In a space where nude photography remains to be a hushed topic, Shivaji Storm Sen’s perspective sets an example.

Photography: Shivaji Storm Sen   |   Words: Roshni Manghani

On a rainy Saturday morning, I was pacing around my room, trying to digest each statement of the conversation I just had on a phone call with Shivaji Storm Sen. One thought was on repeat, “How do I even start this story?” I thought to myself. Where do I begin talking about a man who has the craziest, most unfiltered perspective towards life and the way we perceive art?

Shivaji's journey of photography began when he sat down to fill his college application for an MBA course. As he was writing the statement of purpose in the application, he realised that maybe this is not what he wants to do. After working in the video gaming industry he realised that photography had always been a passion for him. As a child, he had always been interested in drawing and painting. Art had always been a core part of his life. He knew that being the CEO of a gaming company was not the ultimate goal and that wasn't going to give him that feeling of achievement. This realisation was what led him to eventually fill out an application for an art college.

After completing his education, he had the most random and natural thought of combining gaming and art together. I guess creativity was something that was always a part of him deep down. He believes that art is an integral part of a man or woman and we don’t even realise it. I was zapped with the next few statements that came in. He said, “There were these stories that went around during the lockdown period about which is the most important profession during this phase? And artists were ranked the last - the least important profession. If you take that study ahead, what did the entire world do in the last three months? Well, they consumed Art! All they did was watch films, series, listen to music; they consumed art which was created by various artists. Without all this, just imagine what the world would come to?” This was the kind of perspective which completely blew my mind.

Somewhere, your upbringing and the environment that you have been a part of, always influences you as a person. The culture seems to influence us in many ways, be it our thought process, our lifestyle, or even our profession. I asked Shivaji about how culture has influenced his form of art. He said that as a child he would sketch the female form which came very naturally to him. The reason for this was that his mom was a classical dancer. As a kid, he would go to this place called Nityamandir, a dance school, along with his mom in Patna. He would spend hours there while his mom taught dance. The walls of that place would have murals of the female form dancing and performing. And this influence has stayed with me since then and that’s how the culture has been an influence on me.”

The next question I asked was that at times, society has a way of conceiving nude photography as “vulgar”. Where does the fine line between “vulgar” and “art” lie according to him? To this he said, “Vulgar’ is such a harsh or a negative word. The problem doesn’t lie in the fact that something is vulgar. I have a different perspective on this. Anything nude or sexual is natural and beautiful. So vulgarity should not come in nudity nor sexuality. The negative aspect of this that comes in is the matter of consent. In my mind, it’s all something so natural and not vulgar.” Vulgarity is a term that doesn’t exist for him and it is something that he doesn’t accept either. In the flow of things, he immediately asked me, “What is vulgar? Why are we setting these standards of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable? It’s all a matter of consent. Something is perceived as negative when someone is harming someone in a certain way.” He went on to mention that he was always a part of debates with his mom on vulgarity, well she also happens to be one of his biggest productive critiques.

Whenever he shoots, he makes sure that the intention behind his thought process is portrayed clearly. One thing he always keeps in mind is that when one looks at a woman that he has shot, he wants the viewer to fall in love with the beauty of the woman captured in that frame. "I don’t want it to be just a sexual desire; of course, I don’t have control over the mind of the viewer. But I try to make sure that any viewer, be it a man or woman, I want them to fall in love with my subject. Maybe that’s the X factor I add to my work and that differentiates my work.” According to him, three words that describe his work are revolt, freedom, and purpose — a complete juxtaposition of sorts!

Every time someone tells him to not do something, it only pushes him to do more of it. The rebellious streak! “If someone wants to create something erotic, they are ideally fighting a battle of censorship. The point is that it is something so natural and beautiful; that is the revolt.” He says, “The more someone tells me this is wrong, the more it pushes me to create something that puts them into question or puts their thought into the question. The more you face this, the more thick-skinned you become. I create art purely for myself and not for the reaction of others. I don’t care about what someone else has to say.”

Nude photography is not something that one should think of as a type of “photography”. It is the medium. Nude has existed in art since a long time, back to almost 25 years ago! He speaks about how the concept of nudism started. "It came into play when clothes started to exist. There was no nudity; it was just YOU. For example, if 5 people existed on the planet and if one of them wore clothes, then they would be discussing why they wear clothes and why they are not nude. After this ratio changed, the whole concept of nudity took shape". In every statement, he kept mentioning that nudity is such a natural and beautiful thing. In other parts of the world like Germany and Sweden, they have the concept of legal nude parks, beaches, spaces that can be used publicly. He says that it is because of political issues, that it has taken a different form.

Although photography has existed from a long time, there was a major shift in this profession. He remembers that after he returned to India in 2010 after completing his masters in fine art photography from England, he saw a whole bunch of photographers evolving. There were specialised courses, schools began teaching and at a point, every second person wanted to become a photographer. He told me that he did miss that hump as to what happened in India in that duration. Shivaji believes that in any field that needs to grow or mature, you need more people interested in it. If the demand is more, obviously the want increases simultaneously. He also gives a relevant example from sport, wherein cricket is something that has more demand and support because more people want to pursue it as compared to hockey as a sport in India.

WHEN ONE LOOKS AT A WOMAN THAT I HAVE SHOT, I WANT THE VIEWER TO FALL IN LOVE WITH THE BEAUTY OF THE WOMAN CAPTURED IN THAT FRAME

His perspective on things really made me curious about how he idealises a shot or a concept, something like the journey of a photograph right from its ideation. He said that in his personal work he doesn’t think about all this. The movies and shows he watches or the book he reads tend to influence his mind which in turn begin to show in his work. He goes in completely unprepared because he likes the idea of spontaneity. The conversations he has with his subject or the comfort level he shares, the ideas that they both have, the light at that point of time; all of it is decided by him at that very moment, spontaneously. "The phase I am in, the mood of my subject while clicking, the mood I am in while editing all of it influences my work and that’s why a diverse body of work is created.” he says.

Before we conclude our chat, he left me with another hard-hitting statement. He said, “When you doubt yourself or your work, try and create more.” For him the process of actually doing something can help you overcome a blockage or whatever the issue is. According to him, creating new stuff when you feel you’re nearing stagnation can trigger something completely new or unusual in some way. Shivaji believes that, “In India, we have always been taught to think within the box — we have been taught to play by the rules. When you draw outside the box or cross a line, you are punished. When it comes to creative thinking, what you really need to do is to simply ‘go mad…”

I CREATE ART PURELY FOR MYSELF AND NOT FOR THE REACTION OF OTHERS. I DON’T CARE ABOUT WHAT SOMEONE ELSE HAS TO SAY