A Conversation with Anu Kumar
Interview by Leah Jing McIntosh
Anu Kumar is an Indian-Australian documentary photographer. Born in India and raised in Australia, Anu uses photography as a medium to explore her two homes. We talked to Anu Kumar about medium format photography, ethical clothing production and the hidden politics of makeup.
View an excerpt from her photographic series, Nagar, here.
What are you currently working on?
I have so many projects in the works right now, it’s becoming a bit overwhelming! I’m probably most excited about a photography project I did in India. I visited my family home in Ghaziabad— which is two hours away from New Delhi—for about three months. I ended up shooting a lot, and it wasn’t anything to begin with but eventually it turned into a kind of portrait of the town.
I love photographing in India. It’s a lot easier for me, to be honest. I feel much more comfortable taking photos in India.
Is this comfort due to a sense of home— to a sense of likeness? In part escaping your position in Australia as ‘the Other’?
Sometimes when you’re in Australia and you take someone’s picture on the street you can almost be attacked verbally, and even if you’re not, you’re constantly walking around with that fear. It’s hard to take pictures here. When I was at uni studying photography, I felt so scared and anxious every time I had to go do a project. I would have to go out and take photographs, and I wouldn’t even enjoy it at all.
When I photograph in India I don’t wear my regular clothes, I wear my Indian clothes when I’m there and I blend in as much as possible. In India, when you take someone’s photo, they don’t change—they just look at you. For me, it was a very comfortable experience. People are often a bit curious as to why I’m taking their photos. I think I get away with a lot more being Indian, and because I possess an understanding of the culture.
It’s a different relation than a tourist coming in and trying to take photos, where there is often a problematic dynamic between subject and photographer.
I think the subject can immediately tell the difference. It’s not that I think photographers should necessarily restrict themselves, but you can tell. They often lack a sensitivity—an intimacy.
There’s just so much you have to be aware of before you take photos, in terms of things like, photographing women, or even something as simple as when entering someone’s house and knowing to take your shoes off. There’s a different kind of community, a different culture, and you need to be receptive to that.
When did you start engaging with photography as a practice?
It was when I was 20, actually—I’d never even picked up a camera before! At the time, all of my family and friends were doing medicine. I studied physical therapy for about two and a half years; it was a good waste of time.
It took me a while to realise how disinterested I was in the course. I was not invested. I failed a whole set of exams—not just one, all three. And I’d never failed at anything, really. I have Asian parents, Asian friends, and it was just like, you couldn’t fail.
I was kind of flying by in the first year and able to just get through it. It wasn’t until I had a meeting with the people who run the course and they were like ‘maybe you don’t want to do occupational therapy’ that I recognised it; I was so defensive but when I left that meeting I was thought, yeah, they’re probably right. I never went back after that.
Afterwards I called my dad in tears and he took me to the beach, which is so unlike him. We just walked along the beach for ages and then he told me, ‘just figure out what you want to do and it’s okay.’ And I was so surprised. It was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me because it was just so unexpected.
After that I went to Nepal and India to ‘find myself’. My parents had gotten me a camera for my 19th birthday, and I took that with me. Later that year, I applied to do a Bachelor of Commercial Photography at RMIT. When I figured out what I wanted to do, it felt pretty easy.
You know how people say you don’t have to go to uni for photography? It’s not for everyone, but I definitely needed that. Because I was forced to do so much work, I refined my taste so quickly, and it would have taken me over ten years to get to that point. Your friends are never going to tell you that your work is shit. The teachers were brutal. They tell you outright ‘this is not good.’
I guess I got really lucky—some people just never figure it out. I’m kind’ve thankful I failed all those exams.
It’s funny to be alerted to your own indifference.
I know! Sometimes I look back and I don’t think I made very many decisions until I was like 20. I didn’t really decide on anything. It just happened.
Anyway, I decided this year that I’m not going to get another job, I’m just going to focus purely on my photography. I’m 26 now and I need to give it a proper go.
What has been one of your favourite projects so far?
I have an ongoing photography project called Barefoot, which is a continuation of my final-year grad project. I love it, honestly, I feel like it’s one of those projects that will probably go on forever, I don’t see it finishing. It kind of emerged quite randomly—it was a project we had to do on homeschooling in Victoria. I went to this family’s house and they lived in this town kind of far out—they have three kids, two girls and a boy. During my final year project I was going there quite a lot, like once every two weeks. I didn’t take pictures initially—the first time I was just hanging out, explaining to them what I wanted to do. But it’s been over two years now that I’ve been going back and forth. Now I go four or five times a year—it’s turned into my own personal project.
It looks, and sounds, like the kind of a candid, continued intimacy we were talking about earlier. Do you give them the photos?
Yeah, I've shown them the photos quite a few times, but I kind of like the fact that they don’t really care that much. I got lucky finding them because they’ve been so giving, so generous. I’m pretty much a fly on the wall. They gave me access to their home, their life; I don’t know if I’d do the same for someone else, let them in and take photos of me all the time. The kids have gotten to know me quite well and I just go there when I feel like getting away from city life because it’s such a nice feeling to chill out. There’s a lake there, you can go swimming, it’s really nice.
What else are you up to?
I’ve actually got a second project that’s in the works. Last year was I spent a lot of time trying to make money off of photography and it ended up polluting the entire thing, I wasn't having fun with the photos I was taking. I realised the only way around this is to make money in other ways, to do ‘business’ on the side, apart from my photography. Since I’m constantly going to India anyway I just thought it has to be something related to India, you know, I needed to incorporate India somehow.
At the same time I was getting really into kind of ethical clothing and fashion, especially after seeing the documentary The True Cost about the negative impacts of fast fashion— it’s very eye opening. It’s one of those things that’s so difficult because everyone’s guilty of it, you know? We all have shopped at H&M. I cringe because I’ve done it.
So, I wanted to do something that’s ethical, organic, natural, but fashion is just not my genre. I really respect that and I’m not going to pretend it is! But I’ve always thought that pajamas are quite a fun thing—everyone loves pajamas.
You're starting an ethical pajama business? This is so exciting!
Yeah! So, the idea is to use really nice colours and good organic fabrics from India, only natural fabrics. It’s a challenge to make sure that everything is done ethically. I’ve used some really old techniques from India, like block printing, where they cut the block from scratch. It was really upsetting because organic cotton only makes up like 2-3% of all cottons in India now, whereas 50-60 years ago it made up the majority. I’m trying to bring back some of the techniques, for instance there’s a really old technique called ‘Khadi’.
I’m super excited about it. Right now I can’t imagine it being a failure but I also can’t imagine it being a success, because it’s just in my head. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out.
How do you negotiate your dual identity and citizenship?
I was born in India, in New Delhi, and came over with my family when I was eight months old. When we came here we actually lived in Brunswick! It’s really funny because it wasn’t the cool neighborhood it is now, but I really want to live there now and now my mom’s just like ‘no you can’t go backwards,’ because she’s always associated Brunswick with us being poor and struggling.
It’s difficult because I really like it there. I don’t think I’ve really lived in a place that’s ever been very white. I’ve always lived in suburbs that are very multicultural and sometimes I take that for granted. I was just hanging out in Armadale once and I was just like ‘oh I don’t know if I feel quite comfortable here.’ It makes a big difference, and it definitely comes into consideration when I think about where I want to live.
I’m so grateful for being Indian, it makes up so much of me—it’s so much of my identity. That’s why I go to India all the time as well, I like to feel at home there, but also I do feel at home here—it’s just a different kind of home. Sometimes it’s can be a little bit annoying; when I go to India sometimes I get the sense that people do kind of feel that I’m not from there so I have this sense of - ‘where do I belong?’
I guess I’ve got a really unique point of view of the world. Many of my friends have Indian heritage, and we all have similar struggles. We talk about it a lot. I think that really helps. I don’t think I would be as in touch with my Indian identity if I didn’t. It feels like it’s okay when you have a community.
Before we started the interview, you mentioned how tricky it is to find makeup for your skin tone.
Every Indian girl I know my age, as teenagers we’d go into Priceline and get that one brown which was like the Maybelline Matte Mousse in brown and it was not Indian brown, it was black brown, so it had really pink undertones. I’m Indian, I’ve got yellow undertones. And I’m dark. I’m dark for an Indian. And we’d always cake it on anyway— so awful. That was the one option that we could get and yet there are like fifty different shades of beige.
I used to go into these make-up stores and shame them because I knew that they didn’t have anything for me. I’d go in and be like ‘so I’m looking for a foundation’ and a white shop-girl would be like ‘... I guess this is the darkest that we have?’
Has it gotten better?
Better but not great. Nowadays I’m just trying to just clean up my makeup, I don’t want to put any chemicals on my face. Natural brands they’re taking their time to get the brown shades in. It’s so frustrating because all I want to do is be good to my skin and I can’t. Now I just don’t really wear that much makeup anymore. And I want to have that option: it shouldn't be their decision to make. It's mine.
There are so many different kinds of brown. I’m not even the darkest, I’m barely even the darkest; there are so many more browns that go way past mine. If I’m struggling, then what’s happening at the other end of the spectrum? We’re just not important enough, clearly. It angers me so much.
And on the other end of the spectrum, in India, everyone wants to be white. It’s so ingrained. It’s like you’re not beautiful unless you’re fair. Fairness creams are so aggressively advertised. It’s funny, you see these Bollywood actresses, they started off a lot darker, now suddenly they’re white. When did that happen?
It’s heartbreaking that even Bollywood doesn’t have representative actors. People just don’t realise what it means to experience growing up and not seeing yourself as the protagonist.
I just want to see someone who looks like me on screen—I’m so sick of being the sidekick. Sometimes I’m almost jealous of the kids who are growing up now, I’m like ‘you get so much more!’ I mean, I used to be so insecure about my skin colour when I was younger. It really is so much about representation, I love seeing people like me on screen —it’s messed up that even in India it doesn’t happen.
There is this one girl who’s now in ‘artsy’ films in India and she actually looks exactly like me! Like, thank god, a darker girl. It’s so good. It’s sad that it’s not more common even in my home country.
Are you inspired by any contemporary photographers?
I always, always say Dayanita Singh. She’s a five foot tall Indian woman, like me. So short, it’s ridiculous. In an interview Dayanita said that it's an advantage being short. Both her and I, we hold waist level cameras, so it’s an even shorter perspective, so it’s really the view of a child what you’re seeing. And—because I’m holding a waist-level camera, I’m looking at the subject in the eye.
Do you have any advice for emerging photographers?
I guess to be consciously sensitive, and to be informed. I feel like you can get a lot of trouble taking pictures of what you don't know and assuming things about the circumstances of others.
And—while we're at it—any advice for small business owners?
Yes! don’t be afraid to ask for help and call in favours. Delegating tasks are hard because it’s your baby, but respect the abilities of others—even if it’s just for your own sanity.
What are you currently listening to?
What are you currently reading?
How do you practice self-care?
Solo adventures to the cinema.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
To me it means being lucky, we get two cultures. I get this amazingly unique experience—even if it does often lead to confusion.