Today’s interview is with Alpana Aras of Storybox Art!
Hi Alpana! I’m excited to share your work with our readers. Could you tell us about how you got started in photography and a little bit about your business?
Following my childhood dream, I enrolled in J.J School of Art in Mumbai for my BFA in Design. While in college, I went to see an exhibit of Henri Cartier-Bresson and fell madly in love with his work, and the art of photography. My first film camera, a gift from my dad, an Olympus OM-1, became my new obsession. One of my life changing moments with photography was when I stood on the Himalayas, at the roof top of the world and captured it forever. This image that I captured of our journey in the white out is an important one for me as it takes me back to where my journey in photography began.
After college, I tried stints with some commercial photographers and advertising agencies but making my mark in a male dominated industry seemed like climbing another mountain. So I took a pause, and kept clicking just for the pure joy and love of the subject.
Professional photography happened in my life all of sudden. Years later, in California, I was waiting for a mom whom I met through Craigslist to come and pick my baby’s child carrier. She saw my photographs of the Himalayan adventure, and asked me to photograph her baby.
She was my first paid client and I went on to start my photography business from there.
You shoot a lot of film. What is your current favorite film camera and film stock? Do you have clients that seek you out specifically because you photograph with film?
I started my photography journey with film and then with the changing times, moved forward with digital photography. Three years back I did a workshop that reconnected me to film and its potential. Presently, I love film because I feel I am more intentional with my work. I slow down and I think, and observe more because of it.
Last year, I did a workshop with Magnum photographer Raghu Rai, and was shocked to find out that he uses a digital camera. He is an iconic photographer in his seventies that switched to digital after years and years of shooting film. That changed my perspective, that I do not need to cling to any one equipment, and in the end, it is my art that matters.
I feel like a mother with three kids, and to choose a favorite camera is like having to pick a favorite kid 🙂 I have a collection that has been growing. It includes a Contax 645, a Mamiya 645, a Nikon F100, a Polaroid SX-70, an Olympus XA-3, a Nikon P&S, a Golden Half and a Holga. My favorite may be the plastic toy camera – the Holga! One of the reasons I love this camera is its ability to create layered images and the unpredictability with the end results. As much as I love the surprise element, I try to make some calculated decisions when I double expose. They don’t always work but when they do, I love it! For family sessions, I love using the Contax and the F100 as well. Kodak Portra 400 is my all around favorite film and HP5 for black and white (though it isn’t a true bw).
How did you decide on the name Storybox Art for your business?
When I immigrated to USA with two pieces of luggage, my most important possession was this box of old photographs. When I sit looking through the old, yellow black and white prints over a cup of chai, it reminds me of my history. I remember my childhood, my cousins, time with my parents, our stories. These photographs connected me to my roots, and were a great sense of comfort in the new strange land.
As I started my own business, I did not look far for a name. Story box Art fitted right in.
Do you have a specific formula for your sessions or a pattern that you normally follow, or do you let the story unfold and follow your client’s lead?
As my business name suggests, I love to tell stories. To do so, I have to capture the real connections a family has in an authentic fashion. For that, I try to know about them, their life, their children, the light that falls on their couch every morning, where they sit and drink tea, or snuggle on the bed right before bedtime. I try to find the relate-able with my clients, so that I personally can connect with them. Your clients share some intimate moments with you and there is a certain vulnerability that comes with it. My ultimate goal is to showcase the intimate connections of the family through my photographs.
There is no formula to the shoots, but there is pre-planning involved. I discuss with them the environment, locations that I have in mind, and clothing that may work with it. At times, I might include a special location, or a dress, that a client may feel an attachment to. For the photography session itself, I let the story unfold organically. I might start out with family groupings when the kids are fresh and then work on candids. It is always the in-between shots that end up being my favorites.
You do some beautiful and moving pro-bono work as seen on your website. How do you meet these families and can you share what the experience of working with them is like?
Thank you. Since I started my business, I have been doing pro-bono work to pay-it-forward. I try to work for causes that are meaningful to me – particularly issues related to women and children. The hope is to raise awareness and do story-telling for social change. Most of it has been sourced through friends connected with these non-profits. I love for my work to directly help the family that can’t afford professional photos more so than a profitable organization.
On my last trip to India, I was able to connect through my old college friend with Salaam Baalak Trust, a shelter for homeless young boys. It was amazing to see this NGO’s impact on these kid’s lives. One of the boys, Vicky Roy, from their program went on to become a celebrity photographer. When I photographed them, I experienced a new kind of family. Without their parents, they all were growing up together, depending on each other for support. Super excited, the boys all wanted to be part of the photograph.
Another recent project was for Don Foster, whom I met through Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and my friend Kerry from Ireland, who lost her husband to the same disease. Sadly, Don passed away earlier this year. I knew they had the digital files that they received after the session. Once I heard the news, I made a box of prints to send out to his family. Having something tangible was the best way for me to let the family know I was thinking of them.
Do you have a favorite subject to photograph? A muse if you will?
That is an easy question. My son 🙂 Like many photographers, I started documenting him from a young age. At eleven, it is a lot more challenging to photograph him but he humors me now and again with bribes. Why do they ever grow up?
Our childhood years are very formative and leave a lasting impact on our lives. How has growing up and being educated in India shaped your photography?
My photography is very much a marriage of the creative and business side influenced by my formative years. Creatively, I am able to glean from the noise and focus on what is important. I grew up as a big city girl in Mumbai which is a crazier version of New York City. It was a culturally rich experience as well as a stifling one. My parents practice Hinduism but brought us up to be respectful of other religions. However, growing up as a girl in India wasn’t easy. It was a chauvinistic culture where women had a subservient role. Luckily, art school was my savior where I became a bit of a rebel and learned to let loose. I met some strong women that helped shaped my thinking. It wasn’t an easy journey but I refused to be tied down by dogma.
Through the chaos of daily life, I learned to express myself, and my views. Mumbai being the business capital of India, also taught me how to negotiate life on a daily basis. It taught me to see human relationships through the crowds and the chaos. Now I use these skills with my business. I learned the art of managing client expectations, relationships and goals. I have learned it is important to be an advocate, counselor and a trusted partner to my clients. So many of them end up as friends and come back yearly which is extremely rewarding.
You feature a beautiful collection of products on your website. In the digital age that we live in, how do you steer your clients towards prints and albums?
My love for the tangible stems from my past. My parent’s home was filled with photo albums and wall portraits. They have been such a gift to me. When I close my eyes and visualize my past, the memory of those photographs resurface. I want to pass on that gift to my clients.
There is no denying the importance of digital files. They provide accessibility to your work with an amazing reach through social media. However, digital files can be valuable to own, or worthless if they aren’t printed.
I offer printing for my clients, because a good quality print shows its value over the age. I use my training as a graphic designer to put together a fine art album or wall display. Clients lead busy lives and it is so much easier to enjoy a finished art product. As I mentioned before, my ultimate goal is to tell stories. Therefore I like to put together the photographs in an album or a box, designed with the story in mind. Singularly, the photographs may have narration, but put together in the right way they are more powerful.
Do you have a favorite image that you have taken or perhaps a favorite session? Will you share with us and tell us a bit about it?
I love this image from a family session with mom, dad and their nine year old. In this photograph, the mirror as a metaphor, provides a reflection of this family. The parents gaze lovingly at their sweet daughter, yet what is reflected back is the spirit of a fierce young girl. It won the Director’s Award in the juried Family Exhibition at The Center for Fine Art Photography, Fort Collins, Colorado. It was a huge honor to have my image picked with the amazing talent they showcased.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today! We enjoyed getting to know you better. Looking back over your journey as a photographer, is there anything that you would do differently or do you have advice to offer those who are new to photography?
I left India at twenty one years to come to the US for my Masters. Immigrating to a different culture, adjusting to a new life was challenging but was a great learning experience. In retrospect, I wish I had been a bit more patient as it would have changed the course of my journey. However, my meandering journey has led me to meeting some amazing people that are still in my life and provided character building experiences that have shaped who I am artistically and personally. My advice for new photographers is to be patient. We live in a world of instant gratification and easy answers. It takes a while to hone your craft. Make your own mistakes as you will grow and learn so much from them. “Life is a journey, not a destination.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Thank you Alpana for the fantastic interview! Make sure you head over to Alpana’s website, facebook, twitter, pinterest, instagram, and google+ to view more of her gorgeous work and keep up with her happenings!