b) How did you come across the earthquake ruins? What was your interaction with the locals like?
Zia spotted it on the way to Mandvi while we were driving. Locals were wary to talk about their experience from the earthquakes. It usually caused the person we were talking to, to shut down and avoid answering anything. You could tell that it made people very emotional and that it was still very hard to talk about.
(c) Helen, tell us a little about your ‘interests in morality, simplicity and philosophy’ and to what extent you’ve had to ‘abandon cultural habits’. How would you say your aesthetic has developed over the course of this project?
I’m from Seattle and the only born and raised American on the Whappening india team, so for me, just going to India meant abandoning cultural habits. The way Indians eat, drive, smell, speak, think, etc. it was all different and new. There were a couple times people reached over to help me mix my food, that was something I have been conditioned my whole life to not ever let happen. I could definitely get used to eating with my hands, but I don’t know about letting other people touch my food.
In terms of Morality, I think it ‘s interesting how different cultures value certain morals over others. People in India eat vegetarian and yet are still dealing with sexism. In the United States the norm is to eat anything we can get our forks and knives on and to do it naked and free (for lack of a better word).
My aesthetic has become more refined. Most of the end choices were left to Trupal because he did the editing, but it was interesting being able to say no to certain outfits and settings that I wouldn’t do justice to, or felt contrived.
8. The colours in the photographs are absolutely breath-taking, with a gorgeous use of light. Who decides the colours?
Trupal: Me, me, me, I am heavily inspired by colour and always want various tones and textures in my photos. We had mood boards before we started the trip made by Zia that really helped.
9. Trupal, how do you feel about B&W?
I love it.
10. Have you guys ever had a disagreement about the aesthetic of this project? If yes, how did you resolve these?
YES! There were times where one of us would say something that was too commercial or not in the same aesthetic range as we had initially wanted or planned then ask what the point of the photo was.
By the end we realized how to pinpoint each others’ visual tastes and avoided saying things when someone else had a good idea that we couldn’t visualize.
11. The videos in your gallery are really intriguing. What does the moving footage capture that the still ones could not in your opinion?
The point of Whappening was to try to integrate as much “art” as possible. Video was integral in showing our journey as artists as well as our point of view in situations. We thought that it was important to show the production of some of our photos as well as the beautiful movement that took place around us. The moving image captured the feel/mood in a way that the photographs only conveyed halfway. Things like the sand moving or cattle being herded would’ve looked sub-par in photos compared to how they looked on video. If you watched Subtlety you would also see how we found it important to get our feedback on places, photos and moods in interviews that we did periodically along the entire journey.
12. Tell us a little bit about your video with ‘Flaws’ as the soundtrack, and how you went about shooting it.
Shooting it consisted of the same idea that we used for our photographs, stop when you see something inspiring and get it on film! Trupal definitely shot a bulk of the landscape footage and immediately taught the rest of us the ropes. We continued the trip with taking a lot of behind-the-scenes videos and just beautiful things we spotted. I (Zia) was in charge of gathering and pushing people to take their testimonials/interviews. Helen was in charge of finding the music for our videos and she usually did it very effortlessly.
13. Who are some of the artists that have inspired each of you, across the media spectrum?
Ryan Mcginley was an artist whose story really inspired us. In terms of travel and documentary photography we all shared a passion for Steve McCurry (who Trupal had worked with for the year before our travels) and Sebastian Salagado. We wanted to create shots that were both heavily inspired by commercial fashion and fashion publications but also wanted to do a lot of offbeat conceptual things that we would finalize on our journey itself.
14. ‘New York City and art school alike create a competitive atmosphere where people often disregard the benefits of working with the talented people who are so easily and readily available to them.’ This is something that a lot of us can identify with. Could you elaborate on how to overcome this?
Zia: We definitely feel like creativity, especially in the fashion industry, has established itself as competitive, individualistic concept. Art in the fashion world seems less about making something beautiful with people who you know can help you get there and more about proving to those people, at par with you, that you are better than them. I think the only way to overcome it is to realize that growth is only achieved when you are out of your comfort zone, especially when it comes to art. If you watched Subtlety you would have heard me say that the beauty of this trip was everyone bringing what they considered beautiful to the table and in doing so added something completely unique and irreplaceable to the end product. People have to learn to let their guards down and reach out to other artists.
Vadodara surprisingly was a city where we happened to meet a lot of people with day jobs and families but who had a connecting, strong passion for art and we found a lot of our followers there. Art schools globally need to push their students to mentor and guide each other instead of looking so much to “industry professionals”.
15. Tell us about the mini-film that you have in the pipeline.
The film is now out! The film Subtlety aims to capture different and complex angles from the Whappening journey and portray them in a simple way. We wanted all our viewers to get an insight into the creation of our work as well as a look at some of the beautiful footage we hadn’t had the chance to upload on our live feed during our travels.
16. What is your long-term goal for this project?
We would definitely like to do another trip sometime in the future where we grow as artists but we also teach and inspire people. We have discussed many opportunities for the future but are currently concentrating on what this trip means in present time. I think many people find what we have done hard to grasp and before it defines itself it wouldn’t make much sense moving forward.
17. Quick questions:
• What are you listening to right now?
Trupal: The XX
Zia: Tom Odell - Another Love (Zwette remix)
Helen: Thundercat - Is it love?
• How have you dealt with the Rann of Katch weather conditions while shooting?
Trupal, Helen & Zia: There are times when we didn’t have electricity in our hotel room and those were definitely the worst moments. We wouldn’t shoot much under direct/harsh sunlight so we beat the heat at the worst times in the day. We were mostly out for sunrise and sunset which made the summer quite bearable. Also, visiting the desert “off season” meant that we wouldn’t see people for miles and could get the benefit of doing things that wouldn’t be possible with a crowd around.
• Favourite delicacy along the Western Coast you can’t get enough of?
Trupal: Goan fish curry/thali
Zia: Sea-food in Goa - Prawn curry or soft shell crab
Helen: Pani Puri
• Dream collaborators.
Trupal: National Geographic/Magnum Photographers. My dream as a filmmaker/editor would be to travel with a band I love and make on-the-road documentaries.
Zia: Art Direction for a publication like GQ, Vogue or Harper’s or managing the fashion closets in Bollywood.
To view more images from Whappening India’s series, click on the gallery below:
[gallery link=”file” columns=”4” ids=”14750,14749,14748,14744,14743,14739,14737,14738,14736,14735,14734,14732,14730,14729,14728”]