International fashion photographer Jyoti Omi Chowdhury shares with ICE the creative insight behind his contemporary art

Photographs from Jyoti Omi Chowdhury 

Europe based international fashion and street photographer Jyoti Omi Chowdhury has stunned the world with his thought provoking photographs under the name ‘Omigraphy.’ The passionate photographer, Omi,  has covered London, Paris, and Copenhagen fashion week and continues to do so. Bangladesh is no stranger to Omi’s work either; the skillful photographer has done shoots for Shwapno and Aranya as well.

Your work has been showcased in publications like Vogue (Italia), Mess (LA), CHA (Hong Kong), DeFuze (UK) and En-Vie (Paris), hence it goes without saying that there is immense pressure on you to come up with something out of the ordinary. Given your credibility, how do you manage to cope with the rising expectations?
I think rising expectations is a good thing. It means that your work is meeting a certain standard and is not static. My biggest fear is getting stuck in a phase of static mediocrity with no rising expectations. But ultimately the pressure catches up with you. So having distractions help. Having something else to do (in my case research and writing on civil war, counterterrorism) helps. Also I think literature helps immensely. Because writers get hit with this situation of expectation and writer’s  block, more often than anyone else on this planet. So reading Camus or Kundera, getting immersed in Proust or Auster, helps you out in more ways than I can count. Ultimately if you take your art seriously, you will be comfortable with pressure and deal with it in your own unique ways.
As for the logistical issue of dealing with expectations, you need to remember that there are two sets of expectations in play, first and foremost the expectation of the client and your audience (which defines in many ways where you are in the process) and your own expectation. If your own expectation is lower than your client’s then you have a problem.

Who or what are your prime subjects? What makes them worthy of your lenses?
Due to my focus on fashion photography I shoot a lot of models but grew up with street photography and there are no bad shots in street photography just bad photographers. Philosophically that’s where I reside as a photographer/artist. If I am getting a less than stellar photo of my subject matter, it is my lack of expertise as opposed to a myriad of other reasons like light, posture and atmosphere. Ultimately you have to treat art professionally otherwise you will not progress.
In terms of what kind of model/s I seek for my shoots, well that is a rather interesting question as I have never consciously tried to dissect who I am photographing. I usually let my agency dictate who I am shooting. They narrow it down to three to five people and I shoot one or two of them for a project. If I were to dissect that process, I would say I like classically trained people as protagonists. I have immense respect for ballet and classical dancing, so many of my projects incorporate that into haute couture. In terms of the look of the model, I am not terribly interested in shooting ‘pretty’ faces so to speak. If a face has some unique attributes I will probably be drawn to it more as opposed to a standardised version of beauty. Same goes with make-up and such, I try to encourage whoever I am working with to keep things natural. I don’t want to see five inches of foundation to make the model look ‘forsha’ or ‘Caucasian.’ I want the protagonist to exude a certain sense of inner beauty that only comes out if they are in their own skin.

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Among the various photographers who seek to bring out the raw beauty of the streets, what is it that you do to make your work stand out from the rest?
I think everyone is different in this respect, what stands out now may not stand out six months down the road. The trick is consistency. You need  to find your own canvas and not become a jigsaw puzzle of derivatives. A lot of newer photographers encounter this problem and I did too when I was starting off. Who do you look up to, what should be your signature look? If those questions are settled, you are already on your way to doing things your way.

The thing about raw beauty is that it remains despite what you do to it. So if you put a ballerina in the middle of a collapsing castle or put a Victoria’s Secret model inside a fading Greek church, the elemental aspect of the photograph would be unique. Then your job becomes far more nuanced. Then it is a question of how to make the uniqueness your own. And that is where your expertise, your consistency and your sense of aesthetics play a role. Your work would stand out if you do it consistently without falling victim to replication. That equipoise only happens over a period of time. So in short, I don’t do anything special to make my work stand out, I do what I know and what I know well. And then it appeals to a segment of people … a happy accident of sorts. It’s like batting in many ways, your technique may be off, your stance may be strange but if you are making runs, no one would care eventually. Be a Hashim Amla, as opposed to a Mark Ramprakash.

Tell us what inspired you to work on ‘Dreams of the Diaspora,’ a multimedia conversation of photographs, poetry, prose, spoken word and soundscape? What feelings are you trying to evoke among viewers and why?
George Bush inspired me. When I was finishing my undergrad in the US, America was in a heightened state of paranoia about terrorism. There were all sorts of ridiculous hoops I had to jump through to go to school there at that point. So after I was done with my undergrad I decided that I don’t want to deal with the bureaucratic nightmare that was stemming from this sort of paranoia, so I moved to Canada for my masters. But that period of absurdity had a strange sort of effect on me, instead of feeling annoyed at America (which I was initially) I felt that the country could be better and should be better. So I went back to finish my PHD work there. I remember many people who were both Americans and non-Americans felt the same sort of confusion and attachment to America during that tumultuous period. When author Frances Wang of NBC contacted me about doing something collaborative,
I was on board from the get go and what came out of our conversations about the disconnect one feels about one’s home; what one feels about one’s ability to integrate in a different culture and ultimately what drives us to be who we are in an age of political and social upheaval, is what ‘Dreams of the Diaspora’ is. It is really a conversation with visual clues of alienation, clarity and ultimately hopes of many. Things get worse and things get better. We are the only constant.

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Photographs are nonverbal means of connecting with a mass audience. As the man behind the lenses, what kind of responses have you gotten from people on a local and international level? How does it shape you as a photographer?
Since I mostly work in an international arena, the response internationally has been great. I was surprised how many industry people showed up to my Ann Arbor and then Copenhagen show. I think if you spend a lot of time in academia where there are ten people who show up to your seminars or five people who read your journal article, then you are a bit shocked at how many people show up to your photography shows, how many people read Mess Magazine or Vogue. I still haven’t gotten used to that aspect of visibility and mass media. But I am learning to be more appreciative of it and ignore the inner academic who rolls his eyes at every selfie and sneers at the commercialisation of art.
In terms of demographic when I look at my social media feeds I would say more or less 75% of my audience is from the western hemisphere. I had no presence in Bangladesh until August 2015. But I am planning to change that as I will be doing a lot of work with Aranya, a brand that appeals greatly to the sense of aesthetics I want to push in this country. It is actually a little shocking to me that we haven’t pressed more for the international market. There’s this neo-colonialist aspect of our fashion industry that gets perpetuated through the means of certain Western companies and our own sense of victimisation, where we are good enough to make clothes for them, but not good enough to share the same spotlight during fashion weeks in Milan or Paris. I think that would gradually change as we have more people with disposable income and more people knocking on the
doors of high fashion. So I would like to be in that sort of an industry where recognition locally equates to recognition globally.