Interview #103 — Snehargho Ghosh


Snehargho Ghosh is a photographer and head chef based in Paris, France. He is a past graduate of Footscray Community Arts Centre’s Emerging Cultural Leaders (ECL) program.

Snehargho spoke to Nathania about using a camera to find our voice, the power of humility and privilege in documentary photography, and learning where to invest our energy in the face of industry-wide competition and funding cuts.


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What are your earliest memories of becoming interested in photography?
I sucked at school. I never understood the education system that taught us to be together yet ranked us every trimester. I was eagerly waiting to leave school and my English teacher then once said to me, “take the unconventional path, Snehargho, it will suit you”.

I will never forget those words. I followed her advice. I left home after school and moved to a share house in South India. One of my housemates had a DSLR and showed me his photographs. It blew my mind what a camera can do, how it can be used to document things around us, and how you can paint with light what you want to, and the way you want to.

I felt like photography could enable me to emancipate myself from the conservative family and society I grew up in. My parents supported it not knowing what I was getting into but they had full faith in me. I had a motorbike then which I sold to buy myself an entry-level DSLR. It was challenging at first and the discipline felt so vast. My first ever subjects were spiders and butterflies!

You’re currently based in Paris. How has moving there impacted your worldview?
It teaches me patience; which I feel I don’t have, sometimes. To be an artist is not an easy emotional endeavour, as you face many rejections.

 The art scene in Paris is very inspiring but it is very difficult to get the attention of a gallery manager, especially when you are new to the country, not fluent in French and hence a complete stranger to the art scene.

The galleries here work differently, and the arts are appreciated and supported differently. I feel that the art scene is more conservative and elitist in Paris and does not give emerging artists as much space and credit as Melbourne did for me, for instance.

There is much more competition as well. Some contemporary works can be criticised quite harshly in this city and not accepted well. I heard bad criticism for Ren Hang’s show for instance, whose works I find absolutely inspiring. I cherish that Melbourne is so open to new works and new artists and has so many amazing artist-run spaces. That said, living in Paris and having access to great contemporary and classical works is an absolute privilege. I am grateful and continuously inspired.

I was eagerly waiting to leave school and my English teacher then once said to me, “take the unconventional path, Snehargho, it will suit you”.

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In your photography practice, you produce commercial work as well as documenting culture and contributing to community projects. What are the joys and challenges of each?
I love everything that has to do with the camera as that’s where I find my voice, whether it is commercial work, documenting cultures or being involved in community projects.

 Of course, each of them has different approaches, ethics, styles, and emotions attached to it.

The most contended feeling is knowing that I have documented something about the current society we live in, regardless of the public attention, whether it is an indigenous community, performance, an art festival, an artists’ community or about the forgotten privileges of white yoga communities.

 There are some challenges and these vary from field to field. There is a huge amount of editing work, the pressure of meeting very tight deadlines, and some sacrifices to be made in terms of your personal life when it comes to commercial work. If I have a 20-day contract for a commercial event for instance, I usually work day and night, 7 days a week.

While documenting indigenous cultures is so important to me, there are a lot of struggles and let downs. Once, I travelled 8 hours in North-East India on mountain roads that were washed away by recent landslides. It was so dusty that you couldn’t see for hours. I feared at times that I would end down the cliff.

 After making all this effort, I was informed that plans have changed and I was no longer welcomed by that community. I had to accept calmly that I would not get the story I was hoping for. My documentary work is also affected by time and financial constraints. Like in many fields, the competition is high and you face a lot of rejections. 

Do you feel like the consciousness of the commercial industry is changing? I’m thinking in terms of decision-making around representation and aesthetics and the kind of people who get hired to do the jobs.
I can only speak for Melbourne. Yes, it is changing. Although there are mostly white-run spaces, it did feel more inclusive of POC and women photographers, but then again, I mostly have commercial work experience within the art industries in Melbourne.

I love everything that has to do with the camera as that’s where I find my voice, whether it is commercial work, documenting cultures or being involved in community projects.

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Last year, you spoke to Leah about your experience of participating in the Emerging Cultural Leaders program at Footscray Community Arts Centre. Can you share a bit more about how your confidence and optimism has grown since then?
The mentorship program introduces you to art communities, professionals working in the art industry of Melbourne who then showed us their world, shared how they work, what the industry professionals are looking for, how the selection process works, what is expected of your profession and how to go about being sustainable in one’s practice.

This process definitely gave me the confidence for how to approach work and where—as well as how—I need to invest my energy.

Bo Svoronos was our mentor for that year and he would always go out of his way to talk through the realities of a project, be it art or something else, how to materialise our dreams, how to understand and prepare budgets and how to face challenges and overcome them.

When you know and finally accept that the funding cut in the arts is real (and probably eternal) and that there is high competition, only optimism can make you carry on with what you do. 

Something you’ve mentioned you’re keen for your photographic work to do is challenge the viewers’ understanding of diversity and cross-cultural exchanges.
I want to document the society the way it exists for me, with people of all colour. I don’t want to form another Indian community outside of India. This is divisive.

Instead I want people from all communities in Melbourne to come together and be portrayed through my work as I strongly believe that it is high time we accept and understand each other’s differences and come together as one community.

Photography is a medium for me to do that; just as food is. I always try to understand food from different cultures around the world and fuse them. I try to find that common ground where everyone can enjoy it regardless of their background.

Who among your peers (or heroes) do you think is doing important work in this space—and how has their work pushed you to grow in your own practice?

 A photographer whose work I secretly admire a lot is Sarah Walker. I have never met her in person but our work was shown alongside each other at Next Wave Festival in 2018.

I love her commercial work, and the way she brings her creativity and her own style to her photography is so beautiful, real and unique. I am always very inspired by her work.

Andy Butler’s work is inspirational too and having him as a friend towards the end of my journey in Melbourne was a blessing.

One of your documentary projects, Hashtag Namaste, aims to challenge ‘the social understanding of Yoga in white-dominated communities in Australia and in other privileged parts of the world’. Can you speak a bit more about what you learned during the making of this project?
Humility and privilege! I was in a privileged position documenting my teachers and their students’ practice, trying to raise awareness about privilege.

 An average yoga studio in Paris or Melbourne charges around 10 euros or more for an-hour-and-a-half group session, while my teacher makes less than 20 euros a month for giving a daily one-on-one session.

It just breaks my heart to realise the years of knowledge they have put into this cultural practice and continue to live with very little means, while some people from privileged countries become teachers in 3 months of starting their yoga practice and – if they have visited Rishikesh in India or other Indian yoga destinations – charge this huge amount of money (because they have acquired experience from the ‘exotic’ India).

Such ways of practice makes it more of a trend than accessible for all – the former is what it is actually supposed to be.

When you know and finally accept that the funding cut in the arts is real (and probably eternal) and that there is high competition, only optimism can make you carry on with what you do. 

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What makes for a good portrait?
The relationship between the subject, the story and the photographer.

You’ve mentioned that you’re currently working as a head chef at a cafe just outside of Paris. Could you talk about what kind of food you make there? And what you’ve learned about yourself in this new job?

 I specialise in contemporary breakfast and lunch food that go well with specialty coffee; food inspired by my experience working in cafes in Melbourne. I fuse food from around the world and bring my own culture, my understanding of Indian spices as well to create something contemporary and visual.

 I am continuously learning a lot and pushing my boundaries. I read and watch a lot from other successful chefs. The menu I have created in my current workplace is mostly vegetarian food, which was a challenge in the French community, but so far it has been accepted and complimented well. It is very fulfilling.

The fact that gastronomy and local chefs are so valued here has finally made me accept this other side of me that loves food and accept my Bengali roots.

 Without wanting to generalise, Bengali people are passionate about food and celebrations over anything else. It is very liberating to accept that side of my culture and be valued as a chef.

There are a lot of responsibilities that a cook needs to carry while running a kitchen, which requires discipline and rigour. It is quite rewarding to watch people eat what I cook because I cook what I love.

Do you have any advice for emerging photographers?
It is a difficult one, as I consider myself emerging. I should not advise my peers but I would love to mention that please, don’t start competing with each other as I believe it destroys photography.

We are all different, and we all bring unique perspectives to the world of visual art, using the same medium, a camera. Mindfulness and cooperation are so much more fulfilling.

There are a lot of responsibilities that a cook needs to carry while running a kitchen, which requires discipline and rigour. It is quite rewarding to watch people eat what I cook because I cook what I love.

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Who are you inspired by?

My ex-wife, Angelique, who is so determined and persistent. I would probably have never realised my full potential without her and her influence in my life and work.

My mother, who has been a strong feminine character in my life. She has proved to my extended family back home what a woman can do when growing out of a conservative surrounding, despite the constant criticism she was facing from her family in the early years of her career, while I was still a little child. She has worked so hard all her life, dreaming of the big dream for her children (my sister and me).

I’ll name a few artists/photographers too. Henry Cartier Bresson, Sebastio Salgado, Gregory Crewdson, JR, David Lachapelle, Helmut Newton, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ren Hang. Many film-makers, too.

What are you listening to?
It keeps changing. It depends on what mood I am in. I am a regular of NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. I find it a great place to discover artists. Some recent favourites are Leikei47, Hobo Johnson and the lovemakers, Toro y Moi, Chance the Rapper, Chronixx, Phony Ppl, Fantastic Negrito, Bad Bad Not Good. Mulatu Astatke for jazz.

What are you reading?
Helmut Newton’s Autobiography and I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. I have also just finished George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.

 How do you practice self-care?
The last couple of years have been so hectic and I have gone through so much change (for good or bad) that I have squeezed my self-care in the little downtime I have left after work, which is split between some time on my own (watching movies and reading books) and time spent with friends (going out and socialising).

 What does being Asian in Australia mean to you?
Being Asian in Australia means carrying a responsibility for my people and the land, and to continuously live in awareness so as not to be judged for something stereotypical and put into boxes such as “Indians are this or Indians do that”.

Being a foreigner in Australia, I feel you are constantly a kind of ambassador of your culture, and it is often difficult not to get stereotyped. It also means understanding the real history of colonisation of Australia and not living in ignorance, as a part of the settler society.

 Being Asian in Australia means sharing the best part of my culture – be it food or the hospitality – learning different ways from so many other cultures living in Australia and sharing, coming together, like a big unique creation of multiculturalism with the Indigenous people as the pivot point. Being Asian in Australia means looking after country.

Being a foreigner in Australia, I feel you are constantly a kind of ambassador of your culture, and it is often difficult not to get stereotyped.

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