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Conversations | Saunak Shah

Closer • Stories & Visuals
Interview by Lily McFly
Visuals by Saunak Shah & Pursuit of Portraits
A conversation on the photography, the importance of the moment, and the power of art with the founder of Pursuit of Portraits Saunak Shah.

Saunak Shah is a photographer, designer, and art director, based in New York. His photographic project, Pursuit of Portraits, began as a personal Instagram account in 2015, but within months gained popularity by connecting thousands of people in the Instagram community who shared a passion for portraiture. Today, Pursuit of Portraits has tens of thousands of follower from around the globe.

“Art for me is a silent revolution; sacred and personal to one’s point of view.”

Saunak Shah

LM:  Your project Pursuit of Portraits is a very popular community of portrait-lovers and a platform where you feature portraits of ordinary people (not always models) made by young creatives (not always professional photographers). Why is this kind of portrait photography trending now?

SS: The digital & social space is a transformative platform yet it can be an overwhelming and intimidating beast sometimes. To some extent and to many, it has also become the barometer of clout and how much influence you carry. In such times when it is easy to feel insignificant and sometimes mediocre; some communities have sprung that provide a platform to share the voice and talent for the common good of the community; irrespective of background, influence or popularity. Pursuit of Portraits is a byproduct of such a concept. i.e. A platform and meeting place for Portrait lovers everywhere.

LM: Mobile photography has become a part of the art industry. Do you feature mobile images in Pursuit of Portraits?

SS: Pursuit of Portraits features notable work irrespective of how it was captured. We feature photographs that grab our attention and are shared using #PursuitofPortrats. We believe a strong portrait can transform you to a different place or time.

LM: As an art director, you get to work with the idea of the future a lot. On the other hand, photography deals with the present moment. How do you strike a balance between planning the future and staying present in your work?

SS:  The past, present and the future are equally important as sources of inspiration for my work and myself. The past is filled with lessons learnt and how we can constantly redefine the notion of art. The present is the canvas we have on hand; the ever so changing yet a living and breathing world that we live in. And the future is the art of the possible; what we can dream today to make it happen tomorrow. If technology is the springboard into the future, photography is the canvas for capturing emotions; moments of the present that ground my sense of creative freedom that thereby help me think about the future. I personally think they go hand in hand and if anything are complimentary.

LM: What do you think about global culture? Does being internationally recognized also make you feel cosmopolitan? 

SS: Ever since I was young, I was fascinated by the world outside; the traditions of the world different from mine, the provenance of things and the anthropology of people. I think being born in Mumbai and having lived in India for the first 20 years of my life has much to do with it. Today more than ever before, global culture is the pedestal of what tomorrow will bring, how people will come together or separate and how our planet will be reshaped. The citizens of the world have a moral responsibility towards the greater good and small feats of recognition or influence can be building blocks to a bigger movement.

LM: You were born in Mumbai, lived in New Delhi, in the UK, in Boston, and now you are based in NYC. How has living between different cultures shaped your character?

SS:  I’ve kind of felt like a superhero with secret powers! Over the years, it has helped me toughen up and smoothen the edges but most importantly, it has helped me see things differently. Imagine seeing things one-way but registering them in a forth dimension. Hence, the secret power! Having lived in two different cultures has given me a renewed sense of discovery, may it be into topics such as behavioral therapy, food physiology, character study, rites and rituals, or even everyday pleasantries. So much of yourself is shaped in the early years of your childhood; everything else is simply strengthening the foundation.

LM: What is the message of your art?

SS: Art has the power to change minds, thoughts and perceptions without having to say anything at all. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by the day-to-day realities brought to us by the multitude of news sources. Art for me is a silent revolution; sacred and personal to one’s point of view. It’s a medium for self-expression and a study inward reflected by what’s outward. My work focuses on the underlying narrative of people and the environments they live in and largely surround themes around scale, sense of place, minimalism and identity with traits of strong favorability to color and a nod to design and composition.