How a photographer's tribute to his late father led to an 'extraordinary' project


How a photographers tribute to his late father led to an extraordinary project

An Indian Republic Day special


Janice Rodrigues

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Published: Thu 24 Jan 2019, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 1 Feb 2019, 9:59 AM

Being a travel photographer means that Arjun Menon has seen and done things most of us can only dream of. Other than exploring India for four months on a mission to 'change the perception of the country', the Mumbai-based photographer and founder of production firm Art Leaves a Mark, has travelled around the globe - from South America to the South Pole. From living with monks in Spiti Valley to capturing crocodiles on film in Colombia, he's had plenty of adventures. However, it's his latest series that has captured a lot of attention.

Earlier this year, Arjun started putting up pictures of his new project, titled 'The Extraordinary', which shows members of the Indian army in training, pseudo combat and practice sessions across remote bases in India. For Arjun, it was an opportunity of a lifetime - and a tribute to his late father, a pilot in the army who passed away in a helicopter crash 16 years ago.

Ahead of the Indian Republic Day, he speaks about the power of photography, travel and diversity. Excerpts below:
Many would call photography a risky career. At what point did you decide this is what you wanted to do full-time?
It was midway through my life sciences degree that I realised I wasn't meant for a career in a lab. I have seen many people failing at jobs they considered 'stable career options'. I asked myself, if I could possibly fail at something I hated doing, why not give a 100 percent to something I actually love to do?

You did wedding photography to fund a lot of your projects. How different are the two fields?
Wedding photography was one of my first commissioned projects and I enjoyed it. Capturing images that a couple and their families will cherish for a lifetime feels so rewarding. However, travel photography has always been my first love and weddings wouldn't fit into the long-term plan (I become a bit restless if I'm at home for more than two weeks!). I consider myself fortunate to be able to make a living out of exploring different parts of the world. It's fun to go to the "office", whether it's a beach or a mountain or the middle of the ocean, and edit images on my laptop.
Tell us about 'India: Change the Perception'. What perception were you trying to change?
India is often given the stereotypical Third World country treatment by tourists who have never been there. We've all seen the clichés about it being a 'land of snake charmers and bullock carts'. As a travel photographer, I wanted to change that through my work. I wanted to make people - Indians included - realise that your dream vacation doesn't always have to be a Euro trip or visiting the Maldives or the Alps. There are equally, if not more, impressive places in India rich in art, culture, natural landscapes and people and worth visiting!
The project had you travelling through India for months. What did you learn?
During my four-month travel plan, I went from corner-to-corner of the country, from the Andamans to Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh to Dzukou valley in Nagaland. I tried to find unconventional places that hadn't been explored and showcase them to the world. The most important thing I learnt was how important it is to get out of your comfort zone. We have to break through the shell that we live in and explore places, cultures, people, languages and foods without passing judgement. I also learnt why perspective is such an important thing; why two people from different backgrounds can observe the same piece of art and derive different meanings. That is why it's important to respect people with different points of view.

How did you end up working on the Living with Monks project?
Key Monastery in Spiti Valley was on my bucket list for ages. Back then, it wasn't as famous and there was hardly any information about it. I made a trip to the monastery and realised I could stay there as well! I ended up staying for nine days and made so many monk friends. I returned to the monastery again in winter (when the temperature was averaging -37°C) and stayed for more than a month, hosted by a monk friend. It was a safe haven away from the ads and consumerism that we city folks are usually engulfed by. I learnt how people have more similarities than differences, no matter where they come from.
Was that the most unique place you've visited?
Well, Antarctica was the closest thing to being on another planet. The wildlife that you come across are curious to see you rather than scared. I had an opportunity to accompany the one and only Sir Robert Swan, the first human to walk to both the North and South Poles. Apart from being a one-of-a-kind photography opportunity, this journey explored the effects of climate change on Antarctica first-hand and showed us how we can make small differences in our communities back home to combat this issue. We stayed there for over 17 days.

What inspired the Indian army project?
The inspiration behind the 'The Extraordinary' project was my dad. Like most kids, I used to think that my dad was the coolest. I mean imagine flying heavy metal machinery in some of the harshest environments on earth, performing combat training and helping paratroopers jump off helicopters - all in a day's work.
We lost him in a helicopter crash 16 years ago. Deep down, I wanted to highlight what life in the army is like for these men and women in a contemporary way.

What was the process like?
It took me a long time to get permissions from the Indian Ministry of Defence and I understand why. After all, I was a photographer asking for permission to be taken to the Indian army's secret bases around India and photograph them. I made multiple visits to Delhi but once they realised I was a genuine guy with clear intentions, they gave me the thumbs up. The approvals come through a lot of different people and hence took more than eight months, but, as I realised later, it was so worth it.
For each shoot, I'd arrive at the base and spend the first two days understanding the strengths and limitations of the base, location scouting and planning each image. The best part was that the army officers were supportive and would go out of their way to help me.
What went through your mind while clicking those pictures?
In the few weeks that I was shooting, the conditions varied from -18°C in the Himalayas to 48°C in the deserts. I proudly call myself an "adventurer" but this was beyond anything I was ready for. Small things made me rethink how numb we are to such living conditions.
For instance, during one shoot with a helicopter in Kashmir, my clothes became unrecognisable because of the dust. I washed my clothes and kept them for drying outside. Little did I know that I had kept them out for far too long. A few hours later, I had to deal with a block of ice that my clothes had turned into.
Does this series make you feel closer to your dad?
It does, in a deep meaningful way. I understand the passion to serve your nation and the thrill of flying a helicopter in a better way.
He was a photography enthusiast as well and I have fond memories of reading through National Geographic with him. I wonder how he would critique my work for the Indian army! I put my blood, sweat and tears into this project and I think he would consider that valuable.
What would you say is the most dangerous thing you've done in order to get that perfect snap?
Well, for the army project, I have been in arm's distance of a hovering helicopter. The wind is so strong, it's disorientating! For one of my other projects, in Colombia, I walked across a swamp for a photograph. It was only when I was midway that I realised there was a large male crocodile near me. I was alone and my body was trembling with fear. I said to myself "never again"!
With reference to the name of your company, how do you think photography has the power to change perception?
Photography is a modern form of art and expression. And art has a unique ability to convey different meanings to different people based on their preconceptions and life experiences. One photograph is all it takes to give someone a new perspective. That has always fascinated me. A recent example that comes to mind is from the Syrian refugee crisis, when a picture of a three-year-old's body made headlines. The world paid attention and, as a result, there were more open arms and aid.

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