At the roots of moral values – Sandeep Dhopate #TheNewOnes

Morality is always a difficult matter to face and, as Sandeep Dhopate suggests, it might all depends on the point of view we decide to adopt and on the quantity of filters we decide to put in front of our gaze.  

Sandeep’s love for photography started from an urgence to capture experiences and share them with his family. It was through photography itself that he understood what it would have been the storytelling behind his images, a storytelling based on the fake (or at least more nuanced) dualism right vs wrong and the exploration of issues such as religion, spirituality and sexuality.  

His body of work is strictly related to Indian culture and the symbolism hidden in it. As a photojournalist he also wants to explore some of the most silent realities in India such as the craftsmen works or the role of women in Indian’s art, which is also a great part of his work as educator for Lensational. 

Hi Sandeep, first of all thank you for accepting this interview; it’s a real pleasure for us. I would like to start by asking you what was your first approach with photography and if it’s associated to a special moment of your life. 

After my studies (2000), I used to live and work in the US. I hail from India and did not have any family in the US. In those days, I would travel all over the country with my camera capturing experiences to share with my family back home. My love for photography started then. Later, as years went by, I moved back to India to continue working in the corporate world. My then girlfriend was an artist and I would frequently hang out with her friends and visit art shows and exhibitions. That developed an urge in me as well to express myself artistically. I was not good at painting or sculpting or any other art form except photography. So I took a sabbatical from work and enrolled to study commercial photography. That is how it all started. Whilst executing monotonous commercial assignments, I felt an urge to work on my own body of work whereby I could comment on issues that were close to my heart. So, I started self-funding personal projects that were then later well received at art shows and exhibitions around the world and inspired me to make more. 

What are your majors influences? Are there any artists that inspired and continue inspiring your work?

I am not sure if I can name a particular group of people that influence me. What influences my purpose to produce work is the state of affairs within the human society at large. To me, it seems like virtues are only good in thought, whereas what we see in society is by and large duplicity. Hypocrisy at all levels is what influences me to produce new work. That said, Sebastian Salgado’s principle to make images has been a great validating influence on me.  

I was very struck by the definition of your work as exploration of the “intersections between religion, spirituality and sexuality”, can you tell us why are these three issues so important to you and to your art?

From early times, conflicts around the world have been spurred on moral grounds that invariably find their roots in one of these realms. Humans are naturally not evolved to hate each other. But this higher notion of the “Self” is rooted in behaviour that has propagated throughout society from ancient times and morphed into a monster called ‘religion’.

Individualism is praised when it has spiritual (selfless) purpose, but the same is detested when it  gets personal (selfish). Personal values are rooted in the expression of love for someone or something. At the core of most misunderstanding lies a story of passion which forces both parties to take extreme positions. Many conflicts that have affected me personally in my life, be it love, family, money, friends all have stemmed from a tribal understanding of right vs wrong. The more I research about issues affecting society today, the more I see this to be a recurring pattern. I end up being even more curious about these issues and as a result, my body of work has organically evolved to be within these bounds. I defined my work as such retrospectively.

Another theme that you like to explore is morality, as well as the absence of a right and wrong duality. Do you feel that our society is still attached to old moral values or do you see a progress related to this? 

I think all of us are slaves of conveniences. As long as something does not affect me or my family or my loved ones, I can proudly take a stand on what I feel is right. All these liberal and altruistic notions go out the door when your dignity is on the line. We become animals irrespective of our evolved values. Rationality is practised only for the other. The egoistic self seems eternally bound to carnal instincts of lust, greed, anger and so on. So right or wrong is just a matter of convenience. Here lies the duality of human nature. 

I feel our society has always been at odds with moral values. Depending on the lens you use, one can either see it evolved, or then, feel that its regressed from another point of view.  An example that resonates today – the world is not united today to free society of COVID. Based on imaginary lines we call borders, some people get to enjoy life with overflowing vaccinations, while others are left to fend for themselves. The same society then attacks Ukraine and then blames Russia for starting a war. It also supports sending in more troops and ammunition to increase the carnage. The past two years with the pandemic wasn’t enough for all of us to collectively evolve into more empathetic beings! 

If man was not so egoistic, could society have been a peaceful place? Could the war not have started or then not have been fuelled to go on endlessly? Do ants fight like this? Do bees go to war as frequently as we do? They seem to coexist peacefully in a crowded space. What use is morals and religious preachings if we are worse off than creatures that do not have the agency to introspect? 

Sandeep Dhopate – All Rights Reserved ©

Now let’s talk about your style. I was very impressed by the use of colours in your works. How do  you choose the aesthetic component of a project?

My work is an ideal world that runs in my head parallel to the dichotomy of the real world. As such, right from the start, I wanted to disconnect it from the real. It’s just a thought, but a thought worth commenting on and starting some kind of debate. Each time I get asked questions about a certain image, it leads me to talk about my beliefs and hear counter beliefs. It helps me sculpt my understanding of the world. I am not as angry as I once used to be.

The colours I use are symbolisms depicting various abstract ideas such an emotional state, a musical cord, or then a personality etc. From the little I have read on Indian art, I find it fascinating how intangible ideas were visualised and manifested into paintings, architecture etc. India is a place of rich mythology. Mythology that learns from present day society and weaves stories that enrich lives of the next generation. All of that, while keeping it real simple and not becoming preachy. Red for anger, yellow for indifference, black for danger…these are all inspired by reading various ancient Hindu scriptures. What was explained thousands of years ago in these books, has inspired me to develop a contemporary language to talk about issues that are contemporary as well. I think the aesthetic ideas come to me as I read a story…the characters and settings that develop in my head while I am immersed in a story give me the first clue of the location, styling, lighting etc… 

Your images are open to many interpretations. Do you believe that this feature is more related to the symbolism they contain or to the tension between fiction and reality you try to investigate?

Yes, they are open to interpretation. They are first and foremost, a result of my compulsion to want to express visually what’s in my head. So while I enjoy the fact that some people like the work, I do not make it with that intent in mind. For me, the addiction is in the act of making the work. It’s meditative. So, I don’t think much about the result or of people’s expectation.  Also, I find visual correlation of ancient Indian history/scriptures to modern day issues to be rather complex. Western art has had a great deal of appreciation for hundreds of years, so people understand symbolisms. But India’s pre-Abrahamic history and her Art has largely gone unnoticed or less understood.  

So while there could be many interpretations, I try to provide simple captions to the images to allow viewers to see my point of view.  Also, in all my works, there is a strict sequence. Its like a motion picture that is frozen in 10/15 frames. If one rearranges the frames, the narrative shifts. I write a story and then conceptualise images that could artistically express a specific scene or moment in the plot.

I read you did many exhibitions in Europe and China. Do you feel that different cultural backgrounds can affect the way people experience your photos? 

I think you are correct. Different cultural backgrounds could affect the experience simply because while my work is modern the characters are deeply Indian. But I hope there is resonance because the stories are universal. So the understanding of the work often could be personal to the viewer.  

You’re also a commercial photographer and a photojournalist. Can you tell us what was your first approach with these two disciplines?

I am trained commercial photographer. It helps paying the bills. And I love playing with light in a controlled environment. 

I am a photojournalist by hobby. It help’s give me purpose as far as being a photographer is concerned. It keeps me rooted and allows me to realise the power of images to change the world. I started photojournalism with an intent to talk about stories that main stream media would not want to cover. For example, Indian crafts have a rich history and artisans involved in the trade are not able to make ends meet despite having unique skills to produce some of the most exquisite products in the world. So, I take up turnkey projects with artisan collectives to build a brand supported by honest visual stories that raise awareness of the artisan and their craft. 

In 2017 you founded a media consulting agency called “Soolkaama”. What’s the story behind this idea and what’s its main purpose?

There is a lot of content you can find on the website (click here-  about us ). Request you to refer to that for the answer for this question. Thank you.

You also work as an educator, and about this I would like you to talk about this fascinating project called “Lensational”.

Lensational is a non-profit that uses the power of visual storytelling to enable girls and women from vulnerable societies to tell their stories the way they experience it. You can read more about Lensational here.

At Lensational, I head the global creative team. We develop storytelling curricula based on the participants’ exposure to their surrounding/circumstances. We donate cameras to young participants and guide them through focused assignments teaching not only the art of visual imaging, but also understanding local issues more deeply. 

One last question. Are you working on any new project? Is there something you can tell us about your future works?

Currently I am working on a body of work that will take some time to complete. I am working with unique artisans from around India. Teaching design, marketing, cataloging skills to manufacture products that are rooted in traditional history but are also contemporary. I have built link ups with interested buyers around the world, to make this a sustainable venture. The plan is to add more artisans to the group and along the way, document their stories in the way I know best – Big, bold and beautiful. Think of it like a Nike campaign for a talented potter in a small remote village of India.

As a photojournalist or an artist or an activist, the image can go only so far in fixing ground level problems. In my case specifically, it rarely puts food on the table for my sitters. Through this venture, I want to directly support the people, who have always opened and hearts and houses for me whenever I visited them for my projects. 

Thank you so much for this interview! We look forward to seeing your next works. See you next time! 

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