How celebrity photographer Rohan Shrestha creates iconic moments with stars like Kevin Hart and SRK

The man with the magic lens tells us about his fondness for black and white imagery and takes us behind the scenes of his Abu Dhabi shoot with the American comedian

Photograph by Rohan Shrestha
Photograph by Rohan Shrestha

Somya Mehta

Published: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 10:32 PM

Last updated: Thu 6 Oct 2022, 10:34 PM

“I’m actually quite shy, I don’t like being in front of the camera,” says Rohan Shrestha, seated across his Zoom screen, in his cosy Mumbai home. Perhaps, it is this dichotomy that brings out his best work, courtesy his magic lens. Brought up in a family of photography, with his father Rakesh Shrestha being a pioneer in the field back in the 70s, the camera was akin to a toy for Shrestha Junior in his childhood. This inherent sense of portrait photography coupled with a quest for excellence is what makes Rohan among the top celebrity photographers that India has seen.

Photographer Rohan Shrestha
Photographer Rohan Shrestha

Whether it’s photographing Indian film actor Ranveer Singh on an adventurous Yas Waterworld ride or capturing the eternal charm of Shah Rukh Khan with his signature 'white T-shirt' series, through minimalistic frames, what most excites the photographer is capturing the truth of the moment through his camera lens.

Photograph by Rohan Shrestha
Photograph by Rohan Shrestha

In a conversation with Khaleej Times, the photographer talks about his recent Abu Dhabi shoot with global sensation Kevin Hart, his fondness for black and white imagery and how he creates a space for his subjects to be vulnerable in front of the camera.

When did the photography bug bite you?

Shrestha: It’s a very complicated answer. I actually grew up with cameras all around me because my father was a photographer. He was a celebrated photographer in India at the time, having shot for over 600 films. For the longest time, I was scared to try photography because there would be a lot of pressure to match up to his talent and success. The fear of getting judged on the basis of my father actually dissuaded me from trying it out. But then I happened to try out many different things and failed.

Rohan with his father and veteran photographer Rakesh Shrestha. Source: Instagram
Rohan with his father and veteran photographer Rakesh Shrestha. Source: Instagram

Eventually I tried my hand at photography. I became an assistant for five years. I didn’t know when it would be okay for me to pick up a camera myself and charge people money for it. When you charge money for something, you are responsible for creating an outcome for the monetary value. I was very scared. I also ended up doing a course at New York Film Academy, but that was much later in my career. I wanted to understand how to direct and how to shoot. Obviously, I realised videography was not for me but I use many of the same principles in my shoots. Even in my stills, I make people move and stop them in a moment, to capture it.

What made you realise that this was your calling?

Shrestha: It was actually during a shoot I was assisting in Dubai, with my father, who was shooting with Celina Jaitly for Dubai Tourism. They took us out to the desert, into the sand dunes, in those four by four cars and the sun was setting into the horizon. I thought to myself, ‘Wow! This is absolutely gorgeous’. I hadn’t seen anything like that before. It made me realise this was also part of the job. To discover these hidden, exotic locations and beautiful places. And travel is everything to me. I’ve always backpacked, travelled solo, ever since I was young. So, this was the perfect opportunity.

Has travel inspired your photography?

Shrestha: I have specific work that is not recognised as ‘Rohan Shrestha’s work’. It goes under the banner of It’s basically all my artwork, the work I don’t put out there. My brand is very closely associated with the film industry and Bollywood and that’s a lovely space that Rohan Shrestha, the brand, is in. But there’s also another side of the photographer that I want to keep separate. It’s my space, my passion. It has a lot of my travel photography. I shoot underwater as well.

A lot of your works seem very intimate, there’s a personal element in the photographs. How do you establish this level of comfort with the subject?

Shrestha: Through honesty. I try to be as honest as I can, just like I’m trying to be right now, being absolutely frank. There’s nothing here that I’m hiding. So, if you can see that within me and you trust that, then you will trust the person behind the camera as well.

The subject is in a vulnerable space when they’re in front of the camera. How do you gain their trust?

Shrestha: Through a lot of conversations. I talk extensively with my subject before any shoot and create a space for open and honest communication. I like to get into their headspace and understand them. I need to understand their behaviour, their body language, their mindset. That also breaks the ice and establishes a level of comfort that I want with my subject. And I believe that the subject should have the same level of comfort with me because I’m directing them.

A lot of the picture-perfect moments photographers create — blemish-free skin, skinny silhouettes — can also be the reason for young girls to develop body-image issues, consuming unrealistic notions of beauty. Do you feel responsible as a photographer to not construct a false image?

Shrestha: I try as much as I can to keep the retouching as minimal as possible. I don’t like lightening or brightening my subjects unnecessarily. That’s something I’ve been very staunch about, as much as I can be. Of course, there are certain guidelines that we have to follow when it comes to brand campaigns that have specific briefs about appearances.

But on the personal front, I try to showcase the real, humane side of my subjects. That’s also what led to the start of my white T-shirt series, where I photograph celebrities in white Tees, with almost bare face, minimal makeup and camera setup and take their headshots. It’s going beyond the façade, to photograph the person, not the actor or the star. I genuinely believe that the beauty lies in the imperfection of the shot. That’s what truly makes that person stand out. That’s their individuality.

Is the series truly filter-free or similar to the #NoMakeupMakeup look where there’s a certain amount of work done to look ‘naturally flawless’?

Shrestha: There’s no filter, it’s just a one-light setup that I use. It started as a pre-shoot, where the actor would just sit there with basic moisturiser etc., before getting dressed up and I’d use it as an icebreaker session. I’d talk them through the process and they’d ask me their questions. From there it became this whole series.

Your job also entails making the subject look beautiful. How do you define ‘beauty’?

Shrestha: I don’t look at it in terms of creating beauty or creating something beautiful. I capture people for who they are. That’s how I look at it. Almost like a documentary, I try to showcase the truth of that moment. I know it’s a boring answer but even if you see the photoshoot with Kevin Hart. It’s just him being himself. He’s not staging anything. He’s looking out of the window, lounging around.

Tell us about the experience of shooting with Kevin Hart.

Shrestha: I was very nervous before the shoot. I had to completely pre-plan everything because we couldn’t be wasting any time on the set. So, we prepped every single shot prior to it and I shot with a white background and a black background. We had the two setups completely ready when he walked in and we basically got done with the shoot in 15 minutes. It was great because he complimented me at the end saying, ‘You’re the kind of guy I like working with’, which felt great.

Photography by Rohan Shrestha
Photography by Rohan Shrestha

Were you able to break the ice?

Shrestha: Since I spent quite a lot of time in New York when I was studying there, I really got into American sports. And Kevin Hart is massively into NFL (National Football League) and NBA (National Basketball Association). I also work with the NBA in India. I’m heavily invested in that sport. So, I just started talking sports with him!

How did you land this shoot in Abu Dhabi?

Shrestha: It’s very rare that these kinds of opportunities come your way as if it just fell from the sky. I’ve been a huge fan of Kevin Hart. Being born and raised within the industry in Mumbai, a lot of people I end up working with are like my friends. Actors that I’ve known or grown up with over the years, it’s a very friendly atmosphere on the sets. It’s very rare that I get a chance to shoot someone I’m a fanboy of. So, I suddenly came to know of this shoot in Abu Dhabi, it was for Aldar Properties, the construction company. And I jumped on it.

Why did you decide to make these photographs black and white?

Shrestha: For me, black and white creates a very interesting mood. The lack of colour makes the audience wonder, whether it is consciously or subconsciously. Plus, I just love black and white photography in general. It’s timeless. And we all want our pictures to be timeless. We all want those legacy photographs and this is something that I believe is a part of mine.

He’s also a celebrated comedian. Did you wish to bring that element of his personality out in your shoot?

Shrestha: Not necessarily. I would leave that up to him. I just asked him to be himself. How he chooses to pose is how he wants to be seen at that moment. That’s the person. I don’t want to make that moment about me or my assumptions. I seek to create a space where people can just be themselves. That’s why it’s always great to hear when people say they find my photographs intimate because that’s what I want them to be. That’s the kind of depth I want my pictures to have.

Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects lined up in the UAE? What are your future plans?

Shrestha: I’m going to be in Abu Dhabi for the NBA games this week. I do a podcast with the NBA, so I’m coming to Yas Island for that. There are two NBA teams that have flown down. So, I will be shooting that. Ranveer Singh will also be there. There’s also another international project that I worked on, which will come out at the end of October. I can’t reveal anything about that but it’s going to be huge.

Shrestha with actor Ranveer Singh. Source: Instagram
Shrestha with actor Ranveer Singh. Source: Instagram

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