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‘People think photography is not a woman’s job’: ACFA alumna on battling stereotypes in a male-dominated profession 

Maninder Kaur, who started her independent venture in 2014, talks about how she worked towards making her mark in the field of photography.

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Photos by Maninder Kaur

Apeejay College of Fine Arts (ACFA) alumna Maninder Kaur has been working as a photographer for several years now. She specialises in conceptual portraits of children and couples that capture their real emotions in a natural backdrop, which is what makes her work of art unique. “Documenting love stories that make you feel timeless, nostalgic, and nature-inspired,” reads her bio on Instagram. Her work takes her across cities in the country and that inspires her craft too. In an interview, the 32-year-old photographer, born and brought up in a village in Punjab, tells us more about her venture, post-pandemic trends in photography, the challenges of working in a male-dominated profession, and so on. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about your journey at ACFA.

I joined ACFA in 2009 but at that time I had a very limited understanding of what Applied Arts is. I joined the institute only because of my passion for painting. Through the four years I spent at college, I was gradually exposed to a wide variety of artistic avenues. I took part in various youth festivals across the country which helped me network and boosted my spirit. For a young girl who came from a village, ACFA was a completely new world full of learning and opportunities. Whatever I am today—whether it is my confidence level or my artistic prowess—is all because of Apeejay.

How was this passion for photography born?

I was introduced to photography through our curriculum at ACFA. It was during my college internship in an ad agency that I realised for the first time that I was not cut out for a corporate job. I wanted to work independently and travel the world, and that got me into photography. I had already done some work in travel photography, so I started getting a few projects. Eventually, I created my social media account and got a great response in three months. So, I decided to convert it into a full-time job.

So, was your venture promoted through word-of-mouth?

I have been inclined towards art, especially painting, right from school. So, my friends and acquaintances were familiar with my skills. They were the ones who started getting in touch for work and also spread the word. I began with kids’ photography in 2014, at a time when it was not so much in trend. I tried applying my creativity to create different kinds of photos, which was highly appreciated by my clients and helped me take my business further. The company is called To The Rainbow. Simultaneously, I took up wedding photography too under the name Free Souls Photos & Films.

What kind of photographs do you click?

In the case of kids, I mostly shoot concept-based fine art portraits. My work is inspired by nature so that typically becomes the backdrop for a photograph—the props used include fruits or animals, etc. The photos are genuinely candid and not staged at all. They are mostly shot outdoors under natural light.

Coming to weddings, pre-wedding couple portraits are my forte where I try to capture real chemistry between two people. Here too, the photos are clicked in a natural setting sans choreography.

What is your favourite subject where you get to unleash your creativity the most?

Whatever challenges my creative streak and helps me explore! Apart from photography, I have also learned pottery and woodworking. But what I am most passionate about is watercolour painting. I was five years old when I started painting. Although I have not pursued it as a profession, it is a medium through which I can express myself.

In building your own venture, did you worry about how you would convince your family? Were there doubts about financial stability?

I am very lucky that I faced no such issue. My parents have been very supportive. My father, in particular, has evolved a lot in his thinking over time. I can freely travel wherever I want without having to justify my work or myself. I have two brothers who also support and encourage me. Coming to the financial aspect of my work, I did not have too many apprehensions because my focus is on producing the best quality work rather than chasing money. The peak season for our work is between October and April, and with the amount of business I have annually, I have been able to manage my finances comfortably.

As a woman photographer who travels across the country, did you face any form of sexism? How difficult was it to make your mark?

Back in 2014, female photographers were rare in Punjab. Whenever I went for a photoshoot, people would look at me differently. To them, photography was not exactly a woman’s job, and their disbelief was betrayed through their gaze. Some of them would walk up to me and ask if I was from Delhi or Mumbai; it was difficult for them to believe I belonged to a village in Punjab. I would feel very awkward initially but over time, I learned to not pay much attention. Now, the situation has improved but the problem exists. The people who actually understand my job are rare; many do not consider photography a serious profession.

I have been in this profession for eight-nine years now. What I have learned through my journey is that it is not easy to gain respect in a male-dominated profession. But you have to work towards making your mark and earning respect.

Post-pandemic, what trends do you see when it comes to kids’ photography or wedding photography?

People usually see some trends on social media and want to replicate and upload them. This has increased in the past few years. Only four to five percent of people truly value creativity and art. Post-pandemic, people are even more hesitant to spend money on photography as they are still recovering from the pandemic-driven financial instability. The business is gradually picking up and will hopefully bounce back in another year or so.

Disha Roy Choudhury is a Senior Correspondent at Apeejay Newsroom. She has worked as a journalist at different media organisations. She is also passionate about music and has participated in reality shows.

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